Chapter 4: WHY DO PEOPLE GIVE LIFTS?
This was one of the questions put to the 186 hitch-hikers picked up and
grilled in my Bedford van in August and September 1968 (see Appendix
2). As one might expect the most obvious answer came up most often:
'for company'. This idea was expressed under a variety of guises by 138
people out of 186. Many people gave more than one reason. The detailed
break-down looked like this:
83: Because they want company (companionship)
The majority verdict of the 186 that the general run of drivers give lifts
because they want company is borne out in practice in the experience of
every thumber. By far the most likely vehicle to stop is the one with a
single man in it. The least likely vehicle to pull up is one with a couple
or a family. (This is not just a matter of space, though clearly a four
seater saloon with five kids piled in the back can't stop for physical
reasons.) It is also noticeable that single men stop more readily when
driving on business from Monday to Friday than in a fully private capacity
at the weekend or on holiday. It would seem that the driver stops most
readily when he needs to humanize his situation; at the weekend he is on
the road for personal and recreational reasons, and his own thoughts are
sufficiently absorbing to fill his mind and make picking someone up not
seem necessary. When driving with a friend, a woman, or his family he is
bound in a matrix of human ties and the idea of a hitch-hiker suddenly
installing himself appears irrelevant or even unwelcome.
19: Lorry drivers give lifts for company
15: Because they want someone to talk
8: Because they are bored
7: Because they are lonely
6: To keep awake
Another interesting thing is that two male hitchers find it more difficult
to get a lift than one. This may be a question of space but very often
it is because the idea of picking up two men is less satisfactory in the
mind of the man driving alone than the prospect of picking up one person.
On dark nights or lonely roads an element of fear on the driver's part
evidently comes into this. But the willingness to pick up one male hitch-hiker
but not two is a pretty constant feature of driver reaction on main roads
in broad daylight. This is how a young Liverpool scooter shop owner put
One man in a family car normally has junk over 2 seats-you can squeeze
two people in but not their luggage. Also there's something about taking
on two people, um . . . this happened to me on Queen's Drive the other
day: I picked up a couple of students and they sat and carried on a completely
private conversation and I was made to stay in my corner -- took me about
half an hour to break in and ask them where they wanted to go.
The man driving alone over a long distance often wants to fill his human
void, but he does not want to become part of an initially alien group.
If he picks up 2 hitchers he is inviting an already formed grouplet into
his car. If he picks up a single person the resultant 'group' will be a
result of give and take between the two of them.
By reacting positively to the hitcher's signal or look and by applying
his brakes the driver is creating for himself an initially receptive and
aimiably disposed companion. He is singling himself out from the mostly
anonymous stream of vehicles that have flowed past the thumber in the course
of the previous 5 minutes, 25 minutes, 2 hours. A few of the cars in the
stream will have appeared friendly to the thumber. The drivers will have
indicated that they are turning off further up the road and that there
is no point in stopping. The vast majority of vehicles will have seemed
neutral, but neutral with a negative tinge in that they have failed to
stop. In a small number of cases the person by the roadside will have sensed
hostility on the part of passing drivers, either in the form of stony indifference,
a look or a gesture. In Britain the expression of hostility to the hitcher
is usually mild and covert -- not so in the USA, according to a Cambridge
I remember we were outside Los Angeles once -- that was so depressing:
thousands of those huge, shiny, middle class cars going past and sort of
made-up women sort of sneering out of the windows, you know, you felt they
were going to spit on us....
Apart from singling himself out as a human being from a blur of steel and
glass, the driver is also offering the hitcher shelter from the weather
and an escape from the hugeness of the roadside into the cosy, enclosed
area of the vehicle. Naturally, too, he is furthering the thumber's basic
practical aim of getting to his destination. All this tends to put the
companion of the next few minutes or hours into a receptive mood.
is giving a lift to one person or more, the driver holds the psychologically
and socially dominant position in the ensuing dialogue, at least he does
at first. The balance may be changed as the miles roll by if the hitch-hiker
asserts himself. At the start of the lift, however, the driver usually
has a sub- or semi-conscious perception of himself as the one with the
upper hand. His has been the active role in stopping for the hitch-hiker.
His is the power to terminate the lift. He manifestly possesses the car,
or even if it is not his, possesses the mobility it affords. By contrast
the hitcher is bereft of auto-mobility. The driver is frequently older
than the thumber -- he may see the other in a paternal or elder-brotherly
sort of way. He perceives his action as a generous one. The driver,
if he gets on reasonably well with the hitcher sometimes extends his generosity
well beyond the scope of the bare lift. He pays for refreshments for both
when they stop, he goes out of his way to put the thumber down where he
wants to be, he looks after his temporary guest. Talking of a pair of Italian
lorry drivers a Cambridge student said:
We'd arrived in Brindisi, I think, and I had nowhere to sleep the
night and there were two of them and only two bunks, so they gave one up
to me and said: 'Have that'. Incredibly generous, they'd also paid for
my lunch and taken me half way through Italy.
The word generous needs defining. It comes from 'genus', meaning
'stock' or 'race', and in its primary but now archaic sense means 'of good
descent' or 'high born'. From there it comes to mean magnanimous, munificent,
freely giving The very etymology of the word shows the link in people's
minds between the act of freely giving and the resultant enhancing of self-esteem
on the part of the giver. A generous action, though involving giving
to another is at the same time a self-boosting, ultimately a self-ish action.
Generosity of the type ascribed to the Italian lorry men by the Cambridge
student is one form of expression of the social and psychological dominance
by the driver over the thumber, a dominance which to some extent exists
in the ordinary host-guest relationship among friends. Some drivers express
their perception of the relationship with the thumber by preening. According
to an 18 year old male student from Liverpool:
Some of the people are rather eager, very eager about their cars;
they like showing off to me. They like to show they can overtake .... They're
a bit like racers and I feel they don't have to do this for me because
it doesn't really impress me....
The same sort of point was made by the car-driving scooter shop owner quoted
The worst people are the people who ... well the people of about
my age In Ford Anglias who pick up a hitch-hiker and like to show him what
they can do with it -- that can be really terrifying
At times sadism can enter into the driver's exploitation of his dominant
position. Such feelings are much to the fore in this young teacher's account
of a lift he gave in Greece in his sports car:
On the way we picked up a Frenchman and sat him in the back of the
car -- there was no seat in the back, just ... er ... a little half seat.
He sat on this thing and I drove very fast, very very recklessly, very
very drunkenly .... All the time we were driving, me taking corners very
fast, there were groans:
While the driver finds himself in the superior position, the thumber often
sees himself cast, at least initially, in the complementary inferior role.
He has got to fit into his host's mood, talk along the lines of the lift
giver appears to want to follow. According to a Cambridge undergraduate:
'Whu! Huh! Huh! Sho! Sheh! . . . yeh,' in terror, from the Frenchman
sitting in the back of the car.
... if you are out to make contact with them you have to adjust
to their standards, if you like .... Also I find you have to be very careful
what you say to the person who has picked you up ....
Occasionally one hears of hitch-hikers who, as the lift situation develops,
find it impossible to go along with their hosts' attitudes. There was the
case of a fiery, red-bearded Welsh student, hitching with a CND badge in
his lapel. The man who picked him up violently disagreed with the Ban the
Bomb movement and after a few miles threw the student out of the car. The
latter had angrily sustained his point of view and in so doing had stepped
out of the acceptant role the driver assumed he would conform to.
I was once given a lift by an ex-Manchester CID man who began plying
me with details of how he used to take righteous pleasure in beating up
sexual suspects in the cells of the station he worked from. My inner reactions
were amazement -- I was still very young -- then horror, and finally hate.
On the surface however, I confined myself to non-reaction and did not get
out until we reached the point agreed at the beginning of the lift. The
repression of my revulsion against that monster was partly due to curiosity
and culpable spinelessness but also to an unconscious submissiveness inherent
in the lift situation.
A middle class Jewish student faced with an anti-semitic working class
drive' decided to take the latter's opinions lying down:
I once got a lift in a van and it was really interesting because
I'm Jewish and this chap was talking in a way against the Jews. I let him
talk because he was giving me a lift and I didn't fancy being thrown out
and didn't really fancy arguing either. I don't think he was conscious
of the fact I was Jewish. Well, perhaps this might have been cowardly but
I didn't think I wanted it to show, somehow ....
The acceptant, passive attitude of the lift recipient is often based on
a feeling of indebtedness. A girl was given a lift back to her home town
by a young man who took the opportunity to make a date with her. On the
... we ended up in the middle of some wood and he tried to rape
In explaining why she had accepted to see him again she said:
I felt indebted to him for giving me the lift home ... they feel
you're indebted to them for giving you a lift.
The hitch-hiker feels he's being given something, he's beholden to the
driver who stops for him. This may make him vulnerable psychologically,
somehow in the driver's hands, in his power -- so a Cambridge student:
Well, you're obviously completely at their ... you're relying on
these people for absolutely everything if you ask them to give you lifts
Interestingly this student went on to suggest a solution to such driver
Well you are taking something from them, and I gather in
certain parts of the world it's customary, in the Near East at any rate,
it's normal to accept lifts and pay for them ....
For him the idea of paying for a lift somehow redresses the social and
psychological balance. More of this in the next
To the very class conscious, insecure middle class hitcher the relationship
with the lift giver, especially if he sees the latter as a social inferior,
can appear as an embarrassing reversal of roles. Normally he contentedly
looks down on his 'social inferiors', but in accepting a lift from one
of them he finds himself in an oddly up-side-down position. This feeling
was graphically expressed by the son of a North Country company cashier
studying at Cambridge:
Sometimes I don't like it because you are really at the mercy of
anybody. I mean if anybody stops you're going to get in, and, um, it's
perhaps not ... it's slightly degrading, I suppose, depends which way you
look at it. I worked at Butlins this summer -- I had the same feeling there.
I was meeting all sorts of people, I was a dining hall waiter, and it was
very pleasant to chat to them and so on, but ultimately I suppose I was
doing it for the tips .... And of course you know when you get ten bob
pushed in your hand you take it because you must, but again I didn't like
to do it because ... a lot of the people probably weren't as well off as
myself, probably a lot of them were very lower class at Butlins, and, um,
I thought it was a bit degrading as well.
Normally this student sees himself as socially superior to a lorry driver
but in the waggon cab he suddenly finds himself in a psychologically inferior
position and revealingly he describes this as degrading, like accepting
lower class tips at Butlins.
The examples given in the last few pages to illustrate the psychological
mechanisms of the initial stage of the lift relationship, with the driver
in a dominant position vis a vis the taker, are not put forward as being
provenly average or typical. The thumbers who brought up the subject of
driver dominance in semi-non-directive interviews (in which I tried not
to initiate topics by questioning) are presumably people particularly sensitive
to this aspect of hitching. There were many interviews in which the subject
was never broached by the inteniewees. While the strength of conscious
feeling of this batch of people is not typical, the light their comments
throw on the lift situation is revealing. Many other hitch-hikers live
through their lifts without making such feelings conscious, but this doesn't
mean they don't play out their acceptant roles efficiently. Their silence
on the subject may suggest that they have no difficulty in doing so.
Apart from the respective roles played out in some degree by many drivers
and thumbers there is another very important element to the lift giving
situation. This is the driver's rapport with his car.
How does a man regard his car? In order to get an idea of the unconscious
relationship of people to their cars, Dr Stephen Black in Man and Motor
Cars used hypnosis on a group of 25 subjects, nineteen of them in their
late teens or early twenties. One point made by nearly all the subjects
under hypnosis was that they saw their cars as an escape. One of the men
put it like this:
In town you're surrounded by people, that's why public lavatories
become important; you can be alone for a few minutes. And that's the point
of a car in town: once behind the wheel you're alone and yet the world
still goes by outside .... you can cuss and blind as much as you like in
a car. You can do anything you want....
The car was seen as a kind of shield, a protective wall against the outside
world. A medical student said:
I often drive the car out into the park, sit looking over the water
and then get on with my work ....
Again under hypnosis an electrician said:
I think best in a car, going along that is. You see things very
clearly. When I'm worried over Mary I feel better in a car than at home.
With the wireless going and the heater on it's a bit like home anyway,
and you can be sure of being alone.
Black's conclusion from his long investigation of these 25 people's subconscious
feelings towards their cars is that the car is:
An additional mobile room in the house, a place in which to escape,
a den into which a man can creep for peace, or a woman to be alone in safety
with her man.
If Black's findings are correct how is it that any driver ever stops for
a waving thumb? In other words if a car is such an intimate place, a kind
of extension of the home, taking in a hitch-hiker must appear hazardous
and unnatural. This is gone into by one of the Cambridge interviewees:
Before I'd hitched myself, I think I'd always have felt it was a
sort of intrusion to have someone in the car -- you know if there's someone
on the road I might feel sorry and want to give him a lift, to help the
person, but on the other hand, as soon as he was in the car, it'd mean
there'd be a sort of embarrassed silence, nobody'd say much. It's an intrusion,
it's like people coming in visiting in the middle of your favourite television
programme I think now, having hitch-hiked, I appreciate it very much, and
I think it is a thing one ought to do especially for young people.
Another Cambridge undergraduate felt even more strongly about the hitch-hiker
invading the intimacy of the car:
Well, it's an intrusion on the atmosphere ... I mean it may be because
after all the hitch-hiker ... you're giving a service, you're doing a favour
to somebody and probably the person who is hitching cannot afford to travel
so you do feel in a way superior, even though you may not be. If
you sent something to Oxfam or something like that, you do them a favour
but you wouldn't want, you might not want to commit yourself personally,
i.e. you wouldn't want the little boy with the bony chest to come knocking
at the door. I think it's that sort of intrusion, yes, a sort of personal
contact you don't really want.
The intimacy of their relationship to their vehicle and their desire to
be alone with their own thoughts, must in some cases stop people giving
lifts. A young publisher interviewee expressed precisely such a feeling:
I have this desire to be alone when I can be alone and ... not have
it infringed .... yet he added that at a lonely period of his life
he did give lifts seeing the hitch-hiker as an alternative to allowing
himself to remain prey to brooding thoughts. In other words the intimacy
and privacy of the car can become too much for a driver and he will decide
to alleviate his isolation by sharing it.
Even when he does give a lift the driver is able to preserve much of his
apartness. The people involved have no previous knowledge of each other
and they are pretty sure they will not meet again. The situation offers
no easy means of identification of one by the other, unless the hitcher
is moved to take down the car's number. Often after three hours together
the driver and the hitcher don't even know each other's names, and if they
do they are likely to be first names not surnames. In other words it is
a situation that offers remarkable anonymity. It is usually a once and
for all meeting with no follow-up. The vehicle offers absolute privacy,
unlike most other meeting places for mutual strangers, such as train compartments,
buses, pubs, queues, waiting rooms, dance halls etc. The initial problem
most Englishmen, at least middle class ones, face in meeting a stranger
is how to make the first contact without risk of rebuff or cold response.
Within the convention of lift giving this awesome psychological barrier
does not exist. The initial contact is made by the opening of the vehicle
door and the exchange of information on mutual destinations.
Should the driver feel the need to talk about his own problems the lift
situation is anonymous enough to be safe and yet intimate enough to make
it easy to express feelings it would seem impossible to divulge to a stranger
in almost any other setting. To a driver preoccupied with his own problems
the hitch-hiker sometimes provides a heaven-sent opportunity for unburdening
for release of pent-up emotions and even occasionally for confession of
guilty feelings. For the driver the car is part of his own intensely personal
environment, but with the advantage of anonymity as far as the thumber's
perception of it is concerned. He is the dominant partner in the ensuing
dialogue, he holds the initiative, he can demand and usually get an acceptant
attitude in the other person.
It seems to be a fairly common hitch-hiking experience that some people
do pick you up to unburden themselves of their secret troubles, worries
and fantasies, hiding securely behind the namelessness granted by the lift
giving convention. So, according to a Liverpool student:
... they tell you about their wives, they tell you about the most
.... I remember a lorry driver who was telling me all about his wife and
it was quite terrible .... Yes, this is the thing: people can grab hold
of someone they don't know to unburden themselves, and I've found this
quite a few times with hitch-hiking....
A driver will sometimes stop and pick someone up because he is boiling
over with rage and needs to give vent to it. Once on the road from Paris
to Calais a man stopped for me and as he opened the door I saw a pool of
bluish-red vomit swilling round on the floor below the passenger seat --
it was without body, entirely liquid. He spent the next 15 kilometres telling
me he'd picked up a drunk further back down the road and how the man had
spewed up. He told the simple tale three or four times, indignantly demanding
to know if I approved of a hitch-hiker behaving that way. Acceptantly I
agreed that his indignation was justified and loyally I served the purpose
for which he had picked me up -- to earth his anger.
A driver sometimes picks people up because he has an overpowering urge
to escape from at least physical aloneness. This was the case with Miles
Giffard who on November 7th 1952 battered his parents to death with a length
of piping, dumped them over a cliff in Cornwall, and set off by car for
London. Amazingly, from one point of view, he picked up two hitchers on
the way. They said later he had seemed preoccupied and had chain smoked.
The only reasonable assumption is that he couldn't bear to be alone and
may even have had an urge to confess his actions, to unload himself, to
pass his guilt to other ears, without actually getting to the point of
The hitch-hiking situation offers a man possessed by feelings of guilt
a unique confessional. With a priest or psychiatrist he would find himself
in the psychologically inferior position -- vis a vis the thumber his is
the 'generous dominant role. For the priest or psychiatrist he is an identified
or often identifiable individual. To the hitch-hiker he is merely an unplaceable
man in a car. Rodger (Hitch in Time) describes the situation neatly:
They don't want advice, they want someone to listen as they work
something out. No one has ever confessed a murder to me but it would not
swrprise me if they did. For you are the random listener, a person without
a name, a traveller with no certain destination .... You are simply a wall
Along with Rodger I can say no one has ever confessed a murder to me, but
one driver did announce that he had just stolen the car we were driving
in. He picked me up going North along the A.1 and after about 10 minutes'
small talk said:
I think I ought to tell you I stole this car two hours ago in the
The rest of his life story came tumbling out, a pathetic alternation of
petty thefts and inane imprisonments; his response to society seemed almost
as inadequate as society's to him. He confessed his theft simply because
he had to share knowledge of it with another human being, dangerous though
the telling might have proved for him. I got out when he stopped for petrol
and respected his confidence, despite an awareness of conflicting loyalties.
I know of 2 other people who have been picked up in stolen cars and
confessed to. In one case the man driving had simply nicked the car --
in the other the driver was also on the run from prison. In all 3 cases,
my own and the other 2, it was crazy for the drivers to confess to their
hitchers -- they did so compulsively.
Sometimes the driver may find himself propelled into intimacy by the
violence of his own desires. A psychologist in the North of England was
picked up by a man who made determined and repeated homosexual advances
to him. The hitcher successfully repulsed him and the man calmed down.
He spent the rest of the journey telling his life story and talking about
his homosexuality. Having been forced by his passion to reveal his leanings
here was a person who could be talked to openly, without further fear of
exposure -- his actions had already exposed him. The lift situation provided
the intimate setting necessary for a confession of his problems and also
gave him the security of anonymity.
It seems the more confident he is of his superior position vis a vis the
hitch-hiker, the more the driver will drop his reserve and be willing to
reveal the lower reaches of his consciousness. In the late fifties the
white writer John H. Griffin blackened his skin enough to pass for a negro
and bummed around the American South. At one point he tried hitch-hiking:
"Sometimes the driver may find himself propelled into intimacy
by the violence of his own desires".
Strangely I began getting rides. Men would pass you in the daylight
but pick you up after dark .... With a negro they assumed they need to
give no semblance of self-respect or respectability. The visual element
entered into it. In a car at night visibility is reduced. A man will reveal
himself in the dark, which gives an illusion of anonymity, more than he
will in the bright light. Some were shamelessly open, some shamelessly
The white driver picking up the negro hitcher feels himself to be in a
doubly dominant position, as white to black and as lift giver to lift solicitor.
Griffin was picked up by a comparatively sophisticated white boy who nevertheless
plied him with questions about the size of negro genitals and details of
black sex life:
He saw me as something akin to an animal in that he felt no need
to maintain his sense of human dignity, though he would certainly have
denied this. I told myself I was tired, that I must not judge these men
who picked me up, and for the price of a ride I submitted me to the swamps
of their fantasy lives. They showed me something that all men have but
seldom bring to the surface, since most men seek health. The boy ended
up wanting me to expose myself to him, saying he'd never seen a negro naked.
Within the cocoon of the lift situation, and within his feeling of almost
species superiority to the negro it was possible for the young white to
ask a thing he would never get a chance of asking outside the intimacy
of the car and never dare to ask one of his own colour. Griffin describes
him as an otherwise decent, friendly, well-disposed person.
A good deal has now been said about the driver-thumber relationship,
the relationship of the driver to his car, and about the intimacy of the
lift situation. The extent to which these concepts apply depends on the
circumstances of the lift. If you get a lift on the back of a truck you
are not exactly in heart-to-heart communion with the driver. I have had
lifts when I was so dog-tired I murmured courteous words and my mind slipped
from under me into sleep. The hitch-hiker may be shoved in the back of
the car while the driver and his friend talk business for two hundred miles;
he may be given a lift by a driver who wants physical presence but no conversation,
or he may only be in the car a few miles and so establish no meaningful
contact. Though the ideas discussed above throw light on the nature of
the lift situation and though they go some way to explaining the motivation
of drivers in stopping, they are clearly not relevant to all Iifts given.
While 138 of the 186 hitchers I picked up on the motorways felt drivers
stop for company, a sizeable minority view was that they give lifts because
they have themselves at one time hitch-hiked (a number of people suggested
both motivations). The 186 people produced 60 suggestions that drivers
stop because they have hitched themselves, or because they have been in
the same position.
The second phrase is probably the more accurate. Drivers who have hitched
tend to stop for the particular category of thumbers they themselves one
time belonged to.
Probably the largest group of former thumbers are ex-servicemen, and
soldiers often make the point that people giving lifts will say they stopped
because they know what it's like trying to get home on a 48 hour leave
pass. Forces hitchers benefit from a national myth about their lift worthiness.
This has its roots reaching back to the forties and is so strong it affects
even people who've never blancoed a belt or spat on a toe cap (see Chapter
The lift giver often stops because the thumber belongs to his own group,
to a group with which he has some affinity, or to a group which interests
him. Perhaps the most striking example of this solidarity is among waggon
drivers -- they expect to be stopped for by their fellows and on the whole
they are not disappointed. Lorry drivers also stop pretty readily for car
delivery men. But they stop most readily for the group of platers they
feel nearest to, lorry delivery men.
A lot of truck drivers see car delivery as a cushy job, running
round in snug, well-heated, modern cars. They feel much less well disposed
to these platers than to the men and occasional women who drive bouncing,
jolting, open lorry chassises. Chassis driving is dangerous; men perch
on temporary wooden seating, and without the protection of cab or safety
belts they can easily be catapulted forwards in the event of an emergency
stop. 4 chassis drivers from Luton were killed in this way between 1964
and '69. I was told by a woman plater from Oxford that on chassis work
you are much better received in transport cafe society. Chassis drivers
wear heavier clothing than platers on cars and look grimy --this is a substantial
help in getting lifts from commercials.
Tacitly or consciously recognizing the importance of group sympathy
most long distance hitch-hikers make their belonging to one category or
other visually clear. Servicemen hitch in uniform though some might prefer
to climb into civvies for their two days out of camp. Platers 'flip' their
number plates at likely vehicles. One man in Oxford told me he would never
hitch without plates He gave me to understand that when identified as a
CD man he felt hitching was respectable, but otherwise not. He added he
would never go on holiday thumbing.
Drivers who have themselves been students, or who have children in higher
education tend to stop for people wearing college scarves. A lorry driver
who had previously been a plater said he always stopped for CD men and
students. His son was at art school.
A startling thing to emerge from the semi-non-directive interviews with
students has been the extent to which they see themselves as the hitchers
in the country par excellence. Several went so far as to say that, as drivers,
they would only pick up hitchers with college scarves. So a girl at Liverpool:
Well, I would hesitate if ... driving ... I would hesitate to pick
someone up in the car unless it was a single person ... perhaps with students
I would give lifts, but I think I'd hesitate with anyone else ... you can
usually tell students anyway by the scarves and I would appreciate they
wouldn't ... they'd be hard up ....
A Cambridge male undergraduate felt broadly the same:
I think when I have a car I'll definitely give lifts to students,
but I don't know if I could trust many other people. I think students as
a rule are perhaps more trustworthy than other people and they won't attack
you or anything. Well, one hopes not.
Another man from Cambridge perhaps got nearer the kernel of the thing when
As far as possible now I'd certainly give anybody a lift. But they
would have to be respectable and probably they'd have to wear a college
scarf because that helps a lot. Again that identifies with myself -- I'm
a student and I know that students are all in the same boat ....
The drivers' conception of the group to which they tend to give lifts may
be extremely narrow. A student at East Anglia said that his parents, Cambridge
dons, only gave lifts to people in Cambridge college scarves. Such can
be the importance for the driver of feeling that he is picking up a member
of his own group, or even his own section of his group. With this sort
of psychology the thumber's uniform, in this case a coloured scarf, becomes
a vital recognition sign.
It follows that if drivers tend to give lifts only to their own group
or ones they feel a link with, they will avoid offering lifts to people
from alien groups. So motorists pick up hitching lorry drivers much less
easily than work mates do.
A lorry driver who broke down at the London end of the M.4 started hitching
round the North Circular -- it took him five hours to cover the 10 miles
to the M.1 mouth. He was dressed in overalls and was carrying his log book
and a small case. Unfortunately for him there were almost no commercial
vehicles on the road that day and motorists just didn't stop for him. Many
bourgeois car drivers, who readily pick up middle class hitchers and student-scarved
ones, don't stop for working class thumbers.
The idea of not giving or accepting lifts from alien groups comes out
strongly in a discussion among skinheads in a North East London school.
These big-booted third formers with red braces and almost Yul Brynner hair
cuts had two particular hates: 'Hippos' (hippies) and 'greasers' (motorbike
gangs). Here are two revealing snatches of a skinhead discussion on hitch-hiking:
A: That's right, if you see some birds at the side of the road showing
a bit of leg, I mean they're the type you pick up. Any old 'obo with rucksacks
and things like that and 'air down to their shoulders, you wouldn't pick
them up, dirty, filthy and ...
B: ... and fleas.
A: I think it's lonely just going hitch-hiking somewhere ...
There has to be basic mutual trust for the hitch-hiking situation to be
thinkable. Given his hostility to 'hippos' and 'greasers' the skinhead
is not going to risk giving them lifts or taking lifts from them. On a
much graver level the American negro is not a willing lift giver or seeker.
Steinbeck in Travels with Charley tells how he stopped
B: Well I don't think skinheads should hitch-hike anyway, because
if a load of greasers go by in a car, they're going to pull up ... they're
going to pull up and 'ave 'im, like, because 'e's on 'is own ...
C: It's a dengerous occupation if you're a skintead, hitching ...
... to offer a ride to an old negro who trudged with heavy boots
in the grass-grown verge beside the concrete road. He was reluctant to
accept and did so only as tho helpless to resist .... He clasped his hands
in his lap and all of him seemed to shrink in the seat as though he sucked
in his outline to make it smaller.
Steinbeck tried to talk to him but he got scared of being questioned and
asked to be dropped off. The other face of the coin is that negroes don't
give non-blacks lifts easily. A Mexican Indian girl told me:
The Negroes in the South won't pick you up ...
Because they're afraid ...
Of white men. The majority won't because as the white people don't
like negroes they're not going to pick up a white man on the road who might
get into the car and call them 'nigger', you know.
The people who find it most difficult to get a lift in Britain are the
ones who don't fit into any well-known, visually recognisable category
of thumbers, for example, shabbily dressed, middle aged men without car
delivery plates. They have no 'uniform', they do not belong to a placeable
hitching group -- it is them that tend to wait the longest by the roadside.
The concept of 'uniform' applies not only to the hitcher's personal
appearance but also to whether he is standing in a place the driver regards
as normal, and whether it is a standard time of day for people like him
to be hitching. In other words the hitcher's visual and hence psychological
impact on the driver must be reassuring. As the cinemas and dance halls
are shutting down and after the last buses have gone are normal times for
people to be wanting lifts from town centres into the suburbs or out to
surrounding villages. Drivers have been conditioned to expect to be asked
for lifts at this sort of time, the hitcher's motivation is clear and they
feel it safe to stop.
However dark the night and lonely the road, a climber heading into Snowdonia
on a Friday night is a fully understandable phenomenon to a motorist who
knows the area -- he will be easy to give a lift to. A man dressed in a
city suit hitching the same way at the same time would be much less reassuring;
a whole swarm of doubts and suspicions would flash through the driver's
mind and likely as not depress the accelerator rather than the brake.
To return to the verdict of the 186 respondents on why people give lifts:
138 responses : for company
When you take the responses as a whole (a few single ones have been omitted)
it is striking how few hitchers regard the drivers who stop for them as
altruistically motivated. Even in the'goodheartedness' category several
people use expressions that bring out the self-directedness of the drivers'
actions: 'out of charity', 'to do a bloke a favour' ....
60 responses : drivers give lifts
because they have hitched themselves
37 responses : people stop -
27 responses : people stop from pity
to help you
out of charity
to do a bloke a favour
to do you a good turn
as a kind and normal thing to do
as a humane act
8 responses : to meet people interest
7 responses : from sympathy
7 responses : for sexual reasons
3 responses : because it make
them feel they're doing good.
The 27 people who suggest that drivers stop out of pity are very much
aware of the extent to which vehicle owners pick up for reasons connected
with their own psychological needs and not principally with any need of
the hitcher. Because they feel sorry for you and because it makes
them feel they're doing good are pretty closely allied concepts.
So the short answer to the question: Why do people give lifts? is:
because they need to. They give lifts because of themselves, not
principally because of the people asking for the lifts. Hitch-hikers are
the supply and the demand comes from the drivers. As in commercial exchange
the existence of a self advertising supply creates a further demand. The
existence of a thumb-waving hitcher makes the man driving alone suddenly
realise he would prefer not to be alone. Hitch-hikers should rejoice that
lift giving is so firmly based on driver self-interest -- if it weren't,
if only altruistic saints gave lifts, London to Edinburgh would be quicker
walked than thumbed.