Chapter 8: BAN IT! ORGANISE IT!So far this book has dealt with hitchhiking in terms of the various groups that practice it, the family, the individual hitcher and the driver. But when new phenomena spring up in their midst societies as a whole produce reactions and the aim of this chapter is to look at the ways different societies have coped with hitch-hiking on an institutional and legal level. The easiest way to understand the way British society has faced the phenomenon is to compare it with legal and other reactions elsewhere.
A society is a bit like a digestive system -- when confronted with a new substance it has either to reject it or set to work breaking it down and absorbing it into the bloodstream. As in the physiological digestive system, there may be contradictory forces at work, some for rejection of the new substance, some for assimilation. For the sake of clarity it's easier to consider the two sets of forces, rejectionary and assimilative, separately.
Some societies have attempted to reject hitch-hiking by banning it outright. Already in the early 1930's there was a vocal anti-hitch-hiking consensus among older people in many States of the North American Union. This is the way the experienced hitch-hiker Hugh Hardyman saw it, writing in New Republic on July 29 1931:
In April 1950 the US Readers Digest carried a scathing article on thumbing by Dom Wharton, and it should be remembered that the Digest tries hard to give its readers what they want to read. The article opened this way:
In a second article in the Digest 5 years later, June 1955, Wharton gave two further reasons why the hitch-hiker should be shunned. The first was the insurance risk:
The political establishment of a society can be panicked into banning a social phenomenon which suddenly appears dangerous or evil. This is precisely what happened when the British Parliament included pot in the 1964 Dangerous Drugs Act.
In the fifties the Italian government seriously considered banning hitching in Italy. Following press reports of rapes and stranglings in France, on 3 September 1955, the Italian Ministry of the Interior proposed that lorry drivers and motorists who give free lifts should face jail sentences and suspension of their licences. The plan never reached the statute book and Italy remains one of the most exhilarating European countries to hitch across.
In Britain there has been remarkably little talk of banning hitch-hiking by law. Remarkable because there are still many people totally opposed to it. In 1957 a local council tried to set in motion a national anti-hitching campaign but its leader's fiery words met with scant response. According to the Daily Telegraph of 28 August 1957:
'It is a menace not only to lorry drivers but also to private motorists. After recent experiences any driver would be foolish to pick up some of these people and stand the risk of getting a pistol stuck in their backs.'
He added that he was thumbed at least twelve times travelling from London along Watling Street, (the A.5).
The AA immediately reacted negatively, dissociating itself from any anti-thumber drive. They felt that there was no evidence for thinking that daytime hitching caused any appreciable number of accidents though it might conceivably do at night. The AA refused to support any campaign to ban hitchhiking. They said it was a matter for the individual. In saying this they probably mirror the feelings of the majority of British drivers. It is one thing to personally dislike a habit and quite another to try and legislate it out of existence. The RAC took a similar line to the AA's. According to the Daily Mail they commented drily:
So much for attempts to totally ban hitch-hiking. If a society's legislators reject the idea of outright prohibition they may consider trying to stop unsuitable people from doing it. This is the situation in Britain over the consumption of alcohol. The state does not ban the drinking of beer but it stops people under 18 doing it in public houses. Rather the same has happened with hitch-hiking in France. On February 17 1964 the Ministries of the Interior and of Youth issued a decree banning hitch-hiking by French subjects under 18 on their way to an organised youth camp or holiday movement.
The move was not unexpected. 4 years previously the Paris Prefecture of Police had issued an official warning to drivers against lift-giving (17.7.60). They had been requested to do so by the Ministry of the Interior.
Behind all this official concern was a strong, well-organised, well financed pressure group called Action Teams Against the Trade in Women and Children. It got off the ground in 1956 and the basic aim was to root out prostitution. As well as nosing round suspect hotels and helping prostitutes to break away from the primitive capitalism of their pimps, the members of the teams have run regional and national campaigns against hitch-hiking. In 1964 they claim to have mounted a propaganda offensive in Western France warning girls coming to Paris not to try it hitch-hiking. They provided the main women's magazines with a scarey file on girls thumbing. They ran nationwide campaigns against it which included issuing 20,000 posters and use of radio and television.
The Action Teams are a powerful organisation not by virtue of their active membership which is small, but because they are an emanation of the ruling elite, the conservative, Roman-Catholic-on-Sunday haute bourgeoisie. Their propaganda against hitch-hiking is potent stuff. For instance they produced a poster showing a girl with a suitcase and handbag flagging down a Panhard car driven by a single man; the words round the picture read:
The holidays are on the way!
-- Save money....
-- Save time....
-- Look smart....
-- Or to be with it....
You go HITCH-HIKING
This adventure can become a misadventure.
Girls disappear every year, or fall victim to drivers who always look gallant at first.
If you don't believe it, put yourself in the picture with:
Action Teams against the trade in women and children.
While the British authorities have never raised the idea of a blanket ban American style, or a minimum age, French style, the idea of making hitchhiking illegal on all fast roads has occurred. This would be an extension of the regulations in force on motorways, from which all pedestrians are banned. A plan of this sort was put forward by Christopher Woodhouse in the Commons on 2 June 1965. The Tory member for Oxford asked the Minister of Transport whether he would introduce legislation to prevent the practice of soliciting lifts from motor vehicles on stretches of public highway where no speed limit applies. The minister replied:
What Woodhouse wanted was a law to stop people hitching on high speed non-motorway roads because of the danger of cars suddenly swerving to a halt to pick somebody up. He was presumably thinking of cases similar to the one recorded in the Telegraph on 12.6.65:
Another way of reducing the amount of hitching done in a country is to ban the entry of foreigners likely to want to do it. This has been tried by countries like Greece that has insisted on people arriving with a minimum amount of money on them. This is a handy pretext for turning away at the frontier the sort of people who the Greek paper Ethnos in 1965 described as touristic locusts. Apart from maybe bringing in drugs their main crime is not paying out enough cash -- hitching is one of the ways they avoid spending. This method, in so far as it is successful, ensures that the hitch-hiking fluid never enters the society's digestive system and so there is no call for either rejectionary legislation or assimilative action.
Societies that find hitch-hiking goes too much against their patterns of behaviour to be left legally alone seem to have evolved three different possible courses of action:
Ban it selectively by imposing an age below which not.
Prevent people who look as though they might hitch from entering the country.
In some of the socialist countries thumbing is organised under state auspices. In Poland and Russia local tourist bodies and clubs issue would-be hitchers with kilometre coupons for which they pay some small amount. When a driver stops and takes them say 100 kms he receives a 100 kms-worth of coupons. The driver who amasses the most kilometre coupons in a locality gets a prize at the end of a given period, 3 months or six months. According to Moscow Home Service (12.6.65) about 80,000 travelled in 1964 on thumbing coupons in Russia.
Car sharing obviously fits easily into the socialist scheme of values: why should one man travel alone in the grand isolation of a four seater car, especially when cars are short? The coupon scheme is simply a kind of official state blessing for a natural socialist phenomenon -- it also encourages drivers to stop more readily for the raised thumb in the hope of maybe getting a fridge or a washing machine at the end of it all. Among 'leading lift givers' there must be sharp competition to pick people up and get to the head of the coupon league.
In wartime, when generalised hardship forces a practical form of socialism onto the most convinced capitalist societies, hitch-hiking sometimes comes in for a period of being organised by the state. This was the case in Cape Town in 1944. People requiring lifts could get books of 'three penny tickets'. When a car stopped for a hitcher the driver would be given threepence and a ticket. The money would go to war funds and the ticket to the petrol rationing authorities who in return allowed the driver some extra petrol. The South African scheme was an adaptation of the 1940 London Help Your Neighbours Scheme (see Chapter 10).
In Britain the state 'blesses' lift giving when there is a transport strike. At such times the Ministry of Transport encourages hitch-hiking but warns drivers to put up a Lifts at Your Own Risk notice in their vehicles. If the thumber has had such a notice pointed out to him, has read it, understood it, and agreed to it before a witness, then the driver is safe from any claim against him by the thumber in case of an accident caused or partly caused by his negligence. The trouble with this from the driver's point of view is that often he has no witness and even if he has, the pomposity of establishing a binding verbal contract with a hitcher prior to a ten minute lift doesn't seem worth the candle. Yet this must be done if the driver is to be safe from a claim against him in case of accident. L.J. Denning, giving judgement in Olley v. Marlborough Court (1949) defined this kind of situation quite clearly:
Apart from directly organising hitch-hiking, as in Russia, Poland and wartime Britain, a society can attempt to keep an eye on it by tagging and identifying the hitchers before they set out. It's a little bit like hill farmers ear-marking sheep. In 1940, on 23 February the London Times wrote about thumbing in America:
A similar identity card scheme was decided on at official level in France in 1970. This is what the Guardian had to say about it (1.7.70):
.... For the first year at any rate the card will be 'no guarantee of morality'. However a scheme is being studied whereby an applicant will have to produce his 'casier judiciaire' when applying for the card.
In a much more haphazard fashion there has been an attempt in Britain not to structurally assimilate hitching, but to inject it with the dominant values of the society. You take the growing habit of drifting from place to place at other people's expense and transform it into a strenuous, goal-orientated activity. So the post war army, officered by men affected by the public school type of training, had the brilliant idea of sending soldiers out on 'initiative tests' which mainly involved hitching. This seems to have started in the late forties. A further development of 'muscled hitching' was the competitive variety that is still organised today by some secondary schools and student rag week committees. This type of hitching far from appearing cadgistic or feckless, is invested with the halo of 'sport'. What more glorious assimilation could it have into the 'British way of life'?
Perhaps I've overdrawn the picture -- initiative test and competitive hitching in Britain only account for a tiny fraction of what goes on. But their importance is psychological: the fact that competitive and 'outward bound' hitching do exist radically affects the general public image of thumbing. One wonders if the Duke of Edinburgh may not have hitched, once. Kind of maverick respectable.
We have looked at countries where the state organises hitch-hiking, countries where the state ear-marks and checks on hitchers, and Britain in which various organs of society like the army, schools and student organisations try to modify the value system in hitching. West Germany has found yet another way of integrating the thumber: commercialize him and make him profitable. As early as 1951 'lift exchanges' were springing up all over West Germany. At that time the person accepting the lift would pay the driver the equivalent of about one old penny per mile, plus a fee to the agency.
In the following ten years the lift exchange business mushroomed to really huge proportions. By 1960 400,000 lifts per year were being arranged by the exchanges. In 1961 the West German Railways exerted political pressure and the Bonn Parliament passed a law effectively putting the agencies out of business. The law stipulated that a person carrying passengers in his car against payment needed a licence. In 1964 the Federal Constitutional Court declared the law anti-constitutional and therefore void. Many of the exchanges were resuscitated. They are now firmly back in business.
The lift exchange system probably originates in the USA. Travel bureaux in the Western States were certainly organising 'share the gas' rides in the early fifties. These could be of as much help to impecunious drivers as to thumbers. Jack Kerouac mentions them in his book On The Road:
The evidence produced in earlier chapters mainly supports the second view. Grass roots conflict over hitch-hiking exists in many quarters of our society, but each conflict is worked through at the level where it occurs. There is conflict over hitching in the car delivery industry, some army commanders try to ban their troops from doing it on leave; after a murder the local police warn against hitching by the group concerned, e.g. school children, there is conflict inside some families between parents and teenagers over hitching. These various forms of conflict, deep though they sometimes run, have never swelled into anything on a national scale strong enough to provoke regulation or legislation, as has happened elsewhere. Perhaps we are lucky to have mistrusted alike lawyers, institution men and profiteers.