The Dangers of Hitching: Passive, Active and Ride Sharing

By: Bernd Wechner
© March 1, 1998

The Dangers of Hitching: Passive, Active and Ride Sharing

The Dangers of Hitching: Passive, Active and Ride Sharing

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: March 1, 1998

My girlfriend recently paid me a surprise visit. She was standing on my doorstep at 10 in the morning, having just travelled over 1,000 km from Berlin.

She suddenly had four unexpected days free and decided to drop by. She rang a ride sharing agency to see if there were any rides to Switzerland going. By some fluke of nature she scored a ride with aguy that was heading off right now! Surely an omen! She packed a small bag, the guy picked her up and they left right away, at about eight in the evening. The car was full! This guy had four passengers from the agency with him, and they rode all night through till about six in the morning when they arrived in eastern Switzerland. The driving apparently left a lot to be desired.

Now my girlfriend found herself in the east of Switzerland, and I was in the west, still some hundreds of kilometers away, so she hitched across Switzerland landing on my doorstep a few hours later. She'd never hitched alone before and wasn't very keen on the idea, for all the obvious reasons. Still she reached the west of Switzerland in about four rides, on a frost-bitten autumn morning and arrived on my doorstep chilled and tired to the bone (not having slept all night). Was I surprised or what?

We got to speaking about the ride, the scary driving, the rain and the hitch. Some interesting questions came to mind. I mean we'd both agree that hitching, especially for a lone woman, isn't considered to be a very safe practice - and understandably so. But was this ride much safer? She certainly didn't feel safe. This guy was driving like a repressed rally driver, and wasn't exactly topped up on sleep either. Ride sharing is often touted as the safe way of hitching. But why?

Fundamentally I think the reason is that the drivers have registered their trip with the agency. In so doing they've theoretically provided some identification for themselves and their car. The reasoning is that if the driver is traceable and identifiable, they're less likely to rob, rape, maim and kill their passengers. In practice, the checks on the driver's identity and that of his car are so loose as to be near meaningless and the driver could in fact be anyone at all in any car at all. But let's be generous and assume the driver and car are in fact traceable.

Let's consider two groups of would-be criminal drivers. I'll call them self-preserving and self-destructive criminals respectively. The self preserving criminal is dissuaded from commiting a crime by the threat of exposure, prosection and punishment. Self-destructive criminals on the other don't care one way or the other whether they're caught or not, and will commit the crime anyway. Clearly the self-preserving criminal might attack a hitch-hiker, but not the user of a ride-sharing agency, on account of the traceablity that the agency threatens the driver with. The self-destructive criminal though, doesn't care either way and will attack hitch-hikers and ride-sharers without discrimination.

What proportion of criminals then are self-preserving and what proportion self-destructive? Hard to say, but what is clear is that ride sharing still embraces a level of risk - self destructive criminals are by no means uncommon, or at least not as uncommon as we'd like them to be. They appear in the news with monotous regularity and will get you in a car, at home, in restaurant, at the movies, in the subway - wherever they happen to find an expression for their destructive lunacy, I guess. They wipe out men, women, children, individuals, groups. They rape, they maim, they kill. If we consider furthermore that the calculating self-preserving ciminal can use a ride sharing agency and avoid being traced all the same, that element of risk also exists.

Now let's look quickly at two broad styles of hitch-hiking, the passive and the active. The passive hitcher stands and waits for a driver to pull over. The active hitcher approaches drivers and asks for a ride, generally at service stations, parking lots, traffic lights or stationary queues. Both styles enjoy relatively equal popularity in my experience, and each has its benefits. Moving traffic for example can only be passively petitioned, while active petitioning yields more results. Passive hitching will often produce a more welcome and entertaining ride than active hitching. The key difference for the point of this article is that in the passive scenario the driver has the power of choice, the hitcher has little. In the active scenario on the other hand the hitcher has much more power of choice.

Consider now the would-be criminal (self-preserving or self-destructive - it matters not because the hitcher exercises little or no threat of identification in any case). If the criminal has the power of choice, and sees a possible victim by the side of the road (the passive hitcher), then this hitcher is bound for trouble. On the other hand, if the hitcher has the power of choice, what is the likelihood that by asking around with discretion and judgment, that a would-be criminal will be approached? The passive hitcher is basically an advertisment inviting any lunatic to pull over and have their wicked way. The active hitcher is much less likely to find haphazardly a criminal among the drivers petitioned than the passing criminal is to find a hitcher standing by the roadside. I'd argue basically, that the chances of a criminal encounter are considerably less for the active hitcher, considerably more for the passive hitcher.

Having concluded that ride sharing is probably not as safe as we thought it was, and that active hitching is probably much safer than we thought it was, is it in fact possible that active hitching is safer than organised ride sharing!? Who's to say? The data aren't in. But I think there is good reason to suspect so. At the very least, ride sharing and active hitching may be in a comparable risk category. The safety net of a pseudo-official organisation called a ride-sharing agency is, I suspect, a little illusory.

Finally, it would pay the safety-conscious hitcher to consider as far as possible to hitch actively and exercise the power of judgement. That is precisely how my girfriend got back to Berlin - we took a bus to a nearby motorway services and asked around for a ride, which she continued all the way home, making it to Berlin in good time.

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