A Dearth of Research: Does anyone really know anything about hitch-hiking?

By: Bernd Wechner
© March 1, 2002

The simple, unplanned and spontaneous act of sharing transport has been with us as long there has been transport to share. Still, with all of the electronic resources of the twenty first century at hand, the first academic effort to describe hitch-hiking that I have identified was published in 1958. Even then, its author, Schlebecker observed with some bemusement:

    Begging rides from passing motorists, or hitchhiking, is an American contribution to world civilization which has been largely unexamined by historians. And this is strange because hitchhikers first became familiar figures on the American scene in the middle 1920’s, and have been more or less ubiquitous ever since. (Schlebecker, 1958, p. 305)

Schlebecker understated the matter some. It is more than strange, it is bewildering. Post-Schlebecker the story that unfolds is no less perplexing.

Academia would flatter the phenomenon with only three traceable mentions in the 13 years to follow – a short mention in Brilliant’s excellent 1963 doctoral dissertation on automobiles, DiMaggio’s significant 1971 honours dissertation on sociology and White’s mediocre 1971 masters dissertation on culture. None of these three researchers displayed any awareness of Schlebecker’s writing, in spite of its salient relevance to their work. Granted, they weren’t equipped with the power of electronic search engines, but the fading of Schlebecker’s ground breaking work was lasting, not a single academic work citing it has been published since!

DiMaggio, unaware of Schlebecker’s voice, would second it soundly all the same:

    Given the ubiquity of hitchhikers, it is surprising how little has been printed about it. To our knowledge no social scientist has addressed the question, and the popular literature is minimal. (DiMaggio, 1971, p22)

The 1970’s would however, emerge as a golden era of sorts, in hitch-hiking research. A modest flurry of papers and dissertations appeared. But the research was still very meagre and there was very little cross awareness, between researchers. Hitch-hiking was variously studied as a significant social phenomenon itself or a useful context for specific sociological or psychological research. Unaware of Schlebecker’s empathy, or as often as not one another’s, these researchers would, one after the other, continue to echo the same concern.

Referring to a scant few anecdotal articles that had appeared over the decades, Crassweller wrote:

    There are many areas of social concern in which theorizing has been done primarily on the basis of personal experience rather than systematic investigation. Hitchhiking is such an area. (Crassweller et. al., 1972, p. 43)

In the same year, Tobin and Sexton noted:

    Little or no acceptable research has been done to produce realistic figures linking crime and hitchhiking, but a great deal of negative public opinion has been engendered by popular articles about murder and/or rape involving hitchhikers. (Tobin and Sexton, 1972, p. 1)

Like, Schlebecker, they were understating matters considerably. With the tools at hand today, and their own bibliography, it is abundantly evident that they meant “no research has been done to produce realistic figures linking crime and hitchhiking”.

It was not until 1974 that the California Highway Patrol would commission a study in that direction (Pudinski, 1974). This remains the only study on the matter in the United States to this day and one of only two such studies ever commissioned, anywhere![1]

Rinvolucri in 1974 tables an excellent history of British hitch-hiking, and was unable to find any earlier studies. Schlebecker and Rinvolucri remain the definitive voices on the history of hitch-hiking to this day!

In 1975 the Connecticut Committee to Study the Solicitation of Rides on Motor Vehicles reported wryly:

    If the report appears to lack detailed information it is because very little valid research regarding hitchhiking has been done. (Connecticut Legislative Committee, 1975, p. 2)

While Dallmeyer, in the first serious effort to legitimise the practice found:

    … hitchhiking is not usually considered a functional means of transportation in general reference works or transportation reference books. Popular publications tend to highlight the detrimental aspects of hitchhiking; spectacular highway crimes have been recounted to deter potential hitchhikers. A second type of popular literature has an opposite intent – this includes hitchhiking handbooks and articles that encourage hitchhiking … Neither of these types of popular articles were particularly useful to this study. (Dallmeyer et. al., 1975, p. 5)

A modicum of research would continue to appear in the 1970s, waning in the 1980s to a complete void of research in the 1990s.

When Grundstad was asked by the State of Oregon to report on the effect of hitch-hiking legislation in 1982, he had little of consequence to report:

    … hitchhiking laws generally have been unevenly enforced, and there is very little information available regarding their effect. (Grundstad, 1982, p1)

By 1985 Franzoi was still noting the lack of objective research:

    Most published information about hitchhikers has concerned personal accounts of journeys across the land by participants themselves. More recently, various writers have recorded their impressions of the hitchhiker based on informal interviews. While these reports are rich in anecdotal material and sometimes incisive in their subjective analysis, they are not systematic or empirical in their approach. (Franzoi, 1985, p656)

The entire extant realm of academic research into hitch-hiking would draw to a close ironically with the single most robust analysis of hitch-hiking safety ever to appear – a 1989 study commissioned by the Federal Bureau of Criminology in Germany. Even they were forced to note:

    Despite the high publicity, that hitch-hiking receives from time to time, on the occasion of heavy criminal offences or the warnings issued at the beginning of the summer holiday period, so far there exist hardly any empirical investigations on this topic. [2] (Fiedler et. al., 1989, p3)

Fiedler et. al. who’s topic of study was specifically the criminal risks relating to hitch-hiking, may have been thinking of the California Highway Patrol’s 1974 study on the matter when they wrote “there exist hardly any empirical investigations on this topic”. But their lack of any mention of that study, in spite of a solid coverage of the American hitch-hiking literature of the 1970s, suggests they were subscribing to the traditional moderation of tone. We should read instead, “to our knowledge there exist no empirical investigations on this topic.

Since 1989, that situation has not changed!


Stop Press

Between writing this article, in reality the introduction to the first draft of my proposal to study hitch-hiking towards a PhD, a new piece of research has appeared! In the current issue of Sociological Research online, Graeme Chesters and David Smith note (again):

    It demonstrates the paucity of research on what is potentially a fascinating instance of social interaction ... (Chesters and Smith, 2001, Abstract)

The timing is perfect, and I smell a small revival in the air ... in any case, I and Chesters and Smith would appear to be promoting one!

Still, their response from the academic world was less than cool:

    ...the view of an assessor of a proposal we submitted for research on hitch- hiking: that it was not a subject on which a responsible public body should spend money on the eve of the millennium (Chesters and Smith, 2001, p. 4.6)

and while I've thus far met with some support, I'm not yet convinced my proposals will win recognition, never mind funding!


Footnotes

[1] Within the means of modern research tools and techniques to uncover.

[2] Original text: Trotz der hohen Publizität, die das Trampen zeitweise erlangt, sei es anlässlich schwerer Straftaten oder durch Warnungen zu Beginn der Sommerreisezeit, gibt es bislang kaum empirische Untersuchungen zu diesem Thema.


Bibliography

Connecticut Legislative Committee, 1975; Report of the “Committee To Study The Solicitation Of Rides On Motor Vehicles”, Connecticut.

Chesters, Graeme and Smith, David, 2001; “The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability”, Sociological Research Online 6/3.

Crassweller Peter, et. al., 1972; “An Experimental Investigation of Hitchhiking”, The Journal of Psychology 82, pp. 43-47.

DiMaggio, Paul, 1971; Sociability and the Hitchhiker; unpublished honours thesis, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.

Dallmeyer, Kenneth D. et.al., 1975; Hitchhiking: a viable addition to a multimodal transportation system? , Center for Urban Transportation Studies, University of Colorado at Denver.

Fiedler, Joachim, et. al., 1989; Anhalterwesen und Anhaltergefahren: unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des “Kurztrampens”, BKA-Forschungsreihe Sonderband, Bundeskriminalamt Wiesbaden.

Franzoi, Stephen, 1985; “Personality Characteristics of the Cross Country Hitchhiker”, Adolescence 20, pp. 655-668.

Grundstad, Robert, 1982; Anti-hitchhiking Laws, Legislative Research, Legislative Administration Committee, Salem Oregon.

Pudinski, W., 1974; California Crimes and Accidents Associated with Hitch-hiking, California Highway Patrol, Operational Analysis Section.

Rinvolucri, Mario, 1974; Hitch-hiking, self published, London.

Schlebecker, John T., 1958; “An Informal History of Hitchhiking”, The Historian 20, pp.305-327

Tobin, Nona and Sexton, Sam, 1972; Attitudes toward and the effects of physical variables on hitchhiking, unpublished masters thesis, California State University, San Jose.


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