How do I dissuade this young woman from hitch-hiking?
April 30, 2012 2:33 AM   Subscribe

What should I tell my sister-in-law about hitch-hiking?

My sis-in-law is young, between 18 and 20. She's a great, smart young woman who has had the good fortune to have had a good upbringing devoid of any real mayhem. She is, in the very best way, naive.

Recently, to the dismay of her family, she hitch-hiked from here to 'there' about a 500 km (200mile) trip. She and her friend caught a ride with two guys in a big car and... got there fine.

I think this is a bad idea and want to dissuade her from doing it again. I am going to talk to her and the gist of what I want to tell her is that she should do wild stuff, she should see the world she should over-reach. But men are physically stronger than her and some men are simply bad. She should do things that minimize her exposure and increase her ability to escape. Inside of a car is the opposite of both these things.

Are you a young woman hitch-hiking in Europe? What are your experiences? How can I, more of an uncle than a brother-in-law, effectively convey to her my concerns?
posted by From Bklyn to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I hitchhiked at that age. I wouldn't do it now I'm old and the risk assessment part of my brain has kicked in, but I did it when I was young and stupid and nothing bad happened to me. I never even felt unsafe. From a risk perspective, I suspect my age and gender actually worked in my favour. I got lots of rides from women and families - people who might otherwise have been reluctant to take on a hitchhiker, but who stopped for me, partly out of concern for my safety. One trick I found helpful was to always be the first to ask, "Where are you headed?" That way if you get a skeevy vibe from a driver, you can say, "Oh, I wanted to go to [other_place], thanks anyway." I was pretty cautious about accepting rides from men. But to be honest, most girls that age have dealt with plenty of skeevy male behaviour already, and their instincts about Men To Avoid are sharper than you might realise.
posted by embrangled at 3:35 AM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: She'll probably take you more seriously if you talk to her about hitchhiking safety, than if you just try and tell not to do it. The, don't do drugs, mmmkay?

Always hitchhiking with two people is a good move, and a male/female pair is pretty handy because the dodgy types don't pick you up, and are slightly more likely to be picked up than guys.
Don't hitchhike drunk or impaired.
Carry some cookies or sweets etc and offer them to the driver (that's just being friendly!).
Make sure you can get out of the car you get into, ie the doors unlock, and you aren't sitting in the middle in the back.
Always keep your bag with you, or at least anything you aren't willing to lose.
If you are hitchhiking in pairs, signs are great, you'll be picked up more quickly with a destination, but don't use a sign if you are alone. If someone pulls up, always ask them where they are going *first*, don't tell them. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, tell them you're going another destination, and thank them then move away from the car.
To expand on this point - go with your gut instinct, and don't be afraid to be rude, when it comes to refusing a ride, or asking to be let out. If you would feel too awkward turning down a ride when something feels a little 'off', when someone is insisting they will give you a ride, you shouldn't be hitchhiking. Figure out what you'll say in advance so you aren't flustered - "Thank you! But I just realised I should wait a bit longer for a friend who is coming by. Thanks!" and move away. Etc. Pretend you got a text, but above all, be willing to extract yourself even if it seems 'rude'.

The short version is the advice I got from my mother (who still regularly hitchhikes, and has for about 30 years now) when I was a teenager, was:
Hitchhiking is great! Fantastic way to get places and meet people etc...
But you have to always carry a knife in your boot, and if anyone gives you any trouble, look them in the eye and say I am armed, and I will kill"

Uhhhh... Thanks, Mum?
She's got a point though. She's had a lot more weird experiences in life than I ever have. I think I've often avoided trouble in life, as a female, by being chillingly certain that even though I don't carry a knife (sorry Mum!), that I will fight to maim and kill, not necessarily in that order, and no body wants to mess with crazy.

That said, I have never ever ever had any problems, but I've always been pretty prepared, and the last time I went hitchhiking was two years ago, traveling with a friend.
When you look at the stats, it's really not that dangerous compared to the urban legend risk assessment.

So yeah, anyway - hitchhiking! It's awesome! And often no more dangerous than being stuck somewhere with no ride and trying to walk home.
But the best thing about hitchhiking? You meet the greatest, most fantastic people. Cream of the crop. For all the cars that drive past, ignoring someone on the side of the road, this is a self-selected bunch of the most generous drivers and people you will meet, and they will tell you stories, recommend you places to visit, and often freely offer food, accommodation and advice. As a woman, you are much more likely to be picked up by women, families and the elderly.
If I had a friend to go with, I'd go travelling via hitchhiking just for the bonus of the fantastic people I meet. I always try and bring a treat with me so I can give something in exchange.
posted by Elysum at 3:43 AM on April 30, 2012 [14 favorites]

Best answer: As in many other areas of the adult world, the safety of hitch-hiking is 99% common sense. Your sister-in-law is already obeying the first rule of safe hitch-hiking by not doing it alone. You don't say whether her friend is less naive than she is (hopefully she is).

There are a lot of things your sister-in-law can do to mitigate the dangers of hitchhiking:

1. Plan your journey in advance, and stick to the plan as much as you can. The plan could cover starting point, destination, estimated time of arrival, and route, and also list safe waypoints along the journey. Leave a copy of this plan with a friend or with family so they know where you're likely to be.

2. Check in, by phone, once or twice during the day, or whenever you're in any situation that seems less than perfectly safe. If you're in a car and something doesn't feel right, make a call en route letting your contact know that you're on road X, will be getting off at place Y, and expect to be there at time Z.

3. Pick your waypoints. Stops along your journey should be friendly, safe, busy places, such as towns or service areas along major routes. If a driver isn't passing one of your waypoints, or can only drop you off somewhere out-of-the-way, decline the ride.

4. Pick and choose your rides. Nobody is forcing you to take a particular ride. Err on the side of safety. Couples, women drivers, people with kids or signs of having kids (like child seats or window shades) are all reasonable bets. Your gut instinct should be a last resort, but trust it and decline an offer when something feels wrong.

5. Stick to the daytime whereever possible. The night adds an extra level of danger to any social activity.

And I'd second everything Elysum says. Hitch-hiking is fun, you get to meet all kinds of people from many walks of life you might never otherwise meet, and the conversations can be great. We've become a society of people who are far too paranoid about things like hitch-hiking and letting our kids play in the street. The world, with very few exceptions, is far safer than we're taught by the shock-obsessed media to believe.
posted by pipeski at 3:57 AM on April 30, 2012

I hitch-hiked a lot when I was younger and my (physically small) wife thumbed her way to Russia and back as a teenager. Neither of us had any problems, but I fully appreciate it's an inherently risky activity. I assume others will chime in with answers about why they would never do it or let a young relative do it and I fully respect and understand that perspective.

Assuming you can't talk her out of it, Elysum's advice on minimising risk is excellent. I'd add that probably a bigger concern than the psychopathic driver is the dangerous driver. I've 'changed my mind' about where I was going and asked to be dropped off at the next junction when it turned out that the driver was speeding and not paying attention to the road. There are an awful lot more deaths caused by speed than deaths caused by axe murderers.

Finally, smartphones came along after I dropped my thumb for the last time, but I assume they must be a real boon for the hitcher (and driver). Before getting in, the hitcher asks to take a photo of the numberplate and driver and emails them to a friend; that would put off a lot of nasty types. Obviously it would have to be done with a smile and a cheeky joke, but charming strangers is a big part of what hitching is about.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:59 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

And often no more dangerous than being stuck somewhere with no ride and trying to walk home.

Seconding. For me, it's all about relative risk. I don't think I would personally plan to hitch-hike as my mode of travel (as my dad does, all the time), but I've hitch-hiked when things have gone wrong and it's been the best option at the time. I've never felt unsafe - well, except for the time the driver that picked me up turned out to be a really bad driver, but then that's happened when I've gotten into cars with friends I've never seen drive before too.

She should do things that minimize her exposure and increase her ability to escape. Inside of a car is the opposite of both these things.

Like not walking down the street, or going to a bar, or having friends? I mean, these are all things that sometimes (rarely) result in women getting hurt. IMO the dangers of hitch-hiking are overstated but the relatively rare occurrences of hitch-hikers getting into cars with psychos make the news because they make a good Big Scary Story boogeyman.

She can minimise her exposure by exercising common sense - and other people above have given you good ideas for that. Yes, inside a car isn't an easy place to escape from, so she needs to be very aware of her gut feelings and confident enough to walk away before she gets into the car in the first place.

As I said, I don't think hitch-hiking is a fantastic way to plan to travel, personally. But almost everything we do in life comes with some sort of risk and for many people that risk is an acceptable cost of living the lives that they want to live. I doubt you can convince her to stop hitch-hiking if she wants to keep doing it, so the best you can do is give her the tools to do it as safely as possible. I was 17 the first time I hitched, and I would absolutely have gotten defensive and tuned my older sister out if she'd given me a lecture.
posted by lwb at 4:14 AM on April 30, 2012

She should be more concerned about getting in the car with someone who's a crap driver than someone who's going to intentionally physically harm her. Right out of university in 2003 I hitched across Canada with my best friend. We're both men, so my perspective is a little different, but one thing was consistent amongst all the rides we got: They were all people driving alone who just wanted some company on a long drive. I never for a second felt unsafe and the only time I got worried was when I was stuck on the side of the road in northern Ontario with the sun going down, wondering if I'd be sleeping in the woods that night.

Also, the first ride I ever got was from a nun.

Echoing what's been said above - always hitch with a friend, always ask where they're going before getting in the car, always use a sign and not just her thumb, and always trust her gut when getting into a car.
posted by fso at 4:36 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is a carpooling site I have used many times. It costs more than hitch hiking but you might feel that it is a safer option. There are different types of offers (some women only, some for registered users only, and some where people only leave a mobile number). The worst that happened was someone not showing up. One could think about it as an organized way of hitch hiking maybe.

W/r/t hitch hiking there is a lot of great advice upthread. As rightly said, it is mostly about common sense:
- don't get into a car with sketchy guys
- don't feel pressured to take this ride if it feels weird, other cars will stop as well, waiting is okay
- note down the license plate number and text it to your contact
- in situations where the driver gets too interested: having a wedding band ring on ones finger helps (I know this is a silly one) as well as talking about the husband/boyfriend.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:39 AM on April 30, 2012

Is it legal where you are? It's a misdemeanor where I am. It's dangerous for the driver and the pedestrian to have hitchhikers looking for a ride alongside a busy road, it's dangerous for traffic to stop on the road to pick them up, and it's a popular method for prison/jail escapees to get out of dodge (which doesn't happen THAT often, but often enough). So the cops are fairly big on discouraging it around here. Even assuming no hitchhikers harm drivers and no drivers harm hitchhikers, both parties run a risk of traffic accident when there are hitchhikers alongside the road, and drivers may unwittingly help someone flee the state, both of which are things the public would tend to want to discourage.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:18 AM on April 30, 2012

Not many people hitch-hike or pick up hitch-hikers anymore. I think this raises the percentage of miscreants who would do harm in both populations - not that there are more miscreants, but that due to the fall-off in activity among non-miscreants they are now more heavily represented in the population of hitch-hikers and people who would give hitch-hikers a ride. I think that these days you are more likely to run into trouble hitch-hiking or giving rides to hitch-hikers than in the past. I think all the scare tactics used to disuade people from participating in this activity have actually made it more dangerous. That is too bad, but I wouldn't hitch-hike these days unless I was desperate for a ride. Anyway, this is all just my personal opinion not backed up with data or anything, but is there really reliable data on this sort of stuff?
posted by caddis at 5:31 AM on April 30, 2012

I am not a statistician, but hitchhiking is probably the most dangerous thing she could possibly do. I don't know what would dissuade her, but you could mention how often prostitutes turn up dead, in large part because their work so often entails getting into cars with strange men. Forget The Deadliest Catch -- that is the most risky work in the world. To put oneself in that position when there are safer options available is madness.

If she thinks she can tell good people from bad people from a brief roadside interview, she is incorrect. Even street smart people can't do this reliably (which is why they don't hitchhike). The fact that she is even considering doing this is proof of her ignorance of human nature.

Ed Kemper is another serial killer who picked up hitchhikers.
posted by gentian at 6:13 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

This episode of the Freakonomics Podcast deals with exactly this issue. They examine the real vs perceived danger of hitch hiking, and (spoiler alert) find that the news media has blown the risk out of proportion, and at the cost of making our entire society a little less friendly. Besides being relevant to this discussion, the show is well made and fun, worth a listen for anybody who likes radiolab-ish stuff.
posted by stephennelson at 6:24 AM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

i'm someone who has done a lot of hitchhiking, however i'm a guy and i've done all my hitchhiking in the us. from reading some of the comments above it appears that hitchhiking in europe is considerably different in the us.

that said i would strongly second Elysum. your sis has already taken a trip and can probably handle herself pretty well. instruction is the best tool to use here but she should keep in mind that sometimes bad things do happen. (self links)
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:30 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hitchhiked a lot in my twenties and I still pick up a particular type of hitchhiker once in a while (young, mostly clean, hippyish). Based on what I saw and what my friends (male and female) experienced, I'd say the huge risk is getting rides from people who are drunk -- that happens all the time, whereas the creeps are fewer and further between.

I think the risks of hitchhiking are hugely overblown, especially compared to things that we take as totally normal -- no one would bat an eye at her going to a bar with her friend, even though it is full of drunks and I've known many, many women who have been slipped roofies.

So I guess my advice would be to, if you are going to talk to her at all, to talk about risk more generally and emphasize trusting her gut and getting out of bad situations in every kind of context, rather than focus on the unusual case of hitchhiking which is statistically probably not where she is going to have problems.
posted by Forktine at 6:43 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hitchhiked pretty much everywhere from the ages of 16-18, and while I wasn't sensible, always, believing myself to be much harder and fiercer than I was, nothing untoward ever happened. That said, if a relative (even a close one) tried to warn me against the dangers of hitchhiking, my reaction would be to stop telling that relative about it and then carry on anyway. I think educating on the "safe" way to do it is the key, and Elysum has a lot of good points, as do others here.

This was in the US, in a central California town, and the highways I hitched rides on were much used by college students and professors. The scariest thing that ever happened was when I was picked up by an older woman in a Chevy Caprice. She kept yelling at the back seat. "Stop it, Ralph! Just stop!" and "Knock it off back there!" And I could see no one, so I was starting to plan out my exit, looking ahead for where she would slow down as she entered town, putting my hand on the door handle, etc. She never stopped the yelling, but she never got worse, so I waited it out. When she finally stopped and let me out, I looked into the back window as she drove off, and on the floor was a tiny little dog. I felt really silly once I realized what it was, but sitting in that car, realizing how vulnerable I was if she turned out to be a real crazy pants - that stuck with me.

I carried knives, always, on me. I had been shown how to use them by people I probably shouldn't have been hanging out with, but I also knew how easily they could be taken away and used against me. I turned down rides with people who seemed just too skeevy or gave me a bad vibe, no matter how desperate I was to get to where I was going.

I also often hitchhiked with a male friend, and although I got less offers of rides, I also got less creepy guys pulling over. Another thing I used to do - I would always pretend there was a good friend or relative waiting for me on the other side. I thought this would deter anyone thinking I was someone no one would miss.

Generally people were nice, and glad to help, and later when I had my first car, I picked up a few hitch hikers myself, to even things out, although this horrified my family members who knew. I always attributed the niceness of the people I met doing this to the fact that I lived in a hippy-ish sort of town with a lot of surfers, college students, and such.

Also? The one thing that always ate at me, every time I got into a car, no matter how nice the driver seemed, was that they might have a way to childproof/lock the door. You never know if that door handle will work until you try it. I remember that distinct feeling of relief every time it did, and it's eventually why I stopped.
posted by routergirl at 8:05 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

But to be honest, most girls that age have dealt with plenty of skeevy male behaviour already, and their instincts about Men To Avoid are sharper than you might realise.

Amen to that.

I am not a statistician, but hitchhiking is probably the most dangerous thing she could possibly do.

I think to assert this is to have a certain amount of naivete about the dangers women face from people they know, their most frequent source of harm; the most dangerous thing women can possibly do is really have relationships, or be guilty of Living While Female. I understand that the frequency of harm to prostitutes is cautionary, but their risk factor isn't that they got into cars, it's that they work as prostitutes.

I would estimate hitchhiking as having a certain level of risk, but not necessarily a terrible idea. Far from fearing violence, I think the greatest fears I would be sensitive to would be unwanted, opportunistic sexual advances or requests (which stop short of violence and are a lot more common than violence - 'I did you a favor, you do me a favor') and impaired (drunk, high) or otherwise reckless drivers.

Personally, I did a little hitchhiking, in my 20s, in New England in summer tourism areas. There is a decent amount of underground hitching culture once you get away from the metro areas here, and outdoorsy surfer/hiker folks do it reasonably often. I never did it alone, and I think that traveling in pairs is probably the single smartest strategy for safety. I found it to be fun and a great way to meet people. People who picked us up included young nomad types like ourselves, other women, and older guys who had hitchhiked themselves in their youth.

In fact, I just remembered that despite my advanced age I actually hitched a ride just last summer on Martha's Vineyard. I was on a group hike but had to leave early, and so did another woman I'd just met. We left the trail a ways away from where we had parked, and just decided to stick out our thumbs as a way to potentially hasten our return trip while we walked on the road back to the cars a few miles away. A female college student picked us up. As 40ish women we were a pretty safe bet.

And I also stopped for a couple of people on the highway in New Jersey when I was recently coming back from Philadelphia. It was very unlike me, I understood the risk, but in my assessment of the situation I couldn't see doing anything else. A car was sitting in the breakdown lane, an older black couple was walking along the highway a mile later with a gas can, and the next exit was three miles away, and it was hot. I stopped to pick them up because I wasn't sure how long until anyone else would, and they started to get in, and were grateful, but almost before I could pull into traffic again a police cruiser came up, having seen their car, and took them instead.

So I am not a crazy person, just someone who assessed the situation and saw a simple opportunity to be helpful. I think this describes most people who offer rides. I'm glad I haven't done much more recreational hitchhiking than I did, and am lucky we never had even a single bad experience, but I think the danger is overrated and that it's not a bad thing to experience a few times and stages in life. Recognizing the risk level is important, but I wouldn't overexaggerate the dangers, and would just recommend precautions that are simple to take.
posted by Miko at 9:19 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

The problem is at that age you think you're pretty invulnerable; if I look back at myself at that age, I cringe when I think of all the stupid things I did (including hitchhiking). It's amazing that I made it to my 30s because I was not only a total idiot, I came from the back of nowhere and had no experience with anything really. So while she will probably listen to you, she may well not hear you. You might offer her alternatives (car pooling sites), see if this is a monetary thing that you might be able to help with, or talk about the fun/adventure of taking the train or the bus instead. You might also try and present hitchhiking as really a grotty, unfashionable way to travel, taking the adventurousness/thrill out of it.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:42 AM on April 30, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you thank you thank you. Yes, as soon as it was mentioned I realized the only smart thing was going to be not to dissuade (overtly, at least) but to inform and advise. And you have all given great points about how to do this (more) safely, and that her doing this is not a one-way ticket to hell and misery (or worse!) that it seemed like at first.

This has been an enormous help.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:43 PM on April 30, 2012

I can't believe I forgot this!

But, most important hitchhiking tip:
Don't walk, stick to places where cars are going slow, and have a large, comfortable area to pull over for you.

Drivers often say they are more likely to pick someone up who is walking, but this is unobservant on their part.
Yes, they will pick someone up who is walking, while they are in a 50km zone. This is a very small proportion of your trip.
They will not pick someone up who they haven't seen because they are whizzing by at 100km an hour.

Stand within sight of stop signs and intersections, where people have already slowed down. Do not try and hitch or walk somewhere where the cars aren't going to go below 80km for miles and miles. This happened to me when I got dropped off just after a town, and stupidly, started walking. In this case, walk back!

I once spent 5 hours walking along, trying to hitchhike, on a road with corn fields for miles, and cars whizzing past with very little room to pull over. Didn't get a ride til we'd walked all the way to the next town. It would have been 20 minutes to go back the way we came, and quickly pick up a ride.

This is a safety issue, because one of the biggest problems of hitchhiking is possibly being stuck on a stretch of road like the above for hours and hours or and possibly being caught out in the dark.

And to Gentian, no. The US has less hitchhikers and people who pick up hitchhikers, because of that paranoia, not because it is significantly more dangerous.

This actually points out that it could also be a supply/demand curve -
I think the average time it's taken me to get a ride is no more than 15 minutes? There's way more cars than people needing rides.
posted by Elysum at 12:15 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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