Hitchhiking was all the rage in the sixties and seventies. It fitted perfectly with the spirit of freedom and independence that defined the era. Many of the comments left on Is hitchhiking a thing of the past? revealed nostalgia and a fondness for hitchhiking: one person "met some wonderful and some crazy folk" while another savoured "the sense of carefree freedom that went with being on the side of the road".
But today commentators are recording the demise of the practice of hitchhiking. Under the heading "Hitchhiking in NZ", The Backpacker's Ultimate Guide claims "a lot of bad press" has created a state in which "people are too frightened to pick you up and a lot of other travellers are scared to hitchhike meaning [fewer] hitchers on the road, which ultimately leads to hitchhiking becoming a dying art."
In The lost art of hitchhiking its decline is blamed variously on "ever-increasing paranoia", the advent of cheap bus and air travel - and road-planners abolishing lay-bys after roundabouts. Exploring the subject in Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?, Freakonomics says that the proliferation of car ownership has had a big impact - specifically "the rise in multiple-car households" and the fact that "yesterday's hitchhiking candidate is more likely to have ... an affordable and reliable used car" because "modern cars last much longer".
Hitchhikers keep going despite risks, a 2005 article, examined what might motivate a driver to give a hitchhiker a lift: "Drivers may want someone to talk to, someone to convert, or even someone to have sex with. Several New Zealand hitch-hikers report being propositioned by drivers. Others say unwelcome religious preaching is common. But the main hazard appears to be intoxicated or reckless drivers." According to one police officer, drugs such as P have made hitchhiking more dangerous.
Yet there's often romance and a sense of adventure associated with hitchhiking. A hitchhiking support site talks of "our passion to have a nice conversation between strangers". Similarly, a comment left on one of The Guardian pieces said it "really expands your social and conversational skills". I remain sceptical; you could converse with a stranger and expand your social skills on a bus, train or aircraft where you are actually paying your way. I really wish those hitchhiking aficionados would have the decency to admit that scoring free transportation is a key part of the allure.
Despite the intense pondering and theorising as to whether deep sociological shifts can be blamed for the downfall of hitchhiking, sometimes the truth is very simple and utterly superficial. The writer of A guide to hitch-hiking's decline has a compelling theory about its waning popularity: "The drivers of 1970s cars would probably have welcomed the company of hitchers to distract them from the boredom and discomfort of their dodgy suspensions and badly equipped cabins.
Now cars have ergonomic driving seats, remote-controlled iPods and automatic temperature controls. Why would we invite a sweaty stranger into this snug haven?" And who's to say that doesn't explain it?
Have you noticed the decline of hitchhiking? What do think it's attributed to? Are the risks associated with hitching real or exaggerated? Would you hitch a ride? Would you pick up a hitchhiker?