Hitchhiking Safety Revisited

two women hitchhiking

Photograph by Kris Krug

Everyone’s mother will tell you, hitchhiking is extremely dangerous.

Then again, they don’t call them old wives tales for nothing. Rumor, fear and hearsay has long outweighed the significance of fact; when it comes to anything even remotely dangerous, we as a society tend to err note only on the side of caution, but so far to the side we might not even be considered in the same state.

Today we present to you as many of the facts, as succinctly as possible, on hitchhiking which we could find, to help perhaps shed some light on the subject, but more importantly, in an effort to possibly help the revival of this old-as-man method of travel.

the chance of being killed or raped while hitchhiking are 0.0000089%

Let’s Cut to the Chase: is Hitchhiking Dangerous?

The short answer is, “Considerably less than we’ve been told.” Specific information is incredibly difficult to find easily, perhaps because the drastically low number of incidents doesn’t warrant such a study. We’ve dug deep though, and these are our findings.

  • From 1979 to 2009, there were 675 reported victims of sexual assault and murder along Interstate Highways1.
  • The FBI reports that “over 500″ of those were murders. Not a very specific number, but that puts the number of sexual assaults that didn’t end in the loss of life at somewhere around 175.
  • The Interstate accommodates 24% of the nation’s road travel2.
  • So if we multiply that out, and assume these types of crimes take equal place along both the Interstates and, proportionally, all other highways, we get 2,700 estimated victims of crimes of this nature.
  • For that period, the average annual population of the United States was 303,366,667
  • …which equates to a 0.0000089% chance of being raped or killed and then being left on the side of an Interstate Highway.

While any amount of rape or murder is abhorred, that number is ridiculously low in the grand scheme of your likelihood to run into major trouble while hitchhiking. Especially when you consider what percentage of that would have nothing to do with hitchhiking at all. You can be murdered somewhere, thrown into the trunk of a car, and dropped off on the side of a lonely highway, but that in no way indicates that you were hitchhiking when the tragedy began. Again, the numbers are difficult to pin down, but we do have some data.

  • According to the FBI, in 26% of rape cases, the assailant was a stranger3. For murders, it drops to 12%.
  • Given that hitchhiking rarely involves getting a lift from someone you know (which is just called “getting a ride”), we can conservatively drop our number even lower.

Another Angle

Perhaps you find that data a bit concerning, there are a number of factors left to the unknown. Agreed, the numbers above provide plenty of room for skeptics to reason why travelers in the United States should keep their thumbs in their pockets and look for other modes of transport.

We’ll then present you a much clearer set of data.

  • In 2007, the most recent year we could find reliable data, 2.4 million people died. That includes everything from natural causes, diseases, accidents, murders, the whole lot4.
  • That same year, 18,000 people were murdered.
  • 46,800 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents.
  • 17,300 people accidentally shot and killed themselves.
  • 22,600 people died from falling.
  • 10% of murders occurred in a situation which would be highly unlikely to involve hitchhiking, such as arson, babysitters killing children and sniper attacks.

What can we draw from this then, even if we conclude that the remaining 90% of murder victims were all, which of course we know to be false, related to hitchhiking?

  • You’re almost 3 times as likely to be killed in a car accident than you are to be murdered.
  • You’re far more likely to accidentally shoot yourself or fall down and die than to be killed hitchhiking.

When you really consider what small fraction of that 90% of murder victims actually would involve hitchhiking, you start to see how ridiculous the claims of it’s dangers are.

California Sheds Some Light

In an admittedly very outdated study (circa 1974), the State of California did an extensive, six month study on the safety of hitchhikers. The study5 looked at both crimes and accidents, both riders and drivers. Here’s what it found:

  • Hitchhikers were involved in an estimated 0.26% of the accidents and 0.63% of the crimes in California during the study period.
  • Hitchhikers were involved in 2,828 crimes altogether during the period, including where they were the victim, the perpetrator against a victim, and even when there was no other victim (26% were “victimless” crimes, which included drug use or possession, running away, lack of identification and walking along freeways).
  • Drivers were more likely to commit a crime against a hitchhiker than the other way around.
  • Nearly 50% of victims were teenagers, while 20-34 year olds committed the vast majority of the crimes (71%).
  • No one over the age of 45 during the study committed a crime against a hitchhiker.
  • Male and female hitchhikers were equally likely to have been the victims of a crime, where the person committing the crime was far more likely to be male (86%).
  • The study also seems to show that the chances of a crime being committed drop radically after 3 miles of travel. Roughly 41% of all crimes committed by or against hitchhikers occurred within the first 2.9 miles.
  • Over 40% of crimes occurred between 9pm and 3am. By far the safest time was between 9am and noon. Fridays held the least incidents while Saturdays the most, but the numbers were close enough to not really warrant any particular day as being safer.
  • Male hitchhikers, when the victim of a crime, were most likely to be robbed. Women, again when they were the victim of a crime, were most likely to be raped.
  • Where the hitchhiker was the assailant rather than the victim, again robbery was the most most common crime (at over 53%) and hitchhikers rarely attempted to rape their drivers, and never succeeded in doing so.
  • During the entire study, no hitchhikers killed anyone and less than 1% of hitchhikers were killed.

The study clearly shows that hitchhiking (again at 0.63% of all crimes in the state at the time) was barely a factor, and certainly not disproportionate to other activities such as walking down the street or visiting a convenience store. Consider further that “not having identification” and smoking marijuana were among these crimes, and that number shrinks hilariously. It is estimated that the number of hitchhiking trips in the time period of the study was in the millions, though the exact number is only an estimate.

When you exclude robberies, and given that there were no murders during the study, you’re left with rape. There is nothing in the study that in any way indicates that a woman’s chances of being raped are increased by hitchhiking, as these cases were a minute fraction of all of the sexual assault cases in California at the time.

At worst, hitchhiking is no more dangerous than any other activity in the country. Despite close-minded, government-produced documentaries and Internet trolls, the data just isn’t there to prove the tales of horror. On the other hand, it’s a free means of transportation. It’s a great way to meet others, open your horizons up both literally and with regards to communication skills. You might find a shortcut or two, or you might stand around in the rain for an hour, but either way, it’s an adventure.

As with any activity, use your brain. Hitchhike during the day, especially the early morning. If you’re a woman, try and take lifts from other women. You’re under no obligation to accept a ride from someone you don’t feel comfortable with. Be aware that crime rates in the South are generally higher than other regions. But don’t forfeit an entire experience simply out of fear.


Nathan is the Editor-in-Chief around these parts, and has been traveling by train, bike, VW Bus and Airstream since 2008. He's on Instagram.