Truckers and Hitchhiking - Tradition or Danger?

by Jake Tully - Published: 6/27/2017
2.3 10 votes

It may seem funny to talk about this type of phenomenon in trucking in 2017, but every now and then we hear a dispatch from the road about a trucker seeing a stray hitchhiker attempting to flag down a ride, or even a trucker who has been bold enough as to pick a hitchhiker up.

In the history of trucking we have seen hitchhikers from all over the country – from those in Tennessee taking a break from conquering the Appalachian Trail to those in sunny California who simply want to make the trip down to Hollywood on a West Coast trek.

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The number of hitchhikers who were picked up by drivers was never exceptionally large, and nowadays it is even less than it was at its peak. That does not mean that the culture of hitching is completely gone, however. Like many aspects of Americana, it still exists within the country. Drivers should beware, however – picking up an extra rider on the course of your trucking job may pose some serious safety hazards.

A Brief History of Hitching and Trucking

Hitchhiking, like other modern American activities, has become somewhat of a folk legend in the country. In the golden age of trucking (many consider this to be the 1950’s and 60’s) it would not be uncommon for drivers to pass a homely looking individual on the road with a knapsack full of belongings or a group of young people who have relied on the generosity of others to travel from point a to point b.

Many older drivers like Dick Lower admit that seeing these sights on America’s roadways was much more common in the Eisenhower era of the country than it has been ever before. Perhaps this is because people trusted one another more, or simply had no reservations about helping their fellow man in a period of history directly following the Great Depression. There were very few concerns about one’s safety in picking up a stranger, rather, it came down to whether a driver felt like doing so or not.

It may also been easier in the past to pick up a hitchhiker than it is in modern times. With today’s abundance of technology in cabs, drivers are held accountable more than ever for their location and how they spend their time in the truck. Picking up a hitcher today may not be impossible, but it may certainly look peculiar if a fleet manager is overseeing a trucker’s route.

It’s not to say that every driver on the road saw people trying to jump into a cab – it’s just that the prevalence of these individuals was greater than they were today. Just as diners and historic truck stops have mostly gone by the wayside yet still exist in certain parts of the country like Texas, there are still glimpses of old-school culture around us.

Why Do Truckers Pick Up Hitchhikers and Unknown Passengers?

There’s no one answer as to why a driver may decide to pick someone up that they do not know. It depends on the individual, and quite frankly, how adventurous they may be feeling or how busy their current route is.

Some drivers may simply pick up a passenger because they want to get a story out of it. Being able to say that you picked up a hitchhiker on the road and took them to their random destination is a bragging right that not many have the opportunity of achieving, and that even less can say that they did with no fear. Some drivers may even feel heroic in doing so, ensuring the safety of a denizen while in a mighty big rig.

Not all hitchhikers are the textbook/folklore example of drifting tumbleweeds – some are merely hardworking people who are experiencing a small amount of bad luck. Some people on the road will encounter hitchhikers who are truly beleaguered individuals, and based on appearance may not perceive them as a threat.

Another reason that drivers may pick up a hitchhiker is to keep them company on the road. In certain situations, veteran drivers may be lonely, bored, or found themselves with the need to keep from getting distracted on the road.

It may tempting to pick up a fellow road warrior at a fueling station or roadside diner when there may be a long haul ahead. The promise of conversation, if only for one leg of the trip, may be worth taking a chance on a stranger in order to help pass the time.

For some people, it may not even be a conscious decision to pick someone up. Rather, they simply want to help someone realize the dream of hitching down the road and give them some support in the nomadic lifestyle.

Dangers of Hitchhikers

When people think about hitchhiking, they immediately think about stories such as the Truckstop Murderer, and individuals who were terrorized by the person who picked them up. While these stories are unfortunately true, we rarely think about the other side of the conversation, wherein truckers themselves are endangered by those they pick up.

Some tucking companies provide information and warnings to their drivers about picking up people who are not approved passengers. Aside from any legal ramifications or problems with efficiency, trucking companies generally do not want their drivers picking up passengers that they don’t know. Reasons for this may seem obvious to us, but some drivers may not think of the potential hazards that driving with a hitchhiker can present.

While movies, television and books have perhaps exaggerated and amplified the problems that wandering travelers may pose (think of the murderous and violent stories you may have heard) it’s probably best to play it safe in many situations. As a driver, you have no idea how a passenger will act or what they will do in the cab. It’s best to use your discretion to ensure that no passengers are disruptive in your truck driving job bringing supplies to Americans across the country.

Speaking of legal ramifications, company drivers need to keep in mind their company’s rider policies. Some will allow spouses, others will allow adult family members, some may even grant a driver the opportunity to bring their child along. There are no situations, however, when it is legal to bring along an unapproved passenger, as determined by the Department of Transportation.

If a trucker were to be pulled over by the authorities for any reason and had an unapproved rider with them, it is incredibly likely that all parties involved would be in trouble, including one’s trucking company. This is also true when illegally carrying someone over state lines. If a driver picks up someone in Florida and takes them across a few states (versus taking them for an hour intrastate) they may be faced with an entirely new set of problems.

Drivers must also think about the danger that an unknown passenger may prove to their truck – otherwise known as company property. The best practice is to provide for the safety and well-being of company property and make sure that no changes are made to the vehicle by someone other than the person operating the truck, and that nothing

Protocol For Hitchhiking

It’s true that many sources will simply tell drivers regarding picking up hitchhikers the following: don’t do it.

However, there are rarely many human-oriented situations in trucking that are so cut-and-dry as the above response. Many truckers feel a personal responsibility to help those on the road who are in need, whether it’s a fellow driver or someone without a vehicle. It may not always be a feasible decision to literally let the person sit in your second seat, but you may be able to help them call for a suitable ride or, at the very least, wait with them until help arrives.

For drivers who are willing to turn a blind eye and allow a passenger to hop in, there’s no crib sheet in how a hitchhiker should look, no physical attributes or signs for what will be a “good” passenger. Barring the fact that it is an illegal activity, drivers should go with their gut if they must pick someone up due to emergency or a situation where they feel they can truly help. If any part of you is hesitant, move on down the road.

Younger drivers may face a situation in which they feel bullied or pressured into taking a hitchhiker because they are aggressive or somewhat manipulative. They may also find that a hitcher begs for a ride in the truck as if their life depends on it and take pity on a person rather than turning the cold shoulder.

The excuse of “I didn’t know any better” is not a good defense by any means, nor should the excuse ever come into play with a professional trucker.

A Final Word

As with any case, it’s best to make decisions that benefit you as the driver, your company, and whatever clients you may be working with, rather than attempting to be a savior on the highway.

Picking up a Hitchhiker is, for all intents and purposes, illegal and violates many company standards as well as DOT rules. Drivers of the past may have gotten away with it, but today the industry is much more stringent about what goes on inside one’s cab and on the roads.

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