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I was out in California not long ago and I saw somebody doing something that I hadn’t seen done in a long time — something I used to do, during college, out of necessity. What do you think it was? Go ahead, think about it. I posted this riddle on the Freakonomics blog. You want to hear some of the answers I got? Here we go: Eating ramen noodles… using a phone book… hanging wet laundry on a clothesline… inserting a floppy disk…  All right, those are all perfectly fine answers. But not what I’m looking for.

DUBNER: Jason, what are we watching here?

Jason ZINOMAN: This is the beginning of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with these kids are going  to visit a graveyard and they pick up a pretty scraggily looking hitchhiker.

Jason Zinoman is a theater critic for The New York Times, and the author of a book called Shock Value, about horror films of the 1970’s. So in this movie, a van full of teenagers decide, after some debate, to pick up a hitchhiker. He just got off his shift at the slaughterhouse, so his face is streaked with blood, and he’s talking about bludgeoning cows to death.

DUBNER: It’s pretty clear by now that we’re wishing that he hadn’t been picked up.

ZINOMAN: Pretty much, yes.

DUBNER: There’s not really any good scenario that we can imagine coming out of this.

ZINOMAN: No, no, it’s true. It only gets worse. It only gets worse.

Now, let me just say this — I hate scary movies. I’d never watch one for pleasure. But this is research. It grew out of that trip to California, where I saw that thing I hadn’t seen in a while. I called up Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. Turns out he’d just had the same thought:

Steve LEVITT: So, just yesterday, I was driving down the road in a resort in the Wisconsin Dells, and there were five kids who were waiting for the bus to come and pick them up. And as I drove by, they stuck out their thumbs as if they were hitchhiking. And the thing that I thought was is how do these kids even know what that means? When’s the last time anyone say a hitchhiker on the road? I haven’t seen a hitchhiker on the road in twenty years. And yet somehow the idea of sticking your thumb up in the air even for these five-year-old kids was still part of their psyche. But it makes you wonder: Why did hitchhiking disappear?

*      *      *

All right, so if that’s our question: Where did all the hitchhikers go? That doesn’t seem very hard to answer, does it? Let’s get back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The hitchhiker — the guy who works at the slaughterhouse — now he’s pulled out a switchblade:

DUBNER: Uh oh.

ZINOMAN: Now here’s where he crossed the line. He cuts the…

DUBNER: Oh! Mama! This is why — OK, I’m going to…

ZINOMAN: That’s enough, that’s the final straw. That he cut the guy and he gets kicked out.

DUBNER: And Franklin’s arm is just bleeding like a…

ZINOMAN: Oh, Franklin, it’s just a little cut. You know, it’s…

Yeah, that’s it: hitchhiking died off because it’s dangerous. If. You. Hitchhike. You. Will. Die. That’s the lesson we’ve learned, at least — from horror movies and newspaper headlines. Here’s Levitt again:

LEVITT: If even anybody even thought there were homicidal maniacs who were killing hitchhikers or hitchhikers killing people who picked them up, then certainly that would have the kind of chilling effect on a market that very few things could have.

That’s right, Levitt the economist thinks of hitchhiking as a market, much like any other:

LEVITT: Hitchhiking is a classic example of what an economist would call a matching market where there’s a person who wants a ride, and there’s a person who’s willing to give a ride, and there’s actually usually typically no money changes hands, so somehow there are people getting benefit on both sides of the transaction. The fifties, the sixties, maybe even the seventies, there was some sort of equilibrium in which there was a set of people who wanted to hitchhike, and there was a set of people who were willing to pick them up. And somehow that equilibrium got destroyed. So the question is what happened to the equilibrium?

The assumption is that hitchhiking was so dangerous that people just wised up and stopped doing it. But how dangerous was it? We went looking for data — on hitchhiking itself and on the violence associated with it. And we found pretty much nothing, at least no worthwhile data. So, how common was hitchhiking violence? Did we , maybe, overreact? Do you remember a few years back, when the media talked about the “Summer of the Shark”? All those scary stories about horrible, disfiguring shark attacks. Now, guess how many fatal shark attacks there were that year — the whole year, around the world. The actual number was four. There were probably more people killed by TV news vans going to cover the shark attacks, right? But when something is really frightening, we get a little bit number-blind. With something like hitchhiking, it might take just one story.

Colleen STAN: I woke up in the morning. It was a gorgeous day. The wildflowers were out, the trees, you know, sprouted all their leaves. The grass is green, because it was spring. It hasn’t dried up yet. It was gorgeous.

That’s Colleen Stan. It was May 19, 1977.

STAN: I had just turned twenty in December. And I was very young and had a very carefree spirit about me. And I was quite impulsive.

Stan was living in Eugene, Oregon, and was planning to visit a friend in Westwood, California, about 360 miles to the south. But her car wouldn’t start. So she decided to hitchhike. She got a ride with some truckers hauling grape juice. They let her off in Red Bluff, California, about an hour and a half from her friend’s house. The truckers even gave her a gallon of juice when they dropped her off. She put her thumb out again.

STAN: A car stopped, and there were five guys in it. And I said thanks, but no thanks. And so they went on their way.

Her next ride was a blue Dodge Colt. There was a young couple inside, with a baby. Looked safe enough. So Stan got in the car.

STAN: So it was a very warm day because it was May. And Red Bluff is in the valley and it’s very warm there. It can get, in the summer time, it can get like 115 degrees there, so it’s a very warm place.  It was a warm day and I was thirsty from traveling and I had taken the juice and I tipped it up to take a drink. And about the same time I tipped it up, the driver presses on the accelerator and jets out back onto the highway to take off. This causes the juice to pour down me. So I was a little irritated with him. I remember I looked up to the front and looked in the review mirror. And he was looking in the review mirror and it gave me a chill down my spine.

The man, Cameron Hooker, and his wife, Janice, wound up kidnapping Colleen Stan. They held her captive for more than seven years and did a variety of horrible things to her. Finally, in 1984, she escaped. Hooker was sentenced to 104 years in prison; his wife got immunity for testifying against him. It became a big media story. The message was clear.

STAN: This is why people shouldn’t hitchhike. Because when you get into a car with someone, you are literally handing your life over to them. It’s just not worth it; it’s too dangerous. Because you can look at someone, you can look the situation and evaluate it, just like I did, and say, “this looks like a safe ride.” But you don’t know the intent is in someone’s heart, because they don’t’ show that on the outside. You don’t know. And it’s just not worth it, cause life is too valuable to just give it away like that.

You can hardly blame Colleen Stan for feeling this way. But how common are these really bad hitchhiking outcomes? Again, we really don’t know. But life is all about tradeoffs. Every time you do anything, you consider the tradeoff. Should four fatal shark attacks each year keep everyone out of the ocean? Apparently not. But what number would? 40? 400? 4,000? What happens when you start letting relatively small numbers balloon into such a large fear?

Bill JAMES: My father was the kind of person who would stop and help anybody.

That’s Bill James. He’s the guy who helped revolutionize the field of baseball statistics — and he likes writing about crime, too. His latest book is called Popular Crime. James was born in 1949, in Kansas.

JAMES: One time, with two small kids in the car, late at night, coming back from a movie, we saw two black guys, two black adult males standing beside the road. Now, my father was not Spencer Tracy. He was not a violent racist, but he was a man of his generation, and he had the racist attitudes that were common in his generation. Nonetheless, we stopped, we asked them if they needed a ride, and we took them where the needed to go. And the reason why was you just did. It was in the time in place where I grew up, if you saw somebody in need of a ride you gave them a ride.

As James got older, that changed. He remembers hearing PSA’s on the radio, warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. In retrospect, he says, hitchhiking took the blame for crime in general — an “attribution problem,” as James calls it. Here, he uses a baseball analogy to explain:

JAMES: For many years people believed that baseball was seventy-five percent pitching. And the essential reason that they believe this is that they credit the pitcher with wins and losses. And if you credit the pitcher with winning and losing the game, it becomes a tautology that the pitcher is always responsible for winning or losing the game. And it creates the illusion that the pitcher is responsible for much more than he actually is.

If you have a certain number of violent people running around hitchhiking, the few other people you have running around hitchhiking, the more dangerous it becomes to pick up a hitchhiker. It drove itself out of existence. Basically nobody hitchhikes anymore. And the practice has all but disappeared. My point about this is what’s really the social value in this? Hitchhiking is economically efficient because it puts more people in the car. And the real danger was not hitchhiking it was the fact that you had a certain number of random crazy people who will hurt you. As long as you have the same number of random crazy people you have the same number of violent crimes, and eliminating hitchhiking doesn’t, in my opinion, do anything to change that. So, it was a social change that protects the individual. I mean, I don’t pick up… I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. I do that to protect myself. But protecting myself has no value to society.

So the demand for hitchhiking fell because of fear, a breakdown in trust, a selfishness, whatever. But maybe those aren’t the only reasons demand fell. Maybe it fell because supply rose. The supply, that is, of transportation.

Coming up: should there be a hitchhiking renaissance?

[SLUG: It saves me about $20 a day in commuting costs.]

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DUBNER: Did you ever hitchhike, Levitt?

LEVITT: I did not hitchhike. I was just a little bit too young. By the time I was fifteen, I think hitchhikers had pretty much disappeared.

Well, not quite. I was hitchhiking then. When I was about 14 or 15, I started thumbing a ride most mornings before school, in the dark, to get to my job in town, stocking shelves. I hitched all during college, all over the south, and a couple times from North Carolina to upstate New York and back. It was a pretty simple calculation: I wanted to get somewhere, and I couldn’t afford a car. I mean, why else would anyone hitchhike?

Here are a few hitchhikers we found out in Oregon. There were three of them:  Teryani, a guy named Stove, and their friend, George Jemmott.

George JEMMOTT: So, I’m George Jemmott, and I have an engineering degree that I only sometimes use. But my real passion and addiction is travel, and fixing things.

George has hitchhiked a good bit — in about 10 foreign countries and all over the U.S.

DUBNER: So, you do hitchhiking because you want to, not because you have to really, right?

JEMMOTT: Almost always, yeah.

DUBNER: Almost always. So, you’re a twenty-five-year-old American with an engineering degree and parental support, and all that kind of stuff, who helped you buy a car, gave you a hand-me-down car, offered to buy you a train pass to get home, and you say, “no I just want to go down the road and put my thumb out.” What does that say about you and folks like you in the hitchhiking community now who do it not out of necessity, but out a desire for experience?

JEMMOTT: I think you just hit the nail on the head there, is desire for experience. About me particularly, it’s that I’m addicted to travel and novelty, and I definitely could not normally and sustainably extend my vacations and travels as much as I have without hitchhiking. And of course my mom’s going to buy me that one train ticket that one time. But I don’t know, she might get tired of it after the second time, third time, fourth time, and I would hate to keep leaning on the parents to keep buying me things all throughout life. The other big motivation for a lot of us hitchhikers, the ones that I’ve talked to is just learning other people’s perspectives on life. And it’s much easier, I think, to get sort of feeling for how someone else lives quickly if you’re riding in a car with them for hours.

DUBNER: So a guy like George Jemmott hitchhikes not really because he needs to but to, “get sort of the feeling for how someone else lives.” But what about the people who might need to hitchhike, out of necessity, but don’t, out of fear? On the other hand: maybe there’s not as much need as we think:

LEVITT: Clearly people are getting richer.

That’s Steve Levitt again. Did you hear what he said?

LEVITT: Clearly people are getting richer, and cars getting better made has to be a big part of it, because it’s an extremely ineffective way to travel, hitchhiking. It’s slow, it’s unpleasant, it’s uncertain. So if you can do something better, whether it’s take a bus, or take a plane, or drive your own car, it’s hard to believe that there are many people who wouldn’t prefer a different mode of transportation.

So maybe hitchhiking started to disappear because fewer people needed a free lift.

Alan PISARSKI: Most reporters ask me how do I get to work, and I tell them I walk about thirty feet from my bedroom to my office.

This is Alan Pisarski. He’s what you might call a scholar of transportation behavior. He used to work for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and wrote a series of books called Commuting in America.

DUBNER: So we are in agreement that there used to be quite a bit of hitchhiking, although we don’t know how much. We are in agreement that there’s much less now, correct?


DUBNER: So, we want to know where did all those hitchhikers go? Why did so many people stop hitchhiking?

PISARSKI: I guess my reflex, statistical reflex, is the greater availability of automobiles. Well the first part of it is simply driver’s licenses. In the seventies is when women began to gain greater access to drivers licenses, if you look at the distributions today, men and women in terms of driver’s licensing is almost, almost identical and almost ubiquitous. It’s in the ninety-two, ninety-three percentile for both men and for women.

OK, so a lot more people driving –— but also, says Pisarski, a lot more cars. In 1969, only three in ten households had more than one car. By 2009? Six in ten.

PISARSKI: All of the really significant change occurred in the two- and three-car households. That’s where you saw an explosion and all of the growth.

OK, so you’re telling me more drivers licenses, more cars, talk to me about the cars themselves and longevity.

PISARSKI: I think that’s a very important component. One of the things that people I think don’t recognize, one of the great technological changes that we’ve seen in America in the last thirty years is simply the longevity of the vehicle fleet. Back in the sixties, cars did not last all that long. Today, the average age of a vehicle in America is north of nine years. What that means is that it’s entirely possible to buy a ten or a twelve-year-old small car, perfectly serviceable, still functioning quite adequately, at a very reasonable cost. So, the automobile in that sense has become much more accessible to many parts of the population. I came down to this studio in a fourteen-year-old car.

That makes sense: cheap and easy car ownership helped drive down demand for hitchhiking, along with big changes in how we get around generally.

PISARSKI: The one is the advent of the interstate, which took people off of Main Street and onto roads where walkers are not permitted. And then of course deregulation of aviation in roughly 1980, that had an extraordinary effect on the price of air travel. And so, you know, that made it a whole lot cheaper than standing on a street corner with your thumb out.

But here’s something else worth thinking about. If you care even a little bit about transportation – about the cost, the growing congestion and the risk of accident, the carbon emissions from all those cars on the road — then consider this very sobering statistic: The average car commuting to and from work in the U.S. today rides around with 80 percent of its passenger capacity empty. If our auto fleet were a bus or train fleet, it’d be considered a massive failure.

PISARSKI: One of America’s greatest transportation resources are all those empty seats in automobiles traveling around America. You know, it’s a colossal resource that we do waste.

DUBNER: Given that there is this massive inefficiency with all this empty capacity in cars, do you wish that hitchhiking could come back?

PISARSKI: Yeah, I think I do. And I think maybe we will see some opportunity for it with new technologies and people being more willing to spend time with each other and maybe having some kind of a vetting system that says, “this guy’s OK” that makes people, puts people a little bit more at ease. And then that will, I hope, help people to be more comfortable with that kind of an arrangement.

Slugging for those who don’t know is basically a kind of organized hitchhiking, where people just line up on the streets. Sometimes there’s a sign, sometimes there’s not.

We sent Alan Pisarski out on the streets of Arlington, Virginia, where there’s a healthy slugging scene.

PISARSKI: Everybody going to a certain area clusters together, cars will come along looking for people going their way so they can qualify to be on the HOV three lanes, which gives them a much faster ride down to the southern suburbs. We’re looking now at about seven or eight cars lined up to pick up people. When we ask folks questions we have to be pretty quick, a little bit nimble, almost like talking to people in a check-out line in the supermarket because they’re more interested in getting in the car and heading home.


I pull up every day…

And says three for Roslyn, three for Pentagon, three for Crystal City…

I might have to wait maybe five, ten minutes for a rider, and then I get on the road.

It saves me about $20 a day in commuting costs.

There’s website that actually has etiquette rules on it.

Don’t talk to a driver unless he talks to you, don’t touch anything in the car unless you ask the driver…

You get to ride in some pretty nice cars, too…

Don’t eat or drink in the car unless you ask…

It’s pretty nice little arrangement

So some people will talk to you the whole way down, some people will just keep their mouths shut.

I usually get home at the same time every day.

Slugging is a lot more organized than hitchhiking. And a lot of these people are government employees, wearing suits, and ID tags — so they don’t exactly conjure the image of the slaughterhouse hitchhiker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the creepy couple who kidnapped Colleen Stan. Of course, the normal risks of auto travel still apply.

WOMAN: I was a rider and the driver was falling asleep behind the wheel.

PISARSKI: Uh oh. Uh oh.

WOMAN: So you have to try to, you know, wake up! If you’re going to fall asleep, let me out I’ll find a way home, or try to keep your eyes open.

What are you scared of, and why? Are your fears rational? Or do you let the small likelihood of a terrible outcome stop you from doing things you really want to do? You know what I think we fear most in this country? Strangers. We’ve done a great job — through our media, our movies, our politics — of convincing ourselves that strangers are dangerous. But if you look at the data, you might be surprised. Three of every four murder victims in this country knew their killer, and of course each of us knows a lot fewer people than there are strangers. More than 60 percent of rape victims knew their attacker. If you look at the data on missing children, you’ll see that an incredibly small percentage of these incidents — way, way less than one-tenth of one percent — are what we think of as the stereotypical kidnapping by a stranger. Now, how dangerous was hitchhiking? We may never really know. But almost certainly far, far, far less dangerous than we came to think of it. Are we worse off for abandoning it? That’s what I asked Bill James.

DUBNER: So there was an equilibrium that existed, and then it was destroyed in large part because of fear. And the equilibrium went away, and it’s probably impossible to recreate.  Do you think it’d be a good thing if that fear could be suspended, the equilibrium could be recreated, and hitchhiking could be reinvigorated?

JAMES: Yes, I do. And the reason I do is that we have a better society when we can trust one another. And wherever and whenever there’s an evaporation of systems based on trust I think there’s a loss to society. I also think that one evaporation of trust in society tends to feed another, and that we would have a better society if we could, rather than promoting fear and working to reduce the places where terrible things happen, if we could promote trust and work on building societies in which people are more trustworthy. I think we’re all better off in a million different ways if and when we can do that.

So let’s see: our economy is still sputtering, which means money is tight for transportation and everything else. When we drive to work, 80 percent of our passenger capacity is wasted. And, as Bill James puts it, a loss of trust means a loss to society. So if you’re feeling a little bit patriotic today, a little bit optimistic, a little bit adventuresome — go ahead, stick your thumb out.

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