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Thumbing it online

The romanticised idea of hitchhiking across the country in a stranger's company quickly disappeared after Ivan Milat's brutal backpacker murders. But as Lisa Rosman finds out, the Internet is helping to make hitching appealing again.

Hitchhiking, a way to travel once reserved for adventurous backpackers, is now turning mainstream in a society that is more digitally aware, environmentally concerned — and strapped for cash.

‘Was busted up along the highway, I’m the saddest ridin’ fool alive. Wondering if you’re goin’ in my way, won’t you give a poor boy a ride,’  sang Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of many musical acts that have used the mystery and charm of the lone hitching explorer in their lyrics. However, the adventurous travel-by-thumb nomads have found another way to go from A to B — online.

Websites, iPhone applications and even Hitchwiki (a Wikipedia branch for hitchers) are taking hitchhiking away from the roads and in to the convenience of our homes. After a decrease of hitchers in the early ’90s when Ivan Milat’s backpacker-murders terrified the nation, these safer options have hiked up the statistics of the amount of ride-catching travellers in Australia – even if we don’t see as many on our roads.

Pick Up Pal is an American online-based carpooling service that pairs drivers with passengers. The journeys vary from short lifts in to the city to cross country explorations, and have registered members in 50+ countries.

According to their website, their objective is to ‘bring real economic value to people while making a significant contribution towards the reduction of carbon emissions caused by ground transportation.’

Pick Up Pal has a large following in America where artists like The Dave Matthews Band and music companies such as Virgin encourage their fans to use the service when travelling to their events. Although it might not be as big or well known in Australia yet, it has successfully built quite a solid user base.

Queensland-based Pick up Pal user ‘Jason S’ planned to drive from Brisbane to Sydney on the 24 September, he is a frequent user of the site and says that the service allows him to not only save gas money but also ‘avoid a long boring drive in complete solitude’. He goes down to Sydney on a regular basis since his family lives there. ‘I probably wouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road,’ he says, ‘mostly because I know the laws vary on where you can or can’t pick them up.’

The laws do vary, according to the government website it is illegal to hitchhike in Queensland and Victoria whereas elsewhere it is only illegal to hitchhike on motorways. They strongly discourage hitchhiking by any means since ‘it simply is not worth the risk’.

Some travelers take that risk. English backpacker Helen Stanford has another approach to using the Internet for her travels. Although she is going to hitchhike up the Australian west coast ‘thumb up — old school style’ she posted an ad on Gumtree looking for a female companion to hitchhike with. ‘It’s always safer to go with someone else especially if you’re a girl… it’s just too risky to go alone, even though the majority of people who pick up hitchers probably only have good intentions in mind,’ she says when asked why she did not want to travel by herself. ‘Also, I have watched Wolf Creek recently and it creeped me out… I probably won’t end up going if I don’t get a travelling buddy,’ she adds.

Swedish travel journalist Malena Heed spent three months hitching up the east coast of Australia with a friend in 2007 and says she did not encounter any apparent dangers while doing it. ‘I had the time of my life and met so many cool people,’ she says, but adds that her mum ‘probably would have killed me herself” if she knew how she reached her numerous destinations down under. ‘I really understand that there are many dangers when travelling the way we did, but we never got in a car with sus [sic] people — and everyone were young backpackers like ourselves.’

However, the most dangerous aspect of hitchhiking is statistically not whom you get a lift with but where you hitch. The reason why it has been made illegal in many states is because of the amount of accidents that occur when people stand close to heavy trafficked and badly lit roads.

Deborah Pearse of Byron Youth Services facilitated the Safe Hitching Program in 2008 where she – together with young people of the community – worked to ‘inform [the public] of the dangers associated with hitchhiking and help them to make better-informed decisions when travelling around Byron.’

The program was initiated after a young local girl was killed when a car hit her as she was hitchhiking on a country road at sunset. With the help of a $5000 grant from the Ministry of Transport, as well as collections made by the Byron Youth Service, they were able to give reflective wristbands, stickers, mobile phone tags and bus timetables to the kids.

She says that in rural communities many youngsters hitchhike since there is a lack of public transport to get them home after school, work or after a night out. ‘We knew we might not be able to stop them from doing it since that would probably take policy changes when it comes to public transport in rural areas — we wanted them to make educated choices when deciding where to stand and who to go with.’

According to Pearse the project should be regarded a success not only because many young people said that they never considered hitching to be dangerous before the program, but also because it helped the younger generation deal with the death of a peer and ‘have something positive come out of her death’.

If you choose to hitchhike, either online or by the side of the road remember — safety first. Never get in a car if you feel unsure about the driver – even if you have already ‘met’ him or her on the World Wide Web.

Lisa Rosman is a final year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.

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