The Severed Thumb

Hitch-hikers have been driven off the roads

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th March 1999.

When I get sent to Hell, I won’t be plunged into the fiery furnace. The Devil will turn me, instead, into a professional driver. I will be damned to spend eternity driving around that first circle of torment, the M25, stressed out, furious and, above all, isolated from my fellow human beings. I will be deprived of the only possible benefit of car journeys: talking to someone with that strange intensity which sometimes accompanies a conversation held at speed. My fate, in other words, will be that of the millions of lost souls whom our diabolically stupid transport policies condemn to travel alone.

There used to be salvation on the trunk road network. Just a few years ago, on almost every motorway junction stood a man or woman with a rucksack and a piece of cardboard. The company, it has to be said, was of variable quality, but it was company none the less. Today, on the rare occasions on which I borrow one of devil’s chariots, I find the curbs empty. The tourists and poorer residents taking advantage of private transport’s preposterous over-capacity have been driven off the roads.

It’s not entirely surprising that the hitch-hikers have disappeared. The unpredictability of those encounters contained, of course, a hazard, for both drivers and hikers. The terrible death of the French tourist Celine Figard, three years ago, effectively brought hitch-hiking in Britain to an end. Even before she was killed, the practice had attracted so much unfair publicity and so many spooky films that everyone standing on the verge had begun to look like either a psychopath or a victim.

But something else has happened which has kept the poor and footloose off the roads. Offering people lifts was one of the last outlets for hospitality in a land in which almost all other forms have disappeared. Mrs Thatcher’s announcement that there was no such thing as society was not a belief but a manifesto. Her programme was achieved with remarkable speed.

Shared households were broken up. Houseboats, gypsies and travellers were purged. Public transport was run down and people forced into cars, in which the most articulate communication is the shaken fist. And everything, visible or otherwise, was given a cost. No one would do anything for anyone unless there was an immediate material advantage for themselves. Indeed, human interaction became an official liability: lorry drivers picking up hitch-hikers can be dismissed for “invalidating their insurance”.

Today, almost the only people still hitch-hiking are the people employed to deliver cars. And, in this case, our residual hospitality is being ruthlessly exploited. The delivery people are paid just £50 a day, from which they must find their own expenses. If they took the train back home, in other words, they would wipe out all their earnings. Forcing them to hitch is the perfect externalisation of their employers’ costs: by helping the individuals, we’re subsidising one of the most vicious business practices in Britain.

But it might just be possible to rescue one of the last means we possess to meet strangers in Britain. The social justice campaigner Guy Horton has devised a scheme which could cross both the barrier of fear and the barrier of selfishness. He proposes a sort of hitch-hikers’ guild. Members, who would pay a small fee, could be screened: anyone with a record of violent crime would be excluded. The guild would set a rate per mile at which the hiker could contribute to the motorists’ costs. It would be much cheaper than most public transport, but just enough to encourage drivers to pick people up.

Drivers would get a windscreen sticker, hitch-hikers a placard, to show that they had joined the club. A more sophisticated system, arranged on the Net, might allow drivers and hikers to organise a pickup point. If members had to submit a password, this would also leave a record of who had picked up whom.

It might all sound a little far-fetched, but an informal, unvetted scheme a bit like this runs in Poland: hitch-hikers buy coupons which can be exchanged for petrol by the motorists who pick them up. Hitching, as a result, remains an important mode of transport. Cars are generally full, so the roads are less congested, the poor can travel almost as easily as the rich and, astonishingly, people even talk to each other. It could just be the means by which a spot of the social glue that Mrs Thatcher dissolved is allowed to set once more.