The Hazards of Hitchhiking


On a hot summer day in 1990, 24-year-old British backpacker Paul Onions was hitchhiking on the Hume Highway, south of Sydney, Australia. Paul was grateful when a stranger stopped to give him a lift. He had no idea that accepting it would very nearly cost him his life. *

OBLIVIOUS to danger, Paul sat in the front seat of the vehicle and chatted with the driver. Within minutes the seemingly benevolent driver became aggressive and argumentative. Then the driver suddenly pulled over, saying that he wanted to get some music tapes from under the seat. He took out, not tapes, but a gun—which he pointed at Paul’s chest.

Ignoring the driver’s command to stay seated, Paul ripped off his seat belt, dove out of the car, and ran with all his might up the highway. The driver chased him on foot, in full view of other motorists. He finally overtook him, grabbed him by his T-shirt, and flung him to the ground. Breaking free, Paul ran in front of an oncoming van, forcing the frightened driver, a mother with children, to stop. At Paul’s pleading, the mother let him in, swung the van across the median, and sped away. Only later would Paul’s attacker be identified as a serial killer who had murdered seven backpackers, some of whom were hitchhiking in pairs.

What made these victims such appealing targets for the murderer? At the killer’s trial, the judge noted: “Each of the victims was young. They  were between 19 and 22 years old. Each was travelling far from home, the inference being that they would not have been missed for some time if anything happened to them.”

Freedom to Roam

International travel is within the reach of far more people today than it was just a few years ago. For example, within a five-year period, the number of Australians visiting Asia more than doubled. In search of experience or adventure, streams of teenagers and young adults board airplanes bound for far-off destinations. Many of these travelers plan to hitchhike to keep their expenses to a minimum. Unfortunately, in most parts of the world, hitchhiking is no longer the interesting and relatively safe mode of travel that it once was—either for the hitchhikers or for those who pick them up.

A positive attitude and enthusiasm for travel simply cannot substitute for coolheaded, practical wisdom. “Eagerness to travel often means that young people depart insufficiently prepared for the journey and without fully understanding the dangers or their responsibilities,” observes a booklet written for families searching for missing children.

The booklet adds: “People who travel with an organised tour group, on business, or who follow well planned itineraries rarely go missing. Whether in Australia or in another country, most people who are eventually classified as missing, seem to be those who back-pack and travel on the cheap.”

Whether one is hitchhiking or not, traveling without an itinerary—although attractive to some who do not want to feel tied down—can leave a person more vulnerable to harm. When relatives and friends are in the dark about a traveler’s whereabouts, they are not in a position to be of much help in case of emergency. For instance, what if a traveler wound up unconscious in a hospital and no one back home knew where he was?

Keeping in Touch

In his book Highway to Nowhere, British journalist Richard Shears wrote about seven missing hitchhikers who had “abruptly stopped communicating with their families and friends.” Of course, at first, families may not be sure whether their relatives have disappeared or are just not keeping in touch. This can make them reluctant to alert the authorities when they do not hear from the travelers.

One of the hitchhikers had often had telephone conversations with her parents cut short when she ran out of change. Considering this in hindsight, her parents urged families to provide their children with phone cards or some other means to call home. While this may not have saved the life of this young woman, regular communication can often help the traveler to avoid, or at least deal with, lesser difficulties.

The seven backpackers who lost their lives may have read the travel books that call Australia one of the safest countries in the world for hitchhikers. Nevertheless, hitchhiking once again proved to be foolhardy—even in pairs and even in the “safest” of countries.


^ par. 3 It should be noted that in some places hitchhiking is illegal.

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Parents can avoid undue worry by providing their children with phone cards or some other means to call home