13 November 2010

Don't believe the hype

Why the fear of hitchhiking outweighs the actual risk involved.

I spent the day researching bad things that have befallen hitchhikers on Australian roads. It’s a peek into the darker recesses of humanity so I don’t care to dwell on it long, but since you’ll ask anyway...

First up, hitchhiking is legal everywhere in the country, as long as it's done from the curb. It is illegal to create a traffic hazard by "moving onto the road" to hitchhike in some states and fines apply. The law has certainly not reacted the rapes and murders involving hitchhiking.  

As for those, hitchhiking hit the headlines in the 1970s when six young women were killed thumbing rides in Queensland. Another woman disappeared in Sydney's northern beaches in the late 70's and a cold-case inquest now - in 2011 - has heard she may have been abducted while hitchhiking home from a party.

In the 1990s, Ivan Milat gave hitching a particularly bad rap when he murdered seven backpackers and dumped their bodies in a forest south of Sydney. That’s despite the fact that only Simone Schmidl is known to have been hitchhiking when she had the terrible misfortune of meeting him.

No more than a dozen other people are known to have met such misfortune since then, although an assortment of media reports speculate that as many as 30 people may have been killed hitching in that time.

In the most famous real-life drama since Milat, Bradley John Murdoch flagged down Peter Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees in the outback south of Tennant Creek in 2001. She managed to escape by hiding in the salt scrub. He was not so lucky.

The psychological-thriller Wolf Creek fed heavily on the public fear generated by the many headlines over successive years about Falconio’s murder. And of course, it nourished that fear too.  

Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics on the actual dangers of hitchhiking, but I suspect there’s greater chance of being picked up by a dangerous driver than by a serial killer. There are certainly more bad drivers out there.

Several studies on perceptions of crime by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research have found that “Australians greatly exaggerate the risks associated with most major categories of crime”. The reason? Because “All too often, media reporting of crime and justice is distorted, selective and sensationalist.”

Yes, the media loves a good crime story, and many outlets have no scruples about ramping up the fear as much as possible. 

As a result, I’d say the fear of hitchhiking far outweighs the actual risk involved.

All the same, I’ll be texting the number plate of every car I get into to friends back home. Because, you know, you can’t be too careful these days!


Flamestar said...

How much does the risk change if you are female?
Many women are taught to be wary of strangers, particularly men, and this too is re-enforced by the media's coverage of violent crime and sexual abuse.
As a woman I have as much right to be safe on this earth as a man, but I worry that a lone female getting into a strangers car could be easily misconstrued, by the wrong type of person.

dayoff2 said...

Mate - you are going the wrong way - Darwin is the other way, you will never get there unless you start heading Nth West.