Vol. 80, No. 1On the leading edge

A male police officer and three researchers look at papers in front of a police cruiser alongside a remote highway.

Highway 16

Study looks at who hitchhikes and why

Researchers and the RCMP collaborated in a joint study to learn more about the prevalence and reasons for hitchhiking in northern British Columbia. Credit: University of Northern British Columbia


As autumn tints the trembling aspens outside Prince George, B.C., roadside hitchhikers are a common sight. The 720-kilometre Highway 16 corridor from Prince George to Prince Rupert is a vital link for many small municipalities and more than 20 First Nations communities.

The highway is well known for another reason. Today, most Canadians have heard about the tragic disappearances and murders of girls and women along the "Highway of Tears." Often, these girls and women were hitchhiking when last seen. At the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), we are attempting to understand hitchhiking and its links to victimization in northern B.C.

Murders and disappearances on northern B.C.'s highways have occurred for more than 40 years. But they remained relatively unknown for decades perhaps because the majority of the missing and murdered on northern B.C.'s highways are Indigenous. Communities and family members have repeatedly alleged that police and communities were originally indifferent or inattentive to the cases because most involved First Nations girls and women.

Public concern over the disappearances culminated in two significant developments. First, in 2005, the RCMP's E-Pana task force was created to investigate whether a serial killer was responsible for disappearances along B.C.'s highways from 1969 to 2006. Second, in 2006, a Highway of Tears Symposium was held in Prince George, resulting in a report that made multiple recommendations.

Because many of the disappearances were linked to hitchhiking, the symposium recommended bus service along Highway 16 and obligatory RCMP assistance to any hitchhiking female fitting the victim profile. Finally, participants in the symposium suggested a potential study of the "hitchhiking season," a poorly understood period between spring and late fall in which hitchhiking seems to peak on northern highways.

In 2012, Insp. Eric Brewer of the RCMP North District Traffic Services approached me and another UNBC faculty member, Roy Rea, to discuss the possibility of a joint research project that would produce a better understanding of hitchhiking. We developed two linked independent studies to examine the prevalence and nature of hitchhiking in northern B.C. These studies were designed to improve understanding and support evidence-based decision making.

Highway hot spots

Roy Rea developed an ingenious Geographic Information System console that could be easily installed in commercial vehicles and used by drivers to identify locations and times when they saw hitchhikers. He was able to produce maps of peak hitchhiking locations and times along Highway 16.

From 2012 to 2015, my research assistants and I worked both with the RCMP and independently to document the reasons for and experiences of hitchhiking.

Our study involved three components.

First, we operated an online survey that asked participants where, when and why they hitchhiked. In addition, the survey solicited information about victimization, substance use and recruitment into criminal activity. More than 170 detailed surveys were completed, generating much rich data.

In the second part of our study, North District RCMP interacted with hitchhikers they encountered on the highways. Hitchhikers were given information packages containing tips for safer hitchhiking, invitations to participate in the online surveys and interviews, and gift cards from a well-known coffee chain. We were able to fund this part of the study with a small grant from UNBC's National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.

According to C/Supt. Lesley Bain, head of North District RCMP, officers who participated in the study were specifically directed by management to consider offering a ride to hitchhikers should they be concerned about the individual's safety. Safety factors that officers considered included weather conditions, availability of commercial transport, and the mental and physical state of the hitchhiker.

Using the provincial police database, officers recorded hitchhikers' gender and ethnic identities, time and location of the traffic stop and their reasons for hitchhiking. The resulting anonymous data were shared with the research team.

The third component, funded by a Civil Forfeiture grant from the Ministry of Justice, involved in-person interviews with hitchhikers. Our research team travelled all over the province to get a sense of how hitchhiking in the north might be different from hitchhiking in southern B.C.; after all, these two regions are quite different in climate, population and even culture.

We recruited participants through posters placed at truck stops, libraries, friendship centres and shelters across the province. We talked to hitchhikers in these same locations from Haida Gwaii and the northernmost Alaska Highway all the way south to Victoria. In the end, we spoke to a broad cross-section of the population, from well-paid professionals and adventurers to homeless and street-involved people.

Profile of a hitchhiker

While we are still analyzing data, several key themes stand out.

First, from the RCMP data we learned quite a bit about the hitchhikers encountered by police on northern highways. Over two-thirds were male, and Indigenous people were greatly overrepresented among them (70 per cent of all stops). Hitchhikers' ages ranged between 16 and 60; the youngest person stopped was an Indigenous youth.

From our survey participants, we learned more about some differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous hitchhikers. A slight majority of our hitchhikers said they didn't have enough money. But our Indigenous participants were much more likely to be poor. Perhaps even more importantly, Indigenous respondents were significantly more likely than non-Indigenous people to have hitchhiked at the age of 16 years or younger. Because youth are so vulnerable to victimization, this is a critical point for policy and policing interventions.

We asked our participants whether they had ever been physically threatened or hurt, sexually threatened or hurt, "come on to" sexually, offered drugs or alcohol, or pressured or forced into a gang or sex work while hitchhiking. Seventy-one percent said "yes" to at least one of these questions. The most common of these was being offered drugs or alcohol during a ride.

Also common were sexual come-ons, which were reported by both men and women. Women, however, were significantly more likely to report being pressured into prostitution while hitchhiking. In addition, women had more experiences of confinement and extreme violence.

In some cases, girls and women who refused offers of money for sex had to jump out of moving cars after drivers refused to release them. Others reported being forcibly confined, sexually assaulted and, in one case, gang-raped and beaten.

Strikingly, very few of our participants said they had reported these incidents to police. Only eight people had ever told the police about anything that happened to them. Asked why, one participant said, "The police are scary too." Hitchhikers' distrust of police emerged in many surveys and interviews, even though we also heard specific stories of police assistance to hitchhikers.

Our in-person interviews reinforced some of the information from our online surveys, but gave us an even more detailed portrait of hitchhiking. One stand-out is why people start hitchhiking. Many people question the sanity of young women in particular who hitchhike. But often, people hitchhike in their teens because they are trying to get away from a bad situation.

One woman said that she had started hitchhiking as a young teenager because she wanted to "sort of feel independent," but also because "I have a pretty, um, bad family history." Another participant reported that her parents' drug use and abusive friends had driven her from the home. Any intervention that tries to prevent teens from hitchhiking by simply picking them up and dropping them home is missing the stories behind why many teens are on the highway in the first place.

People also have other reasons for hitchhiking that should be taken into consideration. Northern B.C. is much larger than Germany or the United Kingdom. Yet it has only about 250,000 people, and services are concentrated in a few key locations, especially Prince George.

People need to travel northern B.C.'s highways to visit medical professionals, access social services, work and even (increasingly) buy groceries. Northern British Columbians are highly mobile individuals without many transportation options other than private cars. Hitchhiking results.

Today, our research team continues to analyze all of our data and write up results for publication. We have also begun to communicate our results. In June 2017, I gave presentations to six Indigenous communities in and around Burns Lake, B.C., in partnership with the Burns Lake RCMP detachment.

The same week we were delivering our presentations, the B.C. government unveiled the long-awaited bus service recommended by the 2006 symposium. As of June, two bus lines service Highway 16 between Prince George and Burns Lake, and between Burns Lake and Smithers.

Many northerners are hoping that the bus service will reduce or end widespread hitchhiking in the north. In partnership with Burns Lake RCMP Traffic Services, my team and I will be studying this question to find out whether the bus service has an impact on hitchhiking throughout the week, and whether the group most vulnerable to victimization — young women — is using the bus.

While our research is ongoing, it demonstrates the importance of understanding hitchhiking instead of simply condemning it. Indeed, any attempt to reduce hitchhiking should begin with an honest appraisal of local and community conditions and transportation options.

Our study also demonstrates, I hope, the strong potential for collaboration among academic researchers, the RCMP and local communities on projects that seek to improve the safety and health of our communities.

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