Hitchhiking and other pedestrian pursuits

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If gas prices continue to soar, we are likely to resume the random form of transportation debated so much in the l929 and l975 sessions of Maine’s Legislature.

With the price of gas poised to soar to record levels – up some 20 cents a gallon just in the last four weeks – we’re beginning to hear more about alternatives to our normal methods of getting from one place to another. This is especially true here in Maine, where we are more likely than most others in New England to experience formidable distances between the places we live and the places we work, go to school and buy groceries. In a poor state, our personal pocketbooks are less likely to find the cost of making trips between these places affordable.

The looming gas crisis coupled with the advent of the tourist and vacation season will soon offer up a renewed incidence of one of the oldest solutions for the dilemma: hitchhiking.

As one of the earliest and most impromptu forms of car pooling, hitchhiking was a hotly contested item on our state’s legislative agenda at the time of an earlier energy crisis, the Arab oil embargoes of the l970s. In this regard it’s worth taking a look at how our Legislature addressed the issue, which was the time when it created our present law on the subject.

At the time the l975 Legislature sat down to give us the law we have today, hitchhiking had been illegal in our state since l929, when hitchhiking was one of the most talked-about items in the l929 session. At that time, outlawing the practice stemmed from a perception that hitchhikers were often so far into the road that they created a risk to both themselves as well as vehicles that swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid them. Our l929 lawmakers also heeded the complaints of some motorists who feared retribution from hitchhikers they refused to pick up, a few hitchhikers shouting verbal obscenities at drivers who didn’t take the time to give them a lift.

Subsequent attempts to soften the l929 enactment – which included both the possible sanction of a $50 fine and a 30-day jail sentence – went nowhere until the l975 session, despite the similarity of the law to another ban of the l920s, prohibition. Like the law that made liquor illegal, the measure against hitchhiking was one where police usually looked the other way.

Push for the l975 legalization of hitchhiking, like that which had recently lowered both drinking and voting ages to l8, came from a youth driven constituency. Its sponsor was Orono Rep. Richard Davies, whose district included thousands of newly enfranchised college students at the University of Maine.

Davies argued his cause not only on behalf of students, who due to rising energy costs were unable to afford either the operation or the purchase of a car, but also in the name of working people and the elderly “who are finding that the price of gasoline at 55 cents a gallon or more is just too much for them to afford.”

Among those who opposed the bill was Lewiston Rep. George Call, who invoked the memory of two Auburn drivers killed some years earlier by hitchhikers to whom they had offered rides. The concerns raised by Call prompted a Cumberland County lawmaker, Portland attorney Richard Spencer, to offer a personal testimonial to his own extensive hitchhiking experience, which he coupled with a recommendation for addressing its risks. On the one hand, Spencer advised motorists to request documented IDs from proposed hitchhikers, through the crack of a slightly rolled-down window. As for the plight of a hitchhiker who himself feels threatened by a misbehaving driver, Spencer advised feigning intestinal car sickness as a way of winning one’s release.

Davies attracted to his cause a broad array of both Democrats and Republicans, and the statute we have today, one that permits daytime hitchhiking by those standing outside the traveled portion of most public ways, passed overwhelmingly.

The safety concerns voiced by Lewiston’s Call during the l975 hitchhiking debate are, nevertheless, a reason why many today forgo the practice. One never knows who and in what condition one will encounter a driver, on the one hand, or a hitchhiker on the other. The precautions advocated by Spencer are not today – even if they might have been in his time – effective solutions to the mutual risks encountered by the two parties who choose to collaborate in the endeavor.

It is still, however, a consensual, personal decision, and one that has attracted prominent adherents from opposite ends of the political spectrum. A founder of the Maine Green Party, Greg Gerritt, for example, was an avid practitioner in west-central Maine for many years, finding that it was the ultimate endorsement of personal energy conservation.

Poles apart politically from Gerritt is conservative activist and retired college professor John Frary of Farmington, chairman of the Franklin County GOP Committee, who never owned a car until he was 62 and who didn’t learn to drive until he was 44. Frary was not as ardent a hitchhiker as Gerritt. But his march to the beat of his own drummer philosophy inspired him to resort to many forms of ride solicitation including hitchhiking. (His social life once being a bit more liberal than his political philosophy, Frary explained that he was in his youth subjected to warnings not to drink and drive, “So I decided not to drive.”)

If gas prices continue to soar more Mainers are likely to resume the random form of transportation debated so much in the l929 and l975 sessions of Maine’s Legislature. For nearly all of them, it will not be their first choice, but will for some be their only choice, a roadside illustration of the dilemma that is confronting us all.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail at pmills@midmaine.com.

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