The road is, and has always been, a dangerous place. It is neither necessarily more nor less safe to travel upon the highways of today than it was years, decades, generations, or even centuries or millennia past. This, at least, is my claim.
There have always been imminent and looming perils associated with leaving the familiarity and relative comfort of one’s community and the support network it provides. The risks associated with striking out upon the road to places afar have always been manifold. There are the possibilities of losing one’s way, bearings, or direction, or generally veering off course and into treacherous terrain. There is the potential for overexposure to the elements and succumbing to unanticipated forces of nature. There is the likelihood of experiencing a mechanical break down, be it a lame foot on the path, damaged hoof on the trail, broken wagon wheel on the road, busted fan belt on the highway, or blown-out Firestone Wilderness AT on the freeway. And what's more, there is the plausibility of running short of food, water, fuel, currency, or something or other with which to buy, barter, or secure credit for these or other essential resources or services related to succor, shelter, and locomotion. Distancing oneself from the security and safety of one’s home is simply a chancier proposition than staying put.
Then, there are the human nature factors–likely either the most helpful or harmful of all variables when it comes to roadway travel. While there are far more kind, or at least benign, people to be encountered “out there,” still there are those characters bent on doing harm to travelers in their moments of greatest vulnerability. Such are the random opportunists and the calculating predators, alike. The swindler. The thief. The pillager. The mugger. The kidnapper. The hijacker. The rapist. The murderer. The highwayman!
The term highwayman, defined as a person who robs travelers on the public roads, originated in England in the middle of the 1600s. About highwaymen are these words written in the 1800s:
"Whatever might be the way in which a journey was performed, the travellers, unless they were numerous and well armed, ran considerable risk of being stopped and plundered. The mounted highwayman, a marauder known to our generation only from books, was to be found on every main road. The waste tracts which lay on the great routes near London were especially haunted by plunderers of this class. Hounslow Heath, on the Great Western Road, and Finchley Common, on the Great Northern Road, were perhaps the most celebrated of these spots. The Cambridge scholars trembled when they approached Epping Forest, even in broad daylight. Seamen who had just been paid off at Chatham were often compelled to deliver their purses on Gadshill, celebrated near a hundred years earlier by the greatest of poets as the scene of the depredations of Falstaff. The public authorities seem to have been often at a loss how to deal with the plunderers." Thomas Babington Macaulay. The History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol. 1, Ch. 3, The State of England in 1685, Philadelphia, Porter & Coates.
More recently, the common belief is that there are again more dangers out on the open road in current times than in prior generations. That, for example, in the 1990s it was more unsafe than in the 1970s; in the 1970s it was more so than the 1950s. And so on, back in time. And, that dabbling nowadays in the realm of hitchhiking, in particular, is about as risky a form of road travel as there possibly can be. “Do not hitchhike and, for goodness sake, certainly don’t ever pick up a hitchhiker. It’s not like it used to be, you know!” These are some of the perennial warnings resurrected annually as anew. “It was safer back then. People were nicer and it was a more innocent time. The world is a more desperate place. There are more nuts and perverts and psychos out there today.” I think not! As it is with most things, it is hardly ever like it used to be or what one chooses to hearken back to.