VANCOUVER - Hitchhiking season is well underway in northern British Columbia, and that means Prof. Jacqueline Holler regularly drives by people hoping for a lift along Highway 16, not far from her home in the Prince George area.
For some people living in the region, where a grim history of missing and murdered women has earned Highway 16 the nickname the Highway of Tears, thumbing rides is a fact of life.
"Some are travelling, some are going tree planting, some are just coming into Prince George to do some shopping," says Holler, who teaches gender studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.
"I don't see that changing, especially with diminishing transportation options in the north."
Holler is currently working with the RCMP to study hitchhiking in northern B.C.
When they're finished, she hopes to better understand what leads people to choose hitchhiking and what governments can do to make them safer — either by offering safe, affordable transportation options or putting in measures to make hitchhiking itself less dangerous.
At least 18 women and girls, many of them aboriginal, have been murdered or disappeared along Highway 16 and the adjacent Highways 5 and 97 since 1969.
Many of them were believed to be hitchhiking when they were last seen alive, and some of the recommendations for the Highway of Tears have focused on the dangers associated with hitchhiking and a lack of transportation linking remote communities and First Nations reserves.
"Hitchhiking takes on a particular importance in the Highway of Tears discussion because there are serious transportation needs that aren't being met in the north," said Holler, who stressed that not all Highway of Tears victims were hitchhikers.
"The easy solution is to say, 'Don't ever hitchhike, and you're much less likely to become a victim,' but it's just not that simple. For many people, hitchhiking is an absolute necessity."
The RCMP approached Holler and her colleagues about the possibility of studying hitchhiking, and they officially launched the project in September 2012.
Holler and her fellow researchers developed an online survey to ask hitchhikers about themselves and their experiences, while the RCMP has directed its traffic officers in the north to stop and gather information from hitchhikers they come across.
At the same time, several commercial courier companies installed GPS devices in their trucks to allow drivers to indicate where they see hitchhikers with the press of a button.
Holler said the project has recorded a diverse group of hitchhikers that range in age from their mid-teens to their 70s. Some say they hitchhike out of necessity, while others say they actually prefer it as a way to get around.
Aboriginals appear to be overrepresented, said Holler, likely because many First Nations people live in remote communities and may not have the resources to afford a car.
The one thing the hitchhikers have in common is that they continue to take rides despite the repeated warnings about the dangers of hitchhiking — a message echoed on a series of billboards along Highway 16.
The Mounties have shifted their messaging to reflect that inevitability.
While the force still discourages hitchhiking, it also launched a poster campaign last year with safety tips, such as ensuring hitchhikers tell someone where they are going and when they expect to arrive.
Staff Sgt. Pat McTiernan said traffic officers who come across hitchhikers approach them for the study, hand out safety information and, if the person is in a dangerous area, offer a ride to somewhere safe.
"We can talk to people about not hitchhiking, but the reality is, you're still going to have people (who hitchhike)," he said.
The Highway of Tears has been studied several times in recent in years, including a First Nations symposium in 2006 that made 33 recommendations and the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, which in December 2012 called for urgent action to improve transportation along Highway 16.
Recommendations have included a shuttle system and other measures to address hitchhiking.
The provincial government has yet to announce any significant plans to address the Highway of Tears, and it has faced criticism that it has been slow to respond to the Pickton inquiry report.
The province's justice minister has insisted the highway is safer, and she has singled out Holler's hitchhiking study as an example of work that's being done to improve it.
Holler wants to expand her study to invite participants from across Canada and to send researchers out into the field to talk to hitchhikers in person, instead of relying on the Internet, which may leave some potential respondents out.
But that sort of work costs money, and so far Holler's requests for provincial government funding, such as a grant from B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office, have been turned down.
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