WASHINGTON – Carjackings are the kind of crime that has become an accepted reality in many parts of Maryland, a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But on an average of once a week last year there were carjackings that could have been avoided if victims simply kept driving. These involved hitchhikers, or people posing as them, preying on the generosity of motorists.
Last year, Maryland police agencies received 59 reports of carjackings that occurred when a driver stopped for a hitchhiker or soon after giving a lift, according to a Capital News Service analysis of state carjacking data from 1995 to 2004, the last year for which complete data is available.
And in the last decade the situation has not changed much, with the state encountering a yearly average of 60 hitchhiking carjackers.
As a percentage of overall carjackings, however, incidents involving hitchhikers have decreased over the same period. During the most recent peak in 1995, when 90 were reported, hitchhikers accounted for 10 percent of all carjackings, whereas last year hitchhiking carjackers constituted just 6 percent.
That figure may be more a result of the fact that total carjackings in Maryland have been on a steep ascent in recent years, with a particularly dramatic jump from 773 in 2003 to 1,034 the following year. Much of that increase can be pinpointed to Prince George’s County, which for the past three years has accounted for over half of the state’s carjackings.
Baltimore City runs a distant second to Prince George’s County in total carjackings, but from 1995 to 2004 the jurisdiction is tops in incidents involving hitchhikers. It holds this distinction despite having just an “average” rating as a hitchhiking spot on digihitch.com, a Web site popular among those thumbing for a ride nationwide.
A carjacking is generally defined as an attempt to obtain someone’s vehicle while the victim is either inside or near it. Aside from hitchhikers, the data also categorizes carjackings into circumstances such as being stopped in traffic, being parked or encountering a staged accident or car trouble.
The data also shows that the factors affecting whether you get carjacked — such as time, location and the kind of car you’re driving — are variable, making for an often-complicated solution. But when it comes to hitchhiking carjackers, state law enforcement officials have some rather glib advice: Don’t pick anyone up, period.
“You can’t look at someone and judge if they’re going to rob or carjack you,” said Sgt. Rob Moroney, a 20-year veteran of the Maryland State Police. “They may seem nice, and the next minute, they’ve robbed you, taken your car and threatened you.”
The American Automobile Association has no formal guidelines on picking up hitchhikers, but generally advises against the practice.
“In today’s society, it can be a hazard not only for drivers, but for hitchhikers as well,” said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Still, there are a good number of hitchhiking loyalists and old-school pioneers out there, who lament its nosedive perception-wise since its heyday a couple of generations ago.
“I pick them up, every single one,” said Mark Holmberg, a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch who has hitchhiked for 35 years and empathizes with those trying to catch a ride.
Holmberg also understands the risks involved — having fended off several unsavory characters in his time — and considers himself to be savvy and weathered enough to handle what could happen. For all the other less-experienced drivers who find they might end up reporting a carjacking under the category “Hitchhiking Passenger,” Moroney suggests an immediate rest stop.
“If you’re later feeling uneasy, pull into a place where there’s lots of people and it’s lit, like a gas station, rest area or shopping center” and make the person leave, Moroney said.
He even extended his words of caution to pulling over to aid motorists with disabled cars. In an age where cell phones are standard issue, he said, there is no reason for drivers to put themselves at risk.
“When a car breaks down, we get no less than 10 calls,” Moroney said. “Let us handle it. We’ll gladly send a trooper out.” – 30 – CNS-12-15-05