Danger Zone

March 25, 2002 | by James Bickers

The long list of published reports of recent crimes against pizza delivery drivers reads like a Tolstoy novel: long, grueling and disheartening. For example:

New Jersey, 1997: Two teenage boys make five calls before finding a pizzeria willing to deliver to their neighborhood. When the two drivers arrive at the vacant house, the boys kill them.

Oklahoma, 1990: A delivery driver is stabbed nine times in the neck and abdomen by a customer. The killer later brags of just killing "a pizza girl," is later caught, tried and sentenced to death.

 Ohio, 2001: Precious Canter, a 31-year-old mother of two, makes delivery run and is murdered in a residential neighborhood five blocks from a police station.

Pennsylvania, 1993: Two 16-year-olds, Dorian Lamore and Phillip Foxx, ordered a pizza with the intent to rob the driver. They shot the driver, fled a few blocks away, and calmly ate the pizza while the driver died on the sidewalk.

When it comes to documented dangers of pizza delivery, little information exists. A mix of studies about crimes committed against members of similar service industries and anecdotal accounts of crimes against drivers amounts to all that is available. For example:

The Pizza Drivers Web site claims that a pizza delivery driver is the third-most-likely employee to be murdered on the job, after police officer and taxi driver. Additionally, a press release from the National Center for Policy Analysis, states, "Workers who deal directly with the public by exchanging money and delivering goods and services face the greatest risk of being killed."

But the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't even rank pizza delivery driver among the top 15 most-dangerous jobs. Truck driver ranks number one, and in crime-troubled Los Angeles, the most dangerous job is convenience store clerk, according to a report by CBS News' Channel 2000.

Regardless of whether statistics corroborate the dangers of pizza delivery, it can be a risky business. The nature of the job -- drivers travel alone, make deliveries at night in neighborhoods with which they're not always familiar, and carry cash -- adds to delivery drivers' vulnerability. Additionally, most pizza companies forbid drivers to arm themselves for protection.

A classic case occurred in the late 1970s near Washington D.C. A pizza delivery driver was fired after he drove off a robber with his handgun. After that story was publicized, the area manager made the mistake of announcing on television that his drivers were all unarmed. The company then was plagued by a wave of robberies until the policy was changed, at which time robberies dropped dramatically.

Improving the Odds

Safety typically begins with recruiting and training. Procedures vary by company, but minimum age requirements are commonplace. Doug Phillips, marketing director for Abby's Legendary Pizza, a 35-store chain based in Eugene, Ore., requires that drivers be at least 21 and have no traffic tickets within the last three years. The employee's driving record is also checked twice each year.

Another fairly standard guideline is ensuring drivers carry as little cash as possible, often less than $20.

"It's important to make sure that drivers carry a limited amount of money," said Varal Ablak, president and CEO of Pittsburg, Pa.-based Pizza Outlet, which has 106 restaurants in five states. "If a driver gets robbed and has $100 on them, that's a green light to robbers."

Delivery drivers also report that vehicle advertising -- everything from custom-painted company fleets, to simple lighted car toppers -- can attract criminals. Companies like Pizza Outlet, whose drivers use their personal cars, allow drivers to remove advertising if they feel calling attention to themselves is risky. "That tends to help," Ablak said, because to criminals, marked delivery vehicles can be perceived as "moving targets."

Holly Ryan, public relations manager for Domino's Pizza said that the company trains drivers to head off trouble by leaving the area if they sense a problem.

"We train our people that if something doesn't feel right, to return to the store and make that follow-up call," Ryan said. As a result of those practices, she added, "it does not happen often that something serious happens."

Ablak also said that that follow-up call-backs also are used any time a red flag is raised, such as when a ticket price is unusually high, "or if there's something fishy," he says.

"Something fishy" might be as simple as addresses and phone numbers not matching up. To verify such details, pizzerias use a variety of technological solutions, from the simple to the highly evolved. Domino's phone systems employ Caller ID to verify delivery addresses, before the order is released.

"In our computer system we can verify that it's a legitimate delivery address," Ryan said. "And most of our stores do customer call-backs for after-dark orders, to say, 'We're on the way with your pizza,' especially if it's an area there is some concern over."

According to Phillips, Abby's point-of-sale system matches up addresses with the phone number given by the customer. If the address in the system does not match the address where the delivery is being requested, the manager makes a decision on how to proceed.

Call-backs are opportunities to "confirm the order," Ryan said. "But it's also an opportunity to make a customer service call -- basically to say, 'Hi, my name is so-and-so, I'm your driver, and I'll be at your house shortly. Would you please leave your light on to help me find your house?' "

Call-backs also help filter out bogus orders. If the phone number given and the address on the Caller ID do not match, the store calls the phone number which corresponds with the address where delivery has been requested.

"If it was a bogus order or a set-up, the customer would either say 'I didn't place an order' or 'Yes, I did place the order,' " Ryan said. "If anything else came out of it, it would be a suspicious order and the manager would get involved. For the most part, the opportunity for a suspicious order to come through would happen in that initial call, when the Caller ID didn't match up with the address given."

Neighborhood Issues

Pizza companies of all sizes have come under fire for their alleged use of "redlining," a practice wherein customers in designated areas are denied delivery because of safety concerns. Customers in those areas commonly claim the pizzeria operator's motive is racist rather than operational.

To prove a specific area is too dangerous for delivery, law enforcement officials recommend operators collect published reports about crimes committed in the area, and document any danger their drivers encounter in questionable neighborhoods. If customers complain that their area has been redlined, the operator at least has documentation that the area is unsafe.

Drivers also can travel in pairs to tough areas, or make a call on a cell phone to the pizza shop right when they arrive at a questionable destination. If trouble occurs, they can alert the person on the other end.

Remaining in their cars and having the customer come to the curb is another safe practice. Customers aren't always amenable to the arrangement, but it proves the operator is making a good-faith effort to provide both product and service to the all areas.

But overall, Ablak said, the curbside delivery approach might create more problems than it solves.

"When we go to hospitals, we call the people, they come down to the car and get the pizza. We do it to a lot of high-rises -- especially now with the tragedy of September 11, a lot of these buildings won't let you come in. But even in a case like that, the driver is at risk -- and I think even more so, because the person you're delivering to, you don't really know where they live."

Empowering the Driver

Perhaps the most important step that can be taken to ensure driver safety is the simplest of all: Allow drivers to use their best judgment.

"If a house is dark, [drivers] have some discretion to make the decision whether they want to approach the house," Phillips said. "In most cases, it's fine -- knock on wood. We have a very good safety record. We've had no driver robberies since I've been here, which is a little over four years."

Ablak and Ryan echo this sentiment, saying that drivers ultimately get to decide whether to go into a certain building.

"We tell our drivers, if you go to a place and you feel unsafe, and you don't want to get out of the car, you don't have to," said Ablak. "Their safety is the most important thing to us."

Topics: Crime, Independent Operation

James Bickers
James Bickers is the former senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications. wwwView James Bickers's profile on LinkedIn

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