February 17, 2014 |

Pizza Delivery: Street Smart

By Nora Caley

Photo by Josh KeownPizza delivery can be dangerous, but there is some good news. The job is not as dangerous as people think, and technology can help make the work safer.

Although pizza delivery is often mentioned as one of the ten most dangerous occupations, no such list exists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of 4,609 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2011, 759 of those deaths were among driver/sales workers and truck drivers. Pizza delivery drivers would indeed be included in that category, says Andrew Kato, an economist with the Occupational Safety and Health Statistics program of the BLS. But the segment also includes, for example, drivers who pick up or deliver laundry on a regular route.

“We are not aware of anyone who has data with such a specific occupational coding system that they would be able to identify specifically pizza delivery personnel,” Kato says.

Still, a glance at daily headlines prove it’s not the safest job in the world. The way the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) explains it, factors that put drivers at risk include working with the public, working with cash, working alone, working at night and working in high-crime areas. In addition, pizza delivery drivers risk being injured or killed in traffic accidents, or even slipping on the stairs of a customer’s home.

Operators know they have to do more than tell drivers to carry less than $20 and to turn back if a delivery address looks suspicious. Mark Scriven, district manager for delivery and takeout for Austin, Texas-based Gatti’s Pizza, says 50 to 55 percent of delivery orders are paid with credit cards. That decreases the amount of cash the drivers carry, making them less of a crime target. For the cash orders, the safe box and the point of sale system have controls. “A screen pops up, and you can’t get the ticket for another delivery unless you drop the money,” Scriven says.

Another way to protect drivers is to simply avoid delivering to high crime rate areas. At the Farmers Branch, Texas-based Mr. Jim’s Pizza, some addresses are eligible for delivery during the day and not at night, and other addresses are not eligible for delivery at all. “It’s all geocoded,” explains Jim Johnson, founder and owner of the 53-unit Mr. Jim’s. “If you are in an address where we don’t deliver, the system doesn’t let you in.”

Cell phones can also help keep drivers safe. While some robberies are crimes of opportunity — the criminal sees a delivery vehicle with a car topper and decides to strike — other crimes are setups, in which the caller orders a pizza, directs the driver to an empty, perhaps foreclosed house, and robs the person.

Operators can avoid the latter scenario, says Marla Topliff, president of Elgin, Illinois-based Rosati’s Pizza. The driver can return to the store, or remain in the car and call the store. Then someone calls the customer. “We say, ‘We are about to deliver to you and we want to verify your address,’ or, ‘Our driver is lost, can you describe the area?’” Topliff says. “If the delivery was not valid they will not take the call. They won’t go to all the trouble to reconfirm the order.”

Tragically, a driver for Rosati’s Pizza was killed in 2006. The driver hit redial on her cell phone just before she was beaten to death, a move that helped authorities find the killer, who was eventually sentenced to 81 years in prison. Defense attorneys maintained that the murderer panicked when the driver followed him into the house, a detail that seemed unlikely because drivers for the 150-unit Rosati’s are told never to enter a customer’s home. Not only is it unsafe for the driver, but they can be accused of stealing or worse. “We’ve seen it all,” Topliff says.

Rosati’s Pizza also limits its liability by hiring contractors instead of employees. Drivers sign a form indicating they read the safety handbook and they recognize they are contractors. That can be legally tricky, so check with your attorney about employee versus contractor issues.

There are other hazards besides crime, says Tim Ridout, owner of the one-unit Big Rounds Pizza in Ravenna, Michigan. “It’s dark out here at night, and many customers don’t know what porch lights are,” Ridout says. “Or you deliver the pizza, and as you’re turning around and walking down the stairs they turn off their lights so you’re in pitch black.”

Sometimes when it snows customers with four-wheel drive vehicles ask the deliverer to meet them at the end of their unplowed road. Large chains likely wouldn’t allow this, says Ridout, who delivered for a chain before he opened Big Rounds in 2009, but he says his restaurant is located in a small farming community. “Chances are slim of a robbery,” he says. “The main concern is to watch out for deer and farm animals that get loose.

Johnson says the Mr. Jim’s Delivery Driver Handbook covers driver safety, vehicle safety, and driver security, and maintains that it’s more important to be safe than to get the sale. “It’s just a pizza,” Johnson says. “It’s just money. We are more concerned about their bodies than we are any profit concerns.”

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.