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Delivering Pizza Is One of the Most Dangerous Jobs in America

Delivering pizza is a semi-thankless profession—in which solitude is the biggest bonus—and one with a high risk of bodily harm. How can we possibly expect people to go out there and drive our food around?

This week America got the viral hero it deserves, right up there with this cat and the old lady who set off a jerk's airbag with her purse. On Sunday afternoon in Louisville, KY, a pizza driver named Josh Lewis was attacked by an unknown assailant. Before making off with Lewis' Jeep Cherokee, the thief jammed a knife in his back and left him for dead.

Luckily this story comes with a magnificent finale. With blood cascading down his back, boxes clutched in his shaking fists, Lewis managed to deliver the pizzas before being rushed to the ER. His condition is now stable.

The public's swift reaction has been twofold. First, elevate Lewis to a Sully level of hero worship. Second, scratch our heads and ask "Whuh happen?" As in, how did we get to a place where pizza delivery driver is on par with war correspondent or cop?

For this is no isolated incident—not by a long shot. Here's a little sampler of man-on-pizzaman violence this year alone:

  • A female Domino's driver in a Bay Area suburb was robbed at gunpoint, taken to an isolated location, and sexually assaulted.
  • In Linthicum, MD, a driver was swarmed by four guys with machetes. One of them pressed a blade to his throat; he gave up the loot.
  • A Domino's driver was shot to death in New Orleans at the end of March, the second Domino's driver killed in six months there.
  • An Alabama driver was beaten within an inch of his life—for less than 20 bucks.
  • A driver in Houston got bloodied up, but this was old hat: In 2013 robbers stole this same guy's cellphone, then shot him in the elbow as he tried to flee.

Not to get preachy, but it probably shouldn't be this way. We're talking about a semi-thankless profession, in which solitude is the biggest bonus. Tips are nice, but odds are you won't clock more than $100 per night. Not to mention, you're wearing down your own vehicle, and opportunities for career advancement are slim.

In 2014 alone, at least 20 pizza delivery drivers were shot in the US.

Compounding all these lowlights is a high risk of bodily harm; the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely ranks pizza delivery as one of America's most dangerous jobs. Facing this kind of risk, how can we possibly expect people to go out there and drive our food around?

In some sense, it's remarkable that jacking delivery drivers is a relatively new crime. It's only been in the past decade or so that reports started funneling in; over the last few years these incidents have skyrocketed. In 2014 alone, at least 20 pizza delivery drivers were shot in the US. Ronald Strehle, a crime prevention officer with the Dayton (OH) Police Department, says things first started to go south back in 2010.

"Over the course of one summer, we saw [driver] robberies go up by 400 percent," he says. He speculates that word of mouth was spreading fast among would-be criminals: pizza drivers are soft targets. They're alone, presumably unarmed, carrying cash and food. You can also snag yourself a car!

Strehle sees common threads running through many of these crimes. Calling drivers out to abandoned houses or construction sites is common, as is stealing a driver's cell phone (ensuring they can't report the crime until they get back to the pizza shop).

Despite the risks, safety training is minimal or nonexistent at many pizza shops. Scott Wiener, a pizza obsessive who gives tours of NYC's most iconic pizzerias, took a brief stint delivering for Dominos "as a learning experience." His education was swift.

"So I'm doing all these deliveries to the projects, right? I'd go inside these massive buildings and all these people are looking at me like I'm nuts," Wiener says. "Then one day a cop grabs me and starts yelling: 'You don't go inside, you're gonna get yourself killed! You make them come down to your car!' It's not like I'd been trained on anything like that. Dominos just gave me a pizza and an address."

Ross Ticknor, a former driver in Eau Claire, WI, said the low-income parts of his city weren't the problem—it was the college students. "These entitled college kids were always hassling, trying to rough us up," he says. Fights were common. One driver returned from a run with a black eye, suckerpunched for no reason at all. "Pizza delivery guys are hard as fuck," says Ticknor.

Three of his fellow drivers carried guns; he always kept a knife handy himself. Officer Strehle—while not explicitly encouraging pizza drivers to arm themselves—can see why they would, but notes that many places forbid their workers from gunning up. "It may be company policy," he says, "but if you're working a $10 or $15 an hour job, some drivers think [carrying a gun] is worth the risk of getting fired."

'He had a gun in one hand and a pizza box in the other.'

A Papa Johns driver foiled a would-be robber in January by shooting him in the face; many worried it would lead to her dismissal. In a similar incident in 2008, a legally armed Pizza Hut driver was canned for shooting his assailant.

Recognizing the depth of the problem, some pizzeria owners have attempted the opposite tactic: mandating their drivers pack heat. In Detroit, a Jets Pizza franchise required every driver to travel with an armed escort (a significant expense!). Even that policy didn't prevent a Jets driver from being shot in the chest; the franchise decided to stop delivering after dark.

But short of arming drivers or rescinding delivery altogether, what can be done to combat the violence? After two driver killings in six months, the St. Louis PD redirected some of its undercover narcotics officers to be pretend pizza men. Dayton also ran a sting, where one of its officers dressed up as a deliveryman and took out a would-be assailant. "He had a gun in one hand and a pizza box in the other," says Strehle.

Most prevention tactics boil down to straight common sense. To wit: If you show up at an address that seems sketchy, just keep on driving. Strehle says 75 percent of driver robberies give some warning sign in advance. He points to one Dayton pizzeria manager, who got robbed after "completely ignoring his instincts." The callers had asked for pizza with "any toppings" and "any kind of soda." Then when the driver arrived at a house that looked abandoned, there was a note that said "Door broken, come around back." You can probably guess what he found out back.

Dayton police now conduct pizza driver safety trainings, packed with common sense tips for employees and store owners alike. Strehle says driver assaults are way down—only two in the last year!—and his department is now turning their sights on other vulnerable professions. "We're training real estate agents now," he says. They may not carry much cash but "Have you seen the cars they drive to open houses?"

Dayton intends to keep re-running their pizza driver trainings, largely because most drivers won't stay at the job longer than two years. Is it any surprise turnover is so high? Former driver Isakson now collects bottles for cash, while Ticknor works at a vineyard. Ticknor says there was actually some appeal to the solitude and freedom of delivering pie—smoking in the car, listening to his jams, stopping for a gas station donut. He might have stuck at it, had the pay been better, the dangers less real.

Still, Ticknor thinks some of his fellow drivers were not deterred by the threat of violence. "For guys that like to get their ire up, delivering pizzas was a good gig," he says. "They'd rather throw down with some drunk than deal with an overbearing boss." He adds, "I'm pretty close to feeling that way myself."