The pizza delivery rush usually begins about 4 p.m., just before rush-hour commuters make their slow crawl home and night falls on the suburbs.
For delivery drivers, the early hours are the calm before the storm, when running steaming hot pizza pies -- and Chinese food and fried chicken -- goes at breakneck speed until well after midnight.
But delivery drivers in Howard County have to contend with something besides bad weather and stingy tippers.
Last week, Martha Lunsford, 30, a Papa John's driver, was shot in the jaw at point-blank range in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Turnabout Lane in Columbia's Harper's Choice village after she was robbed of $20.
Delivering pizzas has gotten scary, said Jeff Benson, 20, a driver for Domino's Pizza in Columbia.
"I was a little nervous about going out to deliver after" the shooting, said Benson, who earns $5.15 an hour plus tips. "I won't deliver on Turnabout Lane, and I always try to be careful."
Around the area, drivers are reeling after the shooting, said Marc Denne, manager of the Domino's in Hickory Ridge Village Center, where Benson also works.
"People are talking about it and, yeah, people are scared," Denne said. "If you're not careful, something is going to happen."
Lunsford -- who was released from the hospital over the weekend -- and a male colleague were called to deliver an order of seven pizzas to a basement apartment in the 6100 block of Turnabout Lane about 7 p.m. Friday. The colleague was also robbed of $20, but he was not shot.
The call for the order came from a pay telephone. Delivering such an order is an unnecessary security risk that police say could have proved fatal.
"I don't know all of what happened in the Papa John's case," Denne said, "but it doesn't sound like they were too smart about delivering an order that big to someone calling from a pay phone."
That such a small mistake could turn out to have such grave consequences is exactly the reason Domino's, Papa John's and other restaurants with delivery services should adhere to a strict safety policy, said Howard police spokesman Sgt. Morris Carroll.
Under the restaurants' policies, drivers are told never to carry more than $20 per delivery, to verify telephone orders before they try to deliver the food and to ask customers to leave their exterior lights on.
Increasingly, restaurants are using telephone caller identification systems that show whether the caller is using a cell or pay phone, and restaurants encourage frequent customers to pay with a personal check.
But the best way for drivers to stay safe might be to trust their instincts, said John Minic, director of security for Domino's Pizza.
"If an employee says they don't feel comfortable in a particular neighborhood or on a certain street, they have the last word," Minic said. "We never force anyone to go anyplace."
Minic said delivery people should always be alert to the possibility of robbery, theft -- or worse.
"Crime can happen anywhere, not just Columbia," he said. "It doesn't discriminate. If we provide the opportunity to let crime happen, it will."
Domino's driver Wilbert Chapron agrees.
"I'm a little more afraid after what happened, but what can you do?" Chapron asked. "You just have to be careful. But if it's your time to go, it's your time. That's it."
According to Howard County police, five delivery drivers were robbed during November in Columbia, Long Reach and Oakland Mills.
More detailed statistics of holdups of restaurant delivery drivers were not available, Carroll said.
After a string of robberies, drivers for Pizza Boli's and Kentucky Fried Chicken last month stopped delivering to neighborhoods in Oakland Mills and Long Reach.
Papa John's officials say they are seriously considering stopping delivery to parts of Harper's Choice.
Area may be 'red-lined'
The area around the Harpers Forest apartment complex off Harpers Farm Road will "probably be considered red-lined," said Karen Sherman, director of community and public relations for Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's International. "It upsets people who live there, but we have to put the safety and security of our drivers first. If one of our drivers has been held up, we're not going to send another driver in there again. It just scares people."
Howard police are searching for the two men wanted in the Lunsford shooting. Carroll said he was optimistic that an arrest would be made.
While Carroll believes last week's shooting was an isolated incident, it was the most serious and disturbing assault on a Howard delivery driver.
"There is no question that this was a planned, premeditated event," Carroll said. "This wasn't a crime of opportunity where the shooter just saw a delivery driver. When he fired at the woman, he meant to kill her."
"She's very lucky," Carroll added.
Pub Date: 1/07/99