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 from the shooting incident, said Marc Denne, manager of the Domino's in Hickory Ridge Village Center, where Benson 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 for 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 was not shot.
The call for the order came from a pay phone -- an unnecessary security risk 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 all telephone orders before they try to deliver the food and to ask their 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, in Long Reach and Oakland Mills.
Pub Date: 1/07/99