Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Risking life and limb for hot pizza in South Korea,0,6982566.story

South Korea's motorcycle deliverymen speed, run red lights and drive on the sidewalks to make it. Now an increase in accidents is leading the nation to rethink the need for such quick arrivals.

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2010

They're on the streets at all hours, the motorcycle deliverymen slicing through traffic in their race against the clock, defying both the law and common sense to get their cargo delivered on time.

Run a few red lights? Pull a last-second dash across six lanes of traffic? No problem. And if the zigzag through gridlock fails, there's always the sidewalk; pedestrians know to stay out of the way.

"It's not that I want to deliberately disobey traffic laws, but when you have customers breathing down your neck, it's really hard not to," deliveryman Bang Chang-min said. "When I'm on a bike, I'm under so much pressure that I feel I transform into somebody else."

But the recent death of a pizza deliveryman may cause South Koreans to rethink their obsession with zippy fast-food conveyance. On Tuesday, government officials announced a new educational campaign to encourage consumers to think safety over speed.

In the last five years, 4,098 vehicular accidents nationwide involved motorcycle deliverymen, a subculture dominated by teenagers looking for part-time work, according to government statistics.

Activists blame a deadly mix of youthful recklessness and a corporate system that demands that drivers take chances. And such accidents are on the rise: Last year saw 1,395 accidents involving deliverymen. Although there are no statistics on related fatalities, unions estimate that such deaths have reached double digits for the last decade.

In South Korea, all kinds of food are advertised with quick home delivery, varying from burgers and fried chicken and items bought at mom-and-pop groceries. The result is often road chaos. Deliverymen dash about the city with boxes strapped to the backs of their motorcycles. Some drive one-handed so they can carry more orders.

Delivery jobs are stressful and the turnover rate is high. With some pizza companies, drivers must absorb the loss if they arrive late and the food becomes free. Others pay drivers, most of whom make less than $5 an hour, an incentive of 40 cents for on-time arrivals. Some even display a ticking clock on their websites when an online order is completed.

Activists say that speed kills.

"The clock starts as soon as the order is taken, putting immense pressure on these young men," said Kim Young-kyung, president of the Youth Community Union. "Companies train new employees to use every available method regardless of the law. The bottom line is to get there on time."

Pressure put on firms has produced little results.

"Companies tell government investigators that young men like to ride their motorcycles fast, so there's little they can do," Kim said. "These kids are often too young to think on their own. But instead of emphasizing safety, the bosses exploit them."

Last week, a 24-year-old Pizza Hut deliveryman was killed when he was hit by a taxi that had run a red light. On the same day, an 18-year-old driver for another firm was injured in a collision with a bus, officials say.

Protesters recently rallied outside the Employment and Labor Ministry, holding up placards, one of which read, "The 30-minute delivery system kills people."

In its announcement, the ministry said it would launch a TV, radio and subway advertising campaign, along with the dispersal of leaflets at fast food outlets, emphasizing the high accident and injury rate among motorcycle deliverymen.

Activists say companies have a long way to go to ensure the safety of deliverymen. One hamburger chain, for example, requires drivers to wear helmets without chin guards because they fear the fuller head gear looks menacing to customers. Drivers have since endured facial injuries in road accidents, Kim said.

Bang said he has worked for two firms, each with the same rules.

"Both said safety was a priority," he said, "but the aim is to get to the destination as fast as possible." ◦

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