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monitors, analyzes and corrects media reporting errors and bias concerning messengers and couriers.

Messenger Institute
 for Media Accuracy

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Business Practices or Labels?

By Joe Hendry

Since the 1980’s cities all over the world have increasingly relied on bike messengers to safely deliver the most urgent packages in their urban centers. This increase in bicycle traffic has also led to an easy scapegoat for the traffic dangers in these same cities. As a result of complaints rather than safety concerns, cities often turned to a system they like to call “licensing”.

The type of licensing favored as a solution by most cities was a miserable failure. It was both ineffective and costly. Most cities adopted a system of licensing that is better termed "labeling" whereby messengers were required to display a numbered sign on their bike and/or bag at all times. The thinking behind this type of system is that a visible label will act as a deterrent to unsafe riding and it would make it much easier to identify those who violate traffic laws.

The reality is that none of those benefits were realized and in fact it lead to harassment of both messengers and other cyclists who may look like messengers. It also lead to a DECREASE in traffic enforcement as police focused on enforcing the bureaucratic requirements of the labeling laws rather the original traffic laws. In fact the labeling laws added nothing to the already existing traffic laws.

These types of labeling systems come from incorrect perceptions and misunderstandings about the bicycle courier industry. Many cities look at bicycle safety in response to symptoms of the problems. They respond to complaints. Most of the complaints are as a result of near misses rather than accidents and most of these are blamed on the most visible cyclists - bike messengers.

In Sydney Australia, city council ADMITTED to approving a labeling system even after a council report indicated the council had "received numerous complaints about bicycle couriers, DESPITE the small number of accidents they cause."

Perception is such a problem that the flawed Australian STAYSAFE 30 report on bicycle messengers relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence, casual observations, media fluff articles and fashion and lifestyle television programs. Whatever statistical evidence was presented was discounted as unreliable and "significantly underreported" because it did not support the inflexible perceived behaviour.

However even the STAYSAFE report recommended solutions include developing a system of bicycle lanes, including contra flow lanes on one way streets and pedestrian malls, improved bicycle parking and bicycle priority signals at selected signalized intersections within the Sydney central business district. Unfortunately the council only implemented labeling and harassment.

A 1992 study on the Safety of Bicycle Couriers in various cities, (including Washington D.C.) prepared by the Automobile Insurance Society of Quebec, concluded "it is reasonable to assume that [couriers] behavior draws attention mainly because their clothing and bag (often bearing the company name or courier service logo) make them more visible". In fact couriers "have no more of a propensity for accidents per kilometer traveled than other bicycle riders; the difference in mishap rates between the two groups might well be statistically insignificant. For that reason, caution is advised in imputing accident risk to couriers in order to justify specific intervention targeting this type of road user."

"There is nothing to indicate, however, that [messengers] act more recklessly than other cyclists using the downtown core of a city where vehicular and pedestrian traffic is heavy."

A "labeling" type of licensing system only makes messengers more visible which explains why public complaints remain unchanged after the implementation of licensing. However, professional bicycle messengers are skilled and knowledgeable riders who recognize their responsibility to better road safety. They have greater urban experience than other cyclists and spend more time on the roads.

Yet there remain great opportunities for messengers to improve their safety record. The success of these opportunities requires a collaborative effort by government, the courier industry and messengers themselves.

First, road safety begins with the road design. Messengers ride on the most congested and dangerous roads in the city. They are forced to work on roads that were designed without their safety in mind. These roads are designed mainly for the convenience of cars with sidewalks for pedestrians.  Cyclists are barely tolerated. Cities must consider the safety of ALL road users in urban planning, road design and road safety decisions in the future.

Second, messenger behavior is heavily influenced by the business practices of the courier industry itself. The courier industry practices what the United Nations and International Labor Organization (ILO) terms "disguised employment." Many companies disguise their messengers as independent contractors in order to avoid their statutory obligations such as workers compensation, labor standards and payroll taxes. By hiding from these legal requirements companies contribute to more dangerous roads by forcing messengers to work on commission often for less than minimum wage. In fact these companies use their disguised status to exert even more control over messengers than they would employees.

Messengers are paid on commissions that companies have continually lowered in order to focus on volume. In addition many companies lure clients by offering discounts on the more time sensitive items sent by bike messenger but charge extra for the longer distance items sent by car. As a result bike couriers must ride faster and longer to make the same money they made in years past.

Courier companies also disguise their employees in order to avoid legal liability in the event of accidents. Recently, the High Court of Australia (Hollis v Vabu Pty Ltd [2001] HCA 44) ruled that a courier company was vicariously liable for any injuries inflicted by its bicycle couriers. The court "found that on the basis of the control test and other indicators, the bicycle couriers were clearly employees" and they declared the independent contractor label as "unrealistic" when applied to bicycle couriers.  If companies were forced to accept legal responsibility for their messengers they would be encouraged to implement business practices that promoted road safety but sadly the messenger courier industry promoties legislative changes that would make it even easier for them to disguise employees.

Courier companies offer delivery guarantees that can be dangerous. Messengers may be required to deliver items in less than 15 minutes or a half an hour and the messenger may not be paid if he or she is late. This type of business practice has been shown to increase the risk of accidents on the roads. In the past pizza restaurants such as Domino's offered similar delivery guarantees. Domino's was sued as a result of many accidents involving their drivers and these "lawsuits brought the conclusion that the guarantee was relevant to the cases". As a result the company dropped the guarantee after making payment to the victims of crashes.

It comes as no surprise that courier industry business practices play a key role in road safety. Nearly every city that looks at the safety of bicycle messengers has recognized it. In 1987, D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) said the pressure for couriers to "tempt the law…{and} be as quickly free-spirited as they can" comes from the system by which they are paid according to the number of deliveries." (Washington Post, October 22, 1987)

A Boston Globe editorial from 1997 also recognized the role of business practices on messengers. "Couriers operate in a high pressure business where speed is at a premium, working for commissions as independent contractors with no benefits. This can encourage reckless riding, and indeed a culture of risk-taking has developed that attracts thrill-loving bikers to these jobs. Hundreds of fines have been levied for infractions of the rules of the road, but police report that the number of accidents involving cyclists remain high." (Boston Globe Editorial, November 8, 1997)

In Toronto, Metro Councilor Howard Moscoe, (who was investigating licensing for bicycle couriers) noted that "it's the nature of the business to be reckless…. It's free enterprise on wheels. The whole system just encourages (the couriers) to whiz around as fast as they can, bowling people over, bolting in front of cars and causing havoc." Bike couriers, Moscoe notes are paid strictly on commission, with their take based solely by the number of deliveries they make." And Toronto city planner, Dan Egan suggested "that paying couriers an hourly wage would slow them down." (Toronto Star, July 15, 1990)

Now some of these comments are obviously exaggerated and influenced by the speaker's own perceptions and bias but they do address the root problem rather than the symptoms. The business practices of the courier industry are a deterrent to road safety. Fortunately for the community this is partially offset by the skill and vulnerability of bicycle messengers on the roads.  Ultimately if cities wish to improve the safety of bike messengers they must address the business practices of the messenger courier industry.

More on business practices from the DBCA here and here.
More on licensing at Messengerville

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