As carjackings rise, food delivery drivers navigate harrowing risks

25 Jan 2024

The DoorDash driver had just delivered a bottle of liquor to a Northeast Washington apartment and was back in his car, enginerunning, when he noticed a man in the darkness by his window, aiming a gun at his face.

Alemsegd Wolderufael stepped on the gas, lurched forward and heard the sound of gunfire and shattering glass. A bullet had pierced the passenger-side window and — as he would learn later when his wife saw blood — lodged in his back.

An emergency room doctor told Wolderufael that he was lucky to survive that night in September, a pronouncement that made him contemplate what he had avoided by speeding away. “If I don’t move, the bullet is here,” Wolderufael, 58, recalled in an interview, pointing to his left temple.

The alarming rise in carjackings in Washington over the past year, a toll that nearly doubled from 2022, exposed the risks embedded in the most prosaic of everyday routines — driving home from the office or to the store, stopping at a gas station or for a red light.

For food delivery drivers, those dangers are compounded by the number of hours they spend in their cars, traveling to neighborhoods they consider safe or to others they would avoid if given the choice. The risks are an added burden for a class of gig workers, many of them immigrants, who are often working second jobs as they strain to meet expenses.

Online delivery platforms such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub maintain that drivers complete a vast preponderance of their millions of drop-offs without incident. Yet D.C. police reports and interviews with drivers offer a glimpse of the peril they sometimes encounter on their routes, as well as the trauma and anxiety they experience after attacks.

In some cases, drivers endure assaults and carjackings and still return to the road, albeit more afraid and careful. But there also have been fatalincidents, including when a Pakistani immigrant driving for Uber Eats was killed near Nationals Park in 2021 after two teenage girls tried to steal his Honda Accord.

Matthew Gaudette, 37, a former schoolteacher who recently obtained a nursing degree, began driving for Uber Eats last year to earn money as he recovered from health problems that began during the coronavirus pandemic. One night in September, around 11, as he unlocked his car door in Anacostia after picking up pizza and wings for a delivery, a hooded stranger suddenly slid into the passengerseat.

“I said, ‘Get the f— out of my car,’” Gaudette said in an interview. Just then, a second person, also in a hood, came from behind Gaudette, pushed him down, grabbed the order of wings and ran.

“‘Dude, you just stole my order,’” Gaudette recalled saying. He chased after the thief, who brandished a knife. Gaudette then saw the assailant’s partner stealing the pizza from his car. He called the police, who swarmed the neighborhood and caught two suspects a few blocks away. One was 13 years old, according to the police, the other 16.

After the attack, Gaudette said, he considered giving up delivery work altogether, but he needs the money. Now he gets off the road at 8 p.m. as a precaution.

A few months before he was shot, Wolderufael, an Ethiopian immigrant who is married and has three young children, had another terrifying encounter while delivering pizza in Prince George’s County. As he reached his destination, he said, a man approached him, pressed a pistol to his cheek and stole his iPhone.

For weeks after the holdup, Wolderufael said, his sleep was disturbed two or three times a night by dreams in which “I could feel the cold on my cheek, like there was a gun on my cheek.” After he was shot, he said, he kept replaying the sound of gunfire in his mind and thought about his children and how they rely on him.

His wife insisted he stop driving by 8 p.m. instead of midnight and later, an adjustment that he says cut his income by roughly $800 a month. “I almost died,” he said. “Now I see this as my extra life. God gave me a second chance. I have to feed my kids.”

Mohamad,a driver who emigrated from Jordan in 2017, also altered his work routine after he was the target of a failed carjacking on Capitol Hill in the summer as he made a delivery for Grubhub. It was the third time in three years that Mohamad, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used because he fears for his safety, was a victim of a crime while making deliveries.

The first incident occurred in 2021, when a thief smashed his car window and stole several packages while he was dropping off a parcel at a NoMa apartment. The second occurred when two men in ski masks tried to steal his car near 14th Street NW one night in 2022.

“I feel someone push me in the back,” Mohamad recalled. “I turned around, I push him back. He says, ‘Give me your keys.’ He’s wearing a mask. I say, ‘Why I give you my key?’” The men ran after he screamed for help, he said. He felt blood behind his left ear and realized one of the men had cut him with a knife.

The third incident occurred one afternoon in August. Several attackers punched and kicked Mohamad and tried to pull him out of his Toyota near 13th and C streets NE. A witness heard his cries for help and intervened, after which the assailants fled in their car.

Two days later, police charged a 13-year-old girl in the attack. For the next month, Mohamad said, he routinely awoke from nightmares screaming, “No! No!” then getting out of bed to check whether anyone was lurking in his kitchen and bathroom.

Mohamad, who earned a degree in public administration in Jordan and is enrolled in classes to improve his English, still drives for Grubhub. But he refuses to make deliveries in D.C., a choice that he said has cut his income from as much as $7,000 a month to $3,000. “I don’t trust anyone in the street anytime,” he said.

Patrick Burke, a Grubhub spokesman, said in a statement that “violence of any kind toward delivery partners is appalling and must be prevented.” He also described the number of incidents in which Grubhub drivers are crime victims as “exceptionally rare.”

A spokesperson for Uber said the company compiles safety statistics only for its ride service and referred to “the attacks against hard-working couriers” as “gut wrenching.” Like its competitors, Uber touts steps that it has taken to improve safety, including an “emergency button” to reach 911 operators, GPS tracking and an app allowing drivers to share their location with family.

A spokesperson for DoorDash said the company does not release data on the number of its drivers who report being crime victims. But the spokesman also said the “overwhelming majority of deliveries — more than 99.9 percent nationwide — are completed” safely.

Still, the risks were enough in 2020 that the D.C. attorney general’s office issued a public reminder to drivers to turn off their engines and lock their cars while making deliveries. The office’s warning came after D.C. police reported that delivery drivers, from April until October of that year, accounted for more than a third of the 800 victims of auto thefts in which “the vehicle was either left running, unattended with the keys in the vehicle, or both.” A spokesman for D.C. police said the department does not have more current crime data for food delivery drivers.

Safety is an issue not just around Washington. In Tampa last year, a man was accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a DoorDash driver who made a delivery to a hotel. In Chicago, an Uber Eats driver was fatally shot in November while making a delivery. Lenny Sanchez, director of the Illinois chapter of the Independent Drivers Guild, said he has met delivery and ride-share drivers in the city who “have been wearing bulletproof vests and an ungodly number who are driving with weapons.”

Sanchez, whose union represents thousands of drivers in six states, including New York, New Jersey and Florida, said delivery driving is dangerous enough that he does not “recommend this job to anybody.”

“Whenever a driver tells us they’re becoming a mortgage broker or they’re going back to school, it’s, like, rejoice they’re not going to work in this industry anymore,” he said.

Deon Smith, 40, a Jamaican immigrant who works as a home health-care nurse in the Richmond area, stopped driving for DoorDash after she was carjacked in November. Smith made deliveries for two years, hoping to save the extra $2,400 she said she earned a month to eventually cover a down payment on a home for her and her daughter.

At midnight on Nov. 30, as she walked to her Honda HRV after dropping off a Wawa sandwich at a south Richmond apartment complex, Smith said, she encountered a youngster who she would later learn was 11. The boy pointed a gun at her and demanded her car key.

“’Are you serious?’” she recalled asking him.

The key was still in the car; the ignition was on.

“I started asking him why is he outside doing this?” Smith said. “I was telling himI have a 10-year-old daughter I have to take care of. I said, ‘Where’s your mom?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”

A moment later, the boy was joined by an older youngster — an 18-year-old, Smith learned later — andthey drove away. Later that night, the duo crashed into a pole and were arrested.

Her Honda, the loan for which she had just paid off, was totaled.

Smith said she’s not interested in delivering food for DoorDash — or anyone else, for that matter.

DoorDash, responding to questions about dangers that drivers face on the road, said in a statement that “safety has and will continue to be a top priority.” In the past two years, the company said, it has launched more than 15 “safety features” to give drivers “greater peace of mind.”

The company spent $500,000 in D.C. last year distributing free dashboard cameras to drivers, a giveaway promoted by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

Will Moten, 25, a DoorDash driver, picked up two of thecameras. He gave one to his aunt, Linnette Bryant, a fellow DoorDash driver whom he had accompanied after two of her cars were stolen during deliveries.

Moten, who also works as an IT specialist for the D.C. government, said he has not had any incidents while making deliveries. Besides the dashboard camera, he said, his precautions include avoiding certain neighborhoods and not carrying a bright-red DoorDash food bag “because it makes you a target. I have my own bag.”

He learned from his aunt not to leave his keys in the ignition. That’s how Bryant lost her Toyota Camry in October 2020 when she stopped at a McDonald’s in Prince George’s for a delivery. “Please don’t!” the former schoolteacher recalled yelling as she watched a man get in her car in the parking lot and head for the exit.

The following spring, she left her engine running again while delivering groceries off H Street NE. “No!” she shouted at a man she saw slide behind her wheel and flash his pistol at her before driving away.

“My mind was saying, ‘This is not about to happen again. You’re going to protect the car,’” Bryant said. “Then my life flashed before me, and I said, ‘I’m not dying for this car.’”

Bryant now lives in Texas and works as a nurse. She no longer drives for DoorDash.