Bicycle Messengers: Daredevils on Wheels

February 23, 2003

Zipping in and out of traffic in a big city.

Delivering letters, documents and packages.

Getting paid $5-10 for each delivery.

Suffering broken bones and head injuries?

Such is the life of a bicycle messenger.

Is the job of a bicycle messenger dangerous? How often are bicycle messengers injured? Are these injuries severe? Jack T. Dennerlein, Ph.D. (Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health) asked these questions by surveying 113 bicycles messengers in Boston, MA.

Let's learn about the life of a bicycle messenger in Boston. These daredevils on wheels work an average of 40.3 hours per week, 8.5 hours per day and make 28.5 deliveries per day. For each delivery, a messenger must ride his bike approximately one mile. With all of this bike riding in heavy downtown traffic, you might expect plenty of injuries. In fact, 90% of the bicycle messengers reported that they had been injured on the job. Of those injured, 55% said that their injury was serious enough to seek medical help and 27% of them had to visit the hospital. For a group of 100 messengers, an injury that caused one of them to lose work occurred every five days and one that forced a messenger to go the hospital occurred approximately every four weeks.

The messengers themselves think their job is dangerous. The graph on the left illustrates how risky the messengers rate their job.

You would think that such a dangerous job would force messengers to take steps to protect themselves. When interviewed, only 12% of the messengers, however, said that they always wore helmets on the job and only 12% said that they wore helmets most of the time. Although cuts, scrapes and bruises were the most common type of injury, concussions accounted for 5% of the injuries.

With 47 lost-workday injuries per 100 workers, bicycle messengers have the highest rate of injuries of any reported job. In comparison, workers in the meat-packing industry, who also have dangerous jobs, suffer only 15.6 lost workday injuries per 100 workers. To add to the problems of bicycle messengers, many are self-employed and only 32% of the surveyed messengers had medical insurance to cover their injuries.

Even with email and the FAX machine, bicycle messengers still provide a valuable service for businesses in big cities. Perhaps there are ways to encourage messengers to wear their helmets when they make deliveries or some way to keep messengers and cars from "meeting" each other in the street.

Reference: Dennerlein, J.T. and Meeker, J.D. Occupational injuries among Boston bicycle messengers, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 42:519-525, 2002.

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