Time for median hawkers to go away

by Jim Longworth

On Thursday, May 12, Donald Daniels was sitting on a median strip, hawking copies of the Winston-Salem Journal when he was struck by a tractor trailer.

Daniels, who wears a leg brace and walks with a cane, had been selling newspapers to motorists as they exited Silas Creek Parkway onto Stratford Road. He was stationed there 10 years ago by the Journal’s circulation coordinator Nat McCullough, who said he was “shocked” when he heard of the accident. Shocked by what, exactly? Shocked that if you send a disabled man out in the middle of traffic that there’s a chance he might get hit?

Well, here’s another shocker: Daniels, who has since undergone multiple surgeries and is still hospitalized, isn’t covered by the Journal’s group policy. “As an independent contractor, Donald is not covered by our employee insurance”, said Journal publisher Jeffrey Green. That’s great. So what does the Journal do to rectify their mistake? The paper set up an account at Southern Community Bank so that the public can donate money to help pay Daniels’ medical bills. To paraphrase Shakespeare: How doth this suck? Let me count the ways.

First of all, the Journal should never allow anyone, much less a disabled person, to sell newspapers in the middle of the road. It is dangerous and should be against the law, right? Just the opposite. Years ago, newspaper companies successfully lobbied the NC General Assembly to pass a special law allowing hawkers to sell papers on medians. Publishers argued that denying their vendors access to medians constituted a violation of the rights of a free press. That insane law also prohibits local governments from taking any action against the hawkers based solely on their presence and activities, much as they can with panhandlers. That begs the question, then, are panhandlers more at risk of getting hit by a truck than, say, disabled newspaper hawkers? State lawmakers must think so.

But if the Journal and other papers fought for the right to occupy medians, shouldn’t those same companies also take responsibility for what happens to the vendors who are assigned there? Apparently not. Perhaps if Daniels had injured his vocal chords instead of his legs, the Journal might have considered that a free speech issue.

Pardon the pun, but the Daniels incident was an accident waiting to happen. Hawkers are everywhere these days. In Florida, for example, the Broward New Times reports that 15 newspaper vendors have been struck and killed in as many years. But hawkers aren’t just risking their lives to sell papers. You see them hanging over into the road to advertise everything from pizzas to car washes. In Kernersville, a spry young man stands out on the edge of a busy intersection, gyrating and waving large signs at motorists, enticing them to buy gold and silver. One day I called the Kernersville police to complain about the gold hawker. I warned that if something wasn’t done, someone was going to get hurt. That’s when I first learned that localities have their hands tied by idiotic legislation. It’s a bad law which needs to be repealed.

I asked Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham for his take. “Professionally I do believe it is dangerous for anyone, panhandlers, hawkers, charity supporters, etc. to be in the roadway medians. Roadways are designed to move traffic, not for people to be out amongst the vehicles. It is inherently dangerous for people to be in the roadway, and this should be prohibited in all cases. Eliminating the hawking of newspapers in the median will surely not hamper the freedom of the press.”

Last week, Daniels hired an attorney, and that usually means someone is going to be sued. But Daniels put himself in harm’s way, so I do not condone legal action by him now. However, if he sues anyone, it should be the Winston Salem Journal. If that happens, we can all take up a collection to help pay for the Journal’s legal fees. Speech might be free, but lawsuits aren’t.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).