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Risk of pedestrian deaths rises on Halloween night, particularly for children, study finds

The danger of children aged 4 to 8 being killed by a car on Halloween was tenfold higher than on other nights.
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The danger of children aged 4 to 8 being killed by a car on Halloween was tenfold higher than on other nights.

Young trick-or-treaters and everybody else out celebrating Halloween tomorrow night should be extra careful while walking about.

New research suggests that pedestrians are more likely to be killed by a car or other motor vehicle on Halloween night than on different nights around the same time of year. That finding is not surprising, given that millions of children are roaming their neighborhoods on Halloween night, going door-to-door for candy in costumes that may restrict their vision while also making them less visible to drivers.

The holiday is also popular with many adolescents and adults, who leave their homes to attend Halloween parties and other festivities. That puts even more pedestrians — some of whom may be impaired by alcohol — out on the streets.

Quantifying the risk

For the study, which was published online Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, a team of researchers led by Dr. John Staples of the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences in Vancouver studied four decades (1975-2016) of data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They compared the number of pedestrian deaths that occurred between 5 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. on Halloween nights during those years with deaths that occurred during the same time period on “control” nights one week earlier and one week later.

They found that 602 pedestrian were hit and killed by motor vehicles on the 42 Halloween nights — or 2.07 per hour — while there were 851 such deaths — 1.45 per hour — on the two control nights.

That meant the relative risk of a pedestrian traffic fatality was 43 percent higher on Halloween night than on the other nights. “The average Halloween resulted in 4 additional pedestrian deaths,” the study’s authors write.

Children aged 4 to 8 were at greatest risk. The danger of them being killed by a car on Halloween was tenfold higher than on the other nights.

The riskiest hour was around 6 p.m.

‘A tragic annual reminder’

It’s important to point out that the absolute risk of pedestrian deaths on Halloween was quite low and that it dropped significantly over the 42 years of the study, from 4.9 deaths per 100 million people during the study’s first decade (1975-1985) to 2.5 deaths per 100 million people during its last (2006-2016).

That suggests Halloween has become safer over the years for trick-or-treaters.

But not safe enough.

“Halloween traffic fatalities are a tragic annual reminder of routine gaps in traffic safety,” write Staples and his colleagues. “On Halloween and throughout the year, most childhood pedestrian deaths occur within residential neighborhoods. Such events highlight deficiencies of the built environment (eg, lack of sidewalks, unsafe street crossings), shortcomings in public policy (eg, insufficient space for play), and failures in traffic control (eg, excessive speed).”

The researchers recommend that residential neighborhoods take specific measures on Halloween to lower the risk of pedestrian injuries, such as installing temporary traffic-calming tools (like traffic cones) and limiting on-street parking (to improve pedestrian visibility). They also recommend that all trick-or-treaters wear reflective patches on their clothing.

But Halloween shouldn’t be the only time communities focus on improving pedestrian safety, they add.

“Restricting these interventions to 1 night per year misses the point, since year-round application of effective traffic safety interventions will foster much greater progress toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities altogether,” the researchers write.

Some safety tips

Despite the study’s findings, however, Staples and his co-authors don’t want Halloween traditions to end.

“Halloween trick-or-treating encourages creativity, physical activity, and neighborhood engagement,” they explain. “Trick-or-treating should not be abolished in a misguided effort to eliminate Halloween-associated risk.”

“Instead, policymakers, physicians, and parents should act to make a residential streets safer for pedestrians on Halloween and throughout the years,” they stress.

If you’re taking children out for trick-or-treating this Halloween, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following tips to avoid pedestrian injuries. Be sure to review them with your children before heading out:

  • Stay in a group and communicate where they will be going.
  • Remember reflective tape for costumes and trick-or-treat bags.
  • Carry a cellphone for quick communication.
  • Remain on well-lit streets and always use the sidewalk.
  • If no sidewalk is available, walk at the far edge of the roadway facing traffic.
  • Never cut across yards or use alleys.
  • Only cross the street as a group in established crosswalks (as recognized by local custom). Never cross between parked cars or out of driveways.
  • Don’t assume the right of way. Motorists may have trouble seeing Trick-or-Treaters. Just because one car stops, doesn’t mean others will!

Drivers should also take extra precautions. Slow down when in residential areas, drive at least five miles below the posted speed limited, don’t let yourself get distracted by your cellphone or anything else, and keep a careful lookout for children.

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the JAMA Pediatrics website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

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