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Forget tainted candy: The scariest thing on Halloween is parked in your driveway

More American child pedestrians die on Halloween from cars than on any other day of the year.

Arial Meehan, 9, center, dressed as a crazy cat lady, smiles as she walks down the street with other trick-or-treaters on Halloween 2018.
Natalie Kolb/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

As is the custom, millions of children in the United States will be out in the streets this Halloween to trick-or-treat, decked out in costumes. Also as is custom, adults will fret about the mostly mythical dangers children may face. Once upon a time it was razor blades in apples; this year, it’s rainbow fentanyl in candy. But while fears of children receiving narcotic-spiked treats are unfounded, there is a very real danger that America’s children face on this most hallowed of evenings: cars.

That’s because pedestrians under the age of 18 are three times more likely to be struck and killed by a car on Halloween than any other day of the year. That risk grows to 10 times more likely for children aged 4 to 8 years old, according to a study from 2019 in JAMA Pediatrics.

Halloween is the deadliest day of the year for child pedestrians.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

“You’re going to have increased numbers of children, including younger children who are out on the streets,” said Lois Lee, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School. “At the same time, you have adults who are driving, and especially this year on a Monday, people will be driving home from work. If children are in costume, they may be wearing darker clothing … which makes them harder to detect.”

The JAMA Pediatrics study from 2019 corroborates this, noting that Halloween “may heighten pedestrian traffic risk, because celebrations occur at dusk, masks restrict peripheral vision, costumes limit visibility, street-crossing safety is neglected, and some partygoers are impaired by alcohol.” It’s the kind of lethal combination that can turn a fun occasion into a deadly nightmare. Adult victims included, the risk of death to all pedestrians was 43 percent higher on Halloween compared to a regular evening.

But what happens on Halloween isn’t an isolated incident. After gun injuries, motor vehicle injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the US overall. And with pedestrian fatalities (both adult and child) at a 40-year high in the US, it’s worth asking why children roaming the streets is so inherently deadly, and what can be done about it.

“Sometimes when you talk about this issue, you get pushback from people and people say, ‘Well, of course, you have more children on the streets, of course, more children are going to die,’” Doug Gordon, a writer and podcast host who advocates for safer streets and cities, told me. “But that accepts a baseline level of danger that I think we as a society have in fact accepted on the other 364 days of the year.”

There are broader reasons for why streets have gotten even more dangerous for pedestrians recently. One is that drivers are distracted — not just by their phones, but increasingly by the infotainment systems that come as a part of newer cars. A more pressing issue is the increasing size of cars in the US; SUVs make up half of all car sales in the US, and are much more likely to kill pedestrians in crashes than smaller vehicles. “Mass times [acceleration] is force,” Gordon summed up. “When you increase the mass of something, you’re going to increase the force at which it interacts with a small vulnerable child.”

Trick-or-treaters cross the street as they walk from house to house in Portland, Maine, on Halloween 2019.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

But the biggest reason may be that American streets and cities are designed for cars, and not people. As Charles Marohn — founder and president of Strong Towns and an expert on urban planning and civil engineering — has argued, engineers who design streets prioritize getting cars as quickly from point A to point B over everything else. One recent example: A traffic safety committee in Utah could not find any way to make the five-lane road crossing to a school safer for students aside from just removing the crosswalk altogether.

But there is a lot that can be done to make streets safer, for future Halloweens and every other day of the year. In the short term, cities and towns can build on open streets programs implemented after the Covid-19 pandemic began, which involve closing certain streets to car traffic to allow for more public space. Notably, New York City announced a “Trick or Streets” plan that would see 100 car-free zones in effect from 4 to 8 pm on Halloween this year. And the Big Apple isn’t alone, as Henry Grabar reported for Slate: less dense and more car-dependent cities like St. Petersburg, Florida and Seattle will also either close off the city center for Halloween or actually allow residents to apply for permits that can close off their neighborhoods to car traffic.

In the long run, Gordon believes that places around the US should be able to pass what is known as the popsicle test, where a kid should be able to safely walk to a store, buy a popsicle, and return home before it melts. In essence, every city should be designed to be friendly and traversable to the most vulnerable in our communities. “If you start thinking along those lines, then I think you start thinking along the lines of what infrastructure is needed to make that possible, where I would feel comfortable letting my kid do that,” Gordon said. “Halloween is like a giant version of the popsicle test because it’s not just your kid, it’s every kid in the neighborhood.”

Designing safer streets for children goes beyond safety — it would make for a better Halloween. “Having sidewalks and good lighting is a good preventive measure, not just for injury prevention, but also just general health,” Lee told me, “because that encourages everybody in the neighborhood to walk, exercise, and get outside, which is better for everybody’s health as well.”

And if their safety isn’t enough motivation, designing dense, walkable cities could even lead to bigger candy hauls for kids.

“When you build a city that’s safer, so that kids can walk around by themselves and not be worried about getting hit by a car, or the parents being worried about them being hit by a car, it’s just better,” Gordon said. “It’s awesome. They’re independent. It’s fun. And on Halloween, they get a lot of candy.”

Correction, October 31, 4 pm ET: A previous version of this story had an inaccurate definition of the equation for force.