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The most terrifying part of Halloween for kids is our deadly streets

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It’s not the costumes or the candy—it’s the cars.

A person holding a trick or treat pumpkin is standing with two children in brightly colored costumes at the edge of as street as a car drives by.
The scariest part of Halloween is our unsafe streets.
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Forget skeletons and zombies, ghosts and goblins. If you want to wear the costume that should scare kids the most, dress like an SUV. Children are twice as likely to be killed in car crashes on Halloween night.

Halloween is a notoriously congested day on city streets. Vehicular volumes surge as parents rush home to take their kids trick-or-treating—right at the same moment that families start to hit the sidewalks in search of candy.

That simultaneous burst of increased pedestrian activity and increased car traffic creates a deadly combination. A study by University of British Columbia researchers looked at 42 years of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. Halloween night was, on average, 43 percent more deadly for pedestrians than other autumn nights. The highest rates of fatal crashes were seen for kids aged 4 to 8 around 6 p.m.

But when the commuting drivers are removed from the equation, deaths seem to go down. A study by AutoInsurance.org used FARS data to compare 24 years of crash data by days of the week. Halloweens that fell on workdays had an 83 percent increase in deadly crashes involving kids compared to weekend days. The worst day? Friday. Since 1994, the three deadliest Halloween nights for kids have all been Friday nights.

Last year, an online petition sponsored by the Halloween & Costume Association got national momentum for trying to move the holiday to the last Saturday in October, in part to reduce car crashes. Now a revised petition wants to keep the date of Halloween the same, but add a separate National Trick or Treat Day that would be celebrated on that final Saturday.

Moving Halloween to Saturday doesn’t actually solve the problem: Our deadly streets.

According to 2018 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data out this week, pedestrian deaths increased for the fifth year in a row, up 3.4 percent from 2017. The numbers are particularly grim for American school-age kids. For children in the U.S. aged 5 to 18, car crashes remain the leading cause of death.

Darkness also makes walking more deadly. Three out of four pedestrian deaths last year occurred after dark, according to NHTSA data. Many large cities see a spike in traffic deaths during the shortening days of the fall, as sunset creeps closer to commuting hours. In 2007, when the federal government extended Daylight Saving Time from October to November, one of the reasons cited for the change was to give trick-or-treaters an additional hour of light.

As the data illustrates, to prevent pedestrian deaths, we should be focusing heavily on nighttime safety solutions. Sadly, when city leaders are presented with this data, their “solution” is usually a marketing campaign that blames pedestrians. This time of year, the internet is plastered in Halloween-themed PSAs reminding children to wear bright costumes, carry flashlights, and stop looking at their phones.

That’s not enough, according to Dr. John Staples, author of the University of British Columbia study, who recommends physical roadway changes that help slow cars in neighborhoods all the time.

Reducing speed limits in residential areas citywide is a good start. But drivers need additional infrastructural cues to slow down and steer clear of neighborhoods, like clever design elements that eliminate cut-through traffic. Combined with wider sidewalks, better streetlights, and high-visibility crossings, streets can be reshaped to prioritize people walking, even at night.

In my Los Angeles neighborhood, parents have worked to get popular trick-or-treating destinations closed to cars, block party-style. But what ends up happening is that other parents, in other neighborhoods, want to bring their kids there instead of their own dangerous streets. Without a network of accessible walking, biking, and transit connections—which need to be equally accessible at night—parents end up shuffling their kids around by car on congested streets in search of safe candy acquisition, increasing the potential for crashes.

This doesn’t just happen on Halloween. It happens every day. Some parents see walking their kids to school as too dangerous, so they end up driving them, making streets more dangerous for everyone else. Just last week, near my neighborhood, a 4-year-old was hit and killed by a driver while walking to school with her mother. The driver that hit the child was another mom, her own three children in the car.

Halloween gives trick-or-treating families the opportunity to see the dangers our most vulnerable street users face every day. But if we aren’t taking concrete steps to reduce this country’s deadly reliance on cars, next year’s traffic statistics will be even more horrifying. That fear should haunt all of us long after October 31.