Trick-or-treating kids at higher risk of traffic deaths, study shows

Traffic deaths spike among children who are trick-or-treating on Halloween, particularly among kids ages four to eight, according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics

The research team launched the study after noticing advertisements for Halloween parties posted to lampposts, which got them thinking about a dangerous witches' brew: holiday revellers driving away from bars mixed with "legions of kids roaming the streets" in costume, said Dr. John Staples of the University of British Columbia and the study's lead author. 

Although Staples and his team were in Canada, they found U.S. traffic data to be very comprehensive, so they focused their analysis south of their border.

The team examined 42 years of data from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. For each year, they looked at pedestrian deaths between 5 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. on Halloween night plus nights one week before and one week after.

When kids are trick-or-treating, important safety measures include attaching reflective patches to children's costumes, having them carry flashlights, supervising them and talking to them about watching for cars and crossing streets, the study authors say. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A total of 608 traffic deaths occurred on the 42 Halloween evenings, while a total of 851 occurred on the combined 84 evenings of Oct. 24 and Nov. 7, the study found. 

Put another way, that meant 2.07 pedestrians died per hour on Halloween evenings versus 1.45 per hour on the comparison evenings. Overall, pedestrians were 43 per cent more likely to die on Halloween than on the control evenings.

When the researchers looked at traffic deaths by age, pedestrians aged four to eight years of age were 10 times as likely to be killed on Halloween as on Oct. 24 or Nov. 7.

"There are things we can do to make things safer for kids and other pedestrians," Staples said. "That includes attaching reflective patches to children's costumes, having kids carry lights, supervising kids and talking to kids about traffic safety and how to cross a street."

'So many kids out'

A broader solution, he said, is for parents and communities to find ways to make walking in the evening safer.

"There are things that can be done in neighbourhoods that affect traffic and flow," he said. "For example, traffic circles or speed bumps can be added. These can help slow down traffic. There are things that can be done to enforce the speed limit, such as installing red-light cameras."

The good news is that between the first and last decade studied, overall pedestrian deaths declined from 4.9 to 2.5 per 100 million Americans, Staples noted. 

The new article "is very straightforward and compelling," said David Hemenway, director of the Injury Control Research Center Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. "It is of course all explained by the amount of exposure: there are so many kids out on Halloween compared to other nights."

"The take-home message is that we should always be working on making our streets safer and we should be rem​inding everyone that kids are going to be out on that night," said Hemenway, who was not involved in the new research.

"It should be on the news that day because someone who doesn't have kids may have forgotten that it's Halloween and everybody has to drive much, much, much slower in residential areas. And maybe it means the police should do more, too."

Opportunity to teach traffic safety

Andrea Gielen hopes the study will spark changes that make it safer for kids walking in their neighbourhoods. "It's important to remember that even with all the progress we've made, injuries are still the leading cause of death in children," said Gielen, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The best way to improve safety for trick-or-treating kids is to make them more visible to motorists, said Gielen, who was not involved in the new research.

Beyond making sure kids are wearing reflective items on the their clothing and carrying flashlights, people should also focus on where cars are parked.

"Kids can slip between parked cars. Things can be improved by not allowing a lot of cars on the street for kids to run between," Gielen said. 

Halloween also offers an opportunity to teach children about traffic safety and how to cross a street safely, Staples said, adding that he's not suggesting that kids give up trick-or-treating.

"The kind of world I want to live in [is] safe for kids to go out and walk around their neighbourhood and participate in a holiday that is really focused on kids," he said.

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