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Study: Pedestrian deaths rise on Halloween

An adult accompanies trick-or-treaters as they go door to door in Duluth's Lakeside-Lester Park neighborhood before dusk in 2016. Duluth police encourage parents to accompany their children as they go trick-or-treating. (file / News Tribune)1 / 2
A young trick-or-treater marvels at a Halloween display along Grand View Avenue in 2001. A study released Tuesday finds that the risk of pedestrian fatalities is greater on Halloween than before or after. (file / News Tribune)2 / 2

Halloween can be scary in a way no one wants it to be.

A study released Tuesday finds the risk of pedestrian fatalities is 43 percent greater on Halloween than it is a week earlier and a week later.

The study also shows a spike in pedestrian fatalities at 6 p.m. — prime trick-or-treating time, and, in Duluth, six minutes after sunset on Oct. 31.

"Halloween traffic fatalities are a tragic annual reminder of routine gaps in traffic safety," wrote the authors of the study, published online on Tuesday by Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. The study was conducted by three researchers from the University of British Columbia but was derived from 42 years of U.S. data via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

They determined 608 pedestrian fatalities occurred on the 42 Halloween evenings during the study, while 851 pedestrians were killed during the 84 "control" evenings seven days on either side of the holiday.

The Halloween deaths included 55 children ages 4 through 8 compared with a total of 11 on the other two nights.

"The average Halloween resulted in four additional pedestrian deaths," they wrote.

The mean number of annual deaths spiked from less than 1 at 5 p.m. to more than 3 at 6 p.m., and then quickly dropped, according to the study.

Lt. Ken Zwak, west area commander for the Duluth police, said this week that he couldn't recall any Halloween pedestrian deaths during his 21 years on the force. But it's always an evening when police pay extra attention to residential neighborhoods, he added.

"We'll move our focus," Zwak said. "Instead of doing traffic stops or doing this patrol or that patrol, we'll definitely focus our squads in the neighborhoods."

Shawna Mullen, active transportation planner for Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community, said the numbers surprised her.

"I would think that with people being out, drivers would be trying to pay more attention," Mullen said.

In fact, the study's authors cited "potential for improved safety as pedestrian numbers increase" as one of the mitigating factors that might help prevent fatalities on Halloween. They also pointed to "broad public awareness of Halloween" and parental supervision of younger trick-or-treaters.

But they cited risk factors as well.

"The holiday 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," they wrote.

Both motorists and parents of trick-or-treaters are responsible for reducing those risks, Zwak said.

He offered several suggestions for Halloween safety.

For drivers:

• Be especially careful to avoid distractions. Talking or texting on a cell phone while driving is always a bad idea, Zwak said, but it's even more so when trick-or-treaters are out. Focus on the roadway and not on enjoying the distracting sights and sounds of the day. "All the sudden another one of those kids goes out in front of your car because they're arguing about a candy bar or something."

• Slow down. "Just because it's 30 miles an hour doesn't mean you have to go 30 miles an hour, especially in residential areas when there's trick-or-treaters out," Zwak said.

For parents or guardians of trick-or-treaters:

• Accompany your children while they're trick-or-treating, or at least have a talk with them about safety before they go.

• Children should carry safety lights with them, or, ideally, wear headlamps.

• Make sure your children are dressed for the weather. If they're cold, they may be more likely to run and not pay as much attention while crossing the street.

The study's authors contend there could be fewer fatalities if residential neighborhoods were better-designed. They pointed to a lack of sidewalks, unsafe street crossings and failures in traffic control as frequent shortcomings.

Mullen agreed.

"Slowing down vehicle traffic is one of the top things we can do, I think," she said. "That is related to how we design our streets. So, the more comfortable it is for a person driving, the easier it is for them to drive fast and not need to pay as close attention to detail."

One thing researchers pointedly don't advocate is doing away with trick-or-treating.

"Halloween trick-or-treating encourages creativity, physical activity and neighborhood engagement," they write.

Again, Mullen agreed.

"I love Halloween and people being outside trick-or-treating," she said. "It really creates a sense of community. ... When you're in your neighborhood, it's all your neighbors and you're out. It's cool. It's like a party on the street."