Halloween is all about trickery, disguise, and sending your children out to eat candy from strangers. It is that last bit that makes Oct. 31, with its devilish themes, a holiday that tests the social fabric like none other. This tendency is always on display in the annual panic over what might be in the candy (razor blades, marijuana), and more recently surfaced during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, as cautious parents and public officials reassessed traditions like bobbing for apples and costume parades.
But the real danger on Halloween is not Satan, weed, or even the novel coronavirus. It’s car crashes. According to an analysis in the Washington Post, 54 kids were killed by cars on Halloween between 2004 and 2018, making it by far the deadliest day of the year; no other day of the year saw more than 30 deaths across those 15 years, and most saw far less. A CDC study with an older timeframe concurs that kids are four times as likely to be killed on Halloween than on any other day, and a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that Halloween sees 42 percent more pedestrian fatalities than neighboring days, with tenfold risks for children between 4 and 8 years old.
This is not rocket science: Halloween is the one day of the year when we get a glimpse of what it might look like for kids to roam the neighborhood at will. But traffic doesn’t go away; if anything, it’s worse, since grown-ups go out on Halloween and get drunk.
To be clear, the risk of getting pancaked is very small indeed, and no more reason to keep a kid at home on All Hallows’ Eve than fear of fentanyl-flavored Skittles.
But this year is a good year to do something about it: Make Halloween a national slow-driving day, with trick-or-treat destinations closed to traffic, and everyone else on high alert.
There are two reasons to do this now. First is that this Halloween falls during a historic surge in bad driving. In the first quarter of the year, roadway fatalities rose to their highest level in two decades. Pedestrians are particularly vulnerable: The number of people on foot killed by cars is up 54 percent over the last decade and, in 2021, hit its highest number in 40 years. What’s to blame? Higher, heavier trucks and SUVs, cellphones, and perhaps a decline in civil behavior brought on by the pandemic.
Second is that many cities and suburbs have recently undertaken all kinds of experiments closing streets to traffic in response to a different public-health crisis. The muscle memory is there. Some cities have even experimented with small car-free zones for the little ghouls on Halloween, and the busiest Halloween streets sometimes become car-free simply through critical mass.
Halloween has always been a test of a neighborhood’s welcoming qualities. Kids have a sixth sense for good design, such as generous lighting, a walkable urban fabric, calm streets, and sidewalk-facing architecture, that adults sometimes struggle to enumerate. Planners call this children’s architectural standard the “trick-or-treat test.”
But instead of striving to help neighborhoods attain trick-or-treatability, most public officials instead focus on kids’ behavior: In San Francisco, for example, the sheriff has sometimes advised parents to give their children flashlights or cover them in reflective tape, as if they were doing night work on a rural highway.
There are some signs that the lessons of the COVID-19 era are beginning to take hold. Seattle, for example, is keeping up a “Trick or Streets” program it started in 2020 through which residents can get free permits to close streets for Halloween festivities. St. Petersburg, Florida, will hold its second annual Halloween on Central event, a sort of carnival that closes more than 20 blocks of the city’s Central Avenue.
The kids on those streets are going to have a great, car-free time. Next year, the kids on your street could, too.