Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Your annual reminder to slow down tonight.
Halloween is in many ways a glimpse of a distant American past—that fabled place where neighbors talked to each other and children played freely in the streets. Trick-or-treaters prove that even sprawliest suburb can be rendered walkable when sugar is the incentive.
On the other hand, October 31 is also a reminder that automobiles firmly rule American roads in 2017: Children are four times likelier to be struck and killed by a vehicle tonight than on other nights during the year. This chart that Streetsblog tweeted earlier today tells that tale.
A friendly reminder that if you speed your car through a neighborhood on Halloween, you are a bad person. pic.twitter.com/ghmzUjv5p5— Streetsblog USA (@StreetsblogUSA) October 31, 2017
Car crashes are the most common cause of death for children ages 5 to 15 in the U.S., and they have been on the rise in recent years. Pedestrian fatalities at their highest in 2016 since 1990, thanks to ever more digitally distracted drivers.
Obviously, the sheer number of children walking around is the main factor—there are more of them than usual, often crossing streets in darkness and the middle of blocks. But that doesn’t absolve drivers’ responsibility. Between 2012 and 2016, nearly one quarter of pedestrian fatalities on Halloween night involved a drunk driver, according to the U.S. DOT. Only on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve does alcohol fuel so much carnage.
There’s also the fact that a lot of U.S. neighborhoods aren’t really built for walkers, let alone young ones. Wide lanes, nonexistent sidewalks, spread out homes, and patchy lighting don’t create a safe setting for candy collection, or pedestrianism of any kind. Surely that’s part of the reason parents often choose to chauffeur their young Minions and Skywalkers from house to house, which can create traffic problems by itself. This year, the real estate website Zillow ranked the top cities in the U.S. for scoring Halloween candy, as well as the best neighborhoods; no surprise, communities where homes are tightly packed do the trick. Dense, walkable neighborhoods also do better on road safety.
Police chiefs and highway safety officials have the usual tips for pedestrians and drivers alike tonight. Kids should stick reflective tape on their candy buckets, use crosswalks, and look both ways. Adults should reduce speeds through residential neighborhoods, put their phones down, and take a bus or an Uber if they drink. Good advice for any night of the year.
But Halloween throws into stark relief one of the hardest lessons for Americans to learn. We love big hot suburbs so much we’re putting kids at risk on a holiday that’s supposed to be for them. That’s pretty spooky.