Razor blades in apples. Pins in candy bars. Heroin-laced lollipops. The urban legends surrounding trick-or-treating in the United States have been around for years, prompting recommendations that parents should examine all Halloween candy before letting children indulge. Are these widespread fears justified? What threats do children actually face when trick-or-treating?
Researchers termed the practice of deliberately giving contaminated candy to children as "Halloween Sadism." Professor Joel Best conducted a study on the topic in 1985. His research involved examining major U.S. newspapers to determine how often episodes of Halloween Sadism actually occurred. He found that incidents of true Halloween Sadism were incredibly rare—most events attributed to the practice turned out to simply be hoaxes or injuries that were attributable to other causes. Since his original study, Best has periodically updated his research and continues to find that these incidents are incredibly rare and their prevalence in the United States is greatly exaggerated.
Professor Best notes that despite the fact that contaminated candy is relatively rare, Halloween is, in fact, a relatively dangerous time for children. The true danger, however, comes not from the nefarious actions of strangers handing out candy, but rather an increase in a threat we encounter every day: drivers.
Halloween is the deadliest day of the year for child pedestrians. A recent analysis conducted by the Washington Post found that an average of 54 pedestrian minor children were struck and killed by an automobile on Halloween day from years 2004 to 2018; on any other day, an average of around 16 pedestrian minor children are struck and killed. A study released in JAMA Pediatrics found children ages four to eight are about ten times more likely to be killed in the evening on Halloween day than they were during any other fall evening. The study also found that the 6:00 p.m. hour (which coincides with rush hour as well as the sun setting in much of the United States) was the deadliest time for trick-or-treating pedestrians.
Research shows that the increased traffic brought about by Halloween merely highlights systemic failures in highway policy and construction in the U.S. Structural deficiencies can include lack of sidewalks, insufficient markings at pedestrian street crossings, insufficient lighting, and more. It also highlights the dangers that some vehicles pose to children (for example, the viewpoint from an SUV might make it particularly difficult to see small children).
While it is still advisable to take measures to keep your children safe during trick-or-treating, such as wearing reflective tape on costumes and sticking to walking on sidewalks, advocates stress the need for a systems-level change to make roadways safer for all child pedestrians year around.