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Updated 10:00 AM October 31, 2005
 

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  Research
Child traffic fatalities increase on Halloween

On Halloween night, pedestrian fatalities involving children are about 4.5 times the levels of other nights of the year, say researchers at the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

"This increase does not occur in daylight periods and it is primarily restricted to children 15 and under," says John Sullivan, UMTRI assistant research scientist. "This is a consequence of the special vulnerability of pedestrians at night, along with the greater than usual numbers of children out on Halloween, increasing the opportunity for an accident."

The accident data for Halloween were compiled from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System dataset, using statistics on pedestrian fatalities from 1987-2004. The data included the number of young pedestrian fatalities (age 15 and younger) in dark and light conditions for three days before and after Oct. 31 and those occurring on Halloween.

Compared to the approximately 3,000 annual pedestrian fatalities in darkness, the increase in Halloween deaths is relatively small, amounting to about three additional deaths per year. It illustrates, however, the more general point that darkness is extremely dangerous for pedestrians of any age and on any night of the year, the researchers say.

"Our recommendation for Halloween is that children dress in light-colored clothes, which improves their visibility to drivers," Sullivan says. "We also strongly recommend using retro-reflective marking on clothes and shoes. Retro-reflectors bounce light from headlamps back in the direction of oncoming cars and they are amazingly effective."

The results for Halloween emerged from a comprehensive series of data analyses that Sullivan and UMTRI colleague Michael Flannagan, a research associate professor, conducted on how light level affects accident risk. They examined how pedestrian risk is affected by the seasonal changes in light from June to December and the abrupt transitions in light versus time of day that occur at the beginning and end of daylight saving time in the spring and fall.

Their analyses have allowed Sullivan and Flannagan to measure how safety at night is affected by light itself, separately from other factors that make driving at night more dangerous, such as fatigue and alcohol. Their research is helping to determine the best ways to improve automobile headlamps.

Sullivan and Flannagan say that drivers have difficulty seeing pedestrians in the dark and often appear to have insufficient time to avoid striking them. This is especially a problem when driving at higher speeds, where drivers' stopping distance exceeds the limits of their headlamp beams.

Darkness and speed, they say, combine to multiply the risk of a pedestrian fatality seven times on high-speed, limited-access roadways; five times on urban side streets; and three times on slower local roads.

Their research has been sponsored by grants from NHTSA and the transportation industry through the UMTRI Industry Affiliation Program for Human Factors in Transportation Safety.

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