Nathan Krasnopoler was just trying to get home from the farmers market with a backpack of fresh vegetables.
He never made it. In February 2011 an 83-year-old driver turned directly in front of him on a Baltimore street, knocking him from his bike and pinning him underneath her car. Five months later, the 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University sophomore died.
On Wednesday his mother — Susan Cohen of Leawood, an attorney turned consumer advocate — will speak from painful experience about the importance of older driver safety. She is keynote speaker of the Get Up and Go Older Adult Driving Expo at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus.
Cohen, 59, who teaches classes for aging drivers, will talk about medical conditions that can degrade driving skills, highlight products that increase safety and discuss low-cost transportation options in Johnson County for those who have stopped driving.
“We’ve extended human life so far that we cannot assume, as we could a few decades ago, that you can just drive until you die,” Cohen says. “And you will never really know when you are no longer safe on the road. You’re not going to get a phone call — ‘Oh, today’s the day I’m no longer safe to drive?’ It’s not like that.”
If only it was.
As the silver Honda Civic’s hot engine scalded Nathan’s face, its disoriented driver exited her car and sat on a landscaping wall outside her apartment complex. She did not yell for help. She did not dial 911. She didn’t even turn off her car.
Later, a horrified passerby had to shut off the car’s engine, call for assistance and help paramedics free Nathan.
“We just don’t know how long he was under that vehicle with two collapsed lungs while she just sat there,” says Cohen, who was living with her family in Baltimore at the time. Nathan sustained severe brain damage and disfiguring burns to his face and arms.
Cohen’s face drops at the memory.
“I took one look at him and it was just … unbelievable,” she says. “I couldn’t believe a person could be alive looking like that. His head was enormous, he was all swollen and red. Half his face was burned off by the engine.”
Such a loss. “Nathan was really brilliant,” she says of her son, who got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins. “He had a great computer science career ahead of him.”
Cohen and her husband, Mitchell Krasnopoler, have two other children, Elliot, 27, and Emma, 18.
“Mom keeps talking about how he was intellectual and into computer science, but he also changed the way we cook,” says Emma. “He insisted we use fresh ingredients and make things the best way and not just the easiest way. He made this pie crust out of butter and not Crisco. And we still make it because it’s better.”
Nathan spent five months in a coma and had 10 surgeries to repair his skin. His parents finally faced the grim reality: Their son was in a vegetative state and would not recover. They decided to remove his feeding tube. He was moved to a hospice and died that August. The state of Maryland did not take away the woman’s license, even though she broke several laws. Authorities didn’t report her to the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles, which has a medical advisory board to review a person’s fitness to drive. The couple had to sue the woman to get her to give up her driver’s license.
Today, Cohen and her husband have turned personal tragedy into a public mission: to do all they can to keep what happened to Nathan from happening to anyone else.
In 2012 they founded Americans for Older Driver Safety to encourage older drivers to get safety training, to drive less and to prepare for the day when they will stop driving.
For seniors and their families, it’s a thorny subject. A survey from the National Safety Council and Caring.com found that adult children ranked talking to elderly parents about their driving more difficult than talking to them about selling their house or even funeral wishes.
Still, having the conversation is important, Cohen says. Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and rise notably after age 80, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What we really need to do is for all the states to be working on public awareness campaigns on the issue of aging and driving,” Cohen says. “And not just drivers. It’s doctors and law enforcement officers and the state licensing administration. It will take many, many years to get state laws in place nationwide that review drivers to see whether they are still capable of driving. We don’t have that in place now.”
Missouri and Kansas do have programs to evaluate older drivers for safety when they come in for license renewal. Still, Cohen says, too many dangerous drivers remain on the roads. Both states allow older drivers to have restricted licenses that permit them to drive a mile or two to a grocery store, but not longer distances.
“Older drivers want to hang on,” says Mitchell Krasnopoler. “The problem is, when your cognitive ability decreases, so does your ability to assess yourself. So you’re in denial that you can’t drive. You rationalize it and say, ‘I only drive certain distances.'”
Cohen knows that many statistics show that older drivers are actually safer than younger ones. But that’s largely because they drive less, she says.
In the early ’70s only 50 percent of Americans over 65 had a driver’s license, according to AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety. By 2010 that number jumped to 85 percent. And today, as the first members of the baby boom generation get ready to turn 70, the number of elderly drivers is set to skyrocket again. Beginning Jan. 1, according to one estimate, an average of 10,800 U.S. citizens will turn 70 every day for almost 15 years. By the time this “silver tsunami” crests in 2030, an estimated 78 million baby boomers will be 70 and older.
“Per mile driven (older drivers) actually are more dangerous than teenagers at a certain age,” says Krasnopoler.
Following Nathan’s death, Cohen turned herself into a national expert on elderly motorists. She wrote her own curriculum on older driver safety and used her own money to help print booklets full of tips.
“There are many states in the U.S. that don’t have any materials whatsoever relating to older driver safety,” she says. “You can go into any library and there’s nothing for you to take out. I would like for (the booklets) to be on display in doctor’s offices.”
Money from a couple of grants helped Cohen teach about 150 drivers. Destination Safe Coalition, a part of the Mid-America Regional Council, just renewed her grant for another year in Missouri.
Classes will start in late summer at a yet-to-be determined location. She’s seeking a bigger financial backer to bring her driving tips to an even larger audience.
For seniors who choose to stop driving, there are options; about a dozen transportation services will attend Wednesday’s expo.
Johnson County’s Catch-a-Ride suggests a $3 donation for a one-way trip. Volunteer drivers take riders who are over 60, have a disability or no means of transportation to medical appointments, the grocery store and social service agencies.
JET Express, operated by Jewish Family Services, charges $5 each way but will take riders age 65 and older on both sides of the state line to more locations.
“People feel if they don’t have a car they can’t continue the active and independent lives they had been leading as they age,” says Dawn Staton, director of older adult initiatives for Jewish Family Services. “So they just continue driving. But there are (ways) to get them to the doctor, or visit a friend, or go to the movies.”
Cohen insists her motive is not to get older drivers to hand over their keys.
“We’ve not trying to get safe drivers off the roads,” she says. “We’re just trying to make more people safe.”
Kristin Nichols, an occupational therapist and certified driving rehab specialist at Shawnee Mission Health, said Cohen is doing just that.
“Susan has done an amazing job of trying to tackle a beastly problem and (get ahead of) a national crisis,” Nichols says. “Historically it has been addressed by states individually. Her goal is to try to bring some continuity to the problem, nationally. She certainly has the tenacity to make a difference.”
James Stowe, co-chair of the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety’s subcommittee on elderly mobility and safety, praised Cohen for turning a personal tragedy into a greater good.
“I really think she and her organization have the chance to be as important as groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” he says.
She’s done it all for Nathan.
“What can I say?” she says, cradling a picture of her smiling middle child. “He was adorable. Just a very sweet kid.”