Article By Katherine Bontrager & Photography By Lisa Harrison – December 2013
Leawood family has turned a personal tragedy into a mission to protect an aging driving population from making serious mistakes.
Every time Susan Cohen hears of an elderly driver losing control and crashing into another car, a building, or, terrifyingly, onlookers at a parade, her frustration—and resolve—grow. She understands all too well the heartbreak older impaired drivers can wreak. Cohen lost her son Nathan Krasnopoler in August of 2011 when an 83-year-old driver made the most tragic of mistakes.
A sophomore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Nathan was riding his bike, returning from the farmer’s market via the bike lane, when an elderly driver turned into him, trapping him under her Honda Civic. Confused and disoriented, the driver got out of her car—which remained running— and sat down on a nearby wall. It was up to horrified witnesses to turn off the engine, call for emergency services, and help paramedics free Nathan.
While Nathan’s helmet protected his head, his lungs collapsed, depriving him of oxygen for more than 20 minutes and causing severe brain damage. His face, scalded by the car’s engine, was covered in fourth-degree burns. After 10 surgeries to repair his skin, and five months with no sign of cognition, doctors confirmed his parents’ worst nightmare: He was in a vegetative state and would never recover cognitive functions.
Cohen and her husband, Mitchell Krasnopoler, were left grieving and in shock. To add insult to grievous injury, the police who responded to the accident never turned the driver over to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which has a medical advisory board that reviews drivers’ ability to function behind the wheel.
“Those police felt sorry for her,” Cohen says. “She was the age of their grandparents. And they didn’t understand the laws well enough to know that she’d violated some laws. They thought our son was at fault. But she’d failed to yield to him in the bike lane. In addition, she broke the law that states cars have to stay at least 3 feet away from a cyclist at all times, and the law that dictates that when you’ve been in an accident, you have to summon medical help if it’s needed. She was never turned in for an evaluation to determine if she was fit to drive. She’d had three glaucoma surgeries, which can restrict your field of vision, but she was free to return to the road.”
It was clear to Cohen and her husband that the accident that ripped their lives apart was entirely preventable. Not only were state driving laws not advanced enough to handle an ever-increasing influx of elderly drivers, but law enforcement was often not properly trained to handle these potentially impaired citizens.
“As we researched the accident and learned more about older drivers in this country, we came to one conclusion and that is, in America, you can drive until you drop dead,” Cohen says. “No one will stop you, unless your children or grandchildren do. But for the most part, no one will stop you. We want to address these problems.”
Cohen and Krasnopoler have done just that—first in Maryland and now in Kansas and Missouri through their organization Americans For Older Driver Safety (AFODS). (Although AFODS does not yet have charitable organization status from the IRS, another local non-profit, KidsAndCars.org, agreed to sponsor AFODS so that charitable gifts could be made to AFODS through the sponsor.) Its mission is to advocate for safer roads through driver education, assessment, retraining and transitioning; and to raise public awareness of the safety risks related to unmonitored changes in driver abilities.
Their mission is not, Cohen emphasizes, to force older Americans to hand over their car keys. “Driving in America is absolutely important. There is not enough alternative mobility. And the economy needs older drivers and Baby Boomers, of which I’m one, to shop until we drop. So it’s not about keeping safe drivers off the road. It’s about keeping us safe. Nobody wants to be in the shoes of the woman who took Nathan’s life. Simply put: It’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of ability. My own mother, at age 89, is a very good driver. She’s very safe, very cautious. We need to work together as a community to educate older drivers of the aging-related changes that affect driving and how to address those changes to safely continue driving.”
And the number of older drivers on the road is about to skyrocket. Baby Boomers make up the largest generation in American history—with more than 80 million people, representing about one-quarter of the U.S. population.
“I’ve heard it referred to as a ‘senior tsunami,’ because the number of Americans 65 and older is expected to more than double from 40 million today to 88.5 million by 2050,” Cohen says.
This in itself is not a bad thing. However, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of fatal crashes per mile begins to climb at 70, then steeply increases after the age of 80—even while these same age groups drive fewer miles. The organization notes that this is largely due to the fragility of older drivers and age-related declines in vision, physical mobility, reaction time, and cognitive impairments that may affect driving abilities. [Insert graph on United States Annual Drivers]
And sadly, most state licensing offices aren’t equipped to handle this onslaught of aging drivers. In Kansas, drivers age 65 and older receive a four-year license (those younger renew every six years), and in Missouri, 18- to 20-year-olds and those 70 and over renew every three years (compared to six years for those outside those age groups). As Cohen points out, dramatic mental and physical changes can occur to the elderly in such a broad time period. She thinks a two-year span would be far safer, potentially catching dangerous changes before too much time is spent driving.
What other changes does AFODS hope to impart locally? Aside from more frequent license renewal for those over 70, the group wants to push for additional education for families
, older drivers themselves, law enforcement, as well as training for DMV staff so they can better spot drivers who may be impaired.
“No law change in the world is going to make up for counter staff who have no training or procedure to deal with an older driver who is not understanding even the most basic directions about the renewal of their license,” Cohen says.
Cohen also plans to offer classes to seniors to teach the situations that cause the most older driver crashes, such as intersections with no signal for left-hand turns, and increasing their awareness that medications they may be taking could affect their driving skills.
“There are so many little things drivers can do to remain on the road more safely,” she says. “The mirrors in the car may need to be enlarged or changed. Back-up cameras can be installed. And drivers can be trained to determine when someone is in their blind spot. Also, everyone needs to be aware of what resources are available to them in regards to driver rehabilitation and training.”
And most potently, Cohen can offer stories. “Even in some of the less tragic stories, every driver who caused a crash or incident didn’t think anything was wrong with their driving. We need to explain that everyone needs to be aware of the changes that take place as we age, and realize those changes could have a serious impact on our ability to safely sit behind the wheel.”
For those who’ve come to accept that driving may no longer be in their—or anyone’s—best interest, the group hopes to offer mobility counseling.
“Really it’s to help people find other means of transportation,” Cohen says. “You can’t assume an older person can get themselves on a city bus. It might be too rough of a ride, or the stairs are too steep, or the whole experience too confusing. So really people need assistance in trying to find alternatives that work for them to keep them mobile. Before someone can hang up the keys, they need to discover their mobility options and get comfortable with them.”
It is tiresome work, navigating individual state laws, motivating law enforcement and those at the DMV to listen and get on board, and struggling through the ubiquitous red tape that’s inherent with taking on the powers-that-be. But Cohen is ready. As a lawyer who formerly worked for the Attorney General of Maryland, she knows what it takes to get change accomplished. And she most fervently hopes she can make that difference before more lives are needlessly lost.