Risks of older drivers, pushes for more stringent laws reviewed

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 5:54 p.m. CDT; updated 7:45 a.m. CDT, Thursday, March 21, 2013

COLUMBIA — Biking home from a farmers market in Maryland in 2011, Nathan Krasnopoler reached the top of a hill and saw a Honda Civic approaching.

The car turned right into an apartment complex, and the 82-year-old driver hit Krasnopoler without realizing it. She got out of the car without turning it off, leaving Krasnopoler trapped underneath, his legs poking out like a mechanic working on repairs.

"She could have yelled 'Help, help, I need help,' but she didn't do that," Susan Cohen,Krasnopoler's mother, said. Instead, the driver sat on a nearby wall until someone else called 911.

Cohen spoke at an event held by the Older Adults Transportation Service on Wednesday to discuss the risks older drivers might pose to themselves and others. Speakers included Jackie Rogers of the Traffic and Highway Safety Division of MoDOT, University Hospital Chief of Staff James Kessel and Dorothy Yeager, executive director of Older Adults Transportation Service .

Rogers said the issue of older drivers is a highway safety concern. In Missouri, 126 drivers age 65 or older were killed in crashes in 2012, and more than 4,000 others were injured, she said. In 2012, older drivers were involved in 26 percent of Missouri's fatal accidents, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety. 

"This is an issue that hopefully we can find some solutions for if we all work together," she said.

The problem could worsen as the older population increases, Rogers said. She estimates there will be more than 1.2 million drivers age 65 or older in Missouri by 2025, compared to 743,000 today.

James Stowe, coordinator of trauma injury prevention at the Frank L. Mitchell Jr., M.D. Trauma Center at University Hospital, said he supported testing a "peer-led approach" to get an older person to stop driving. Such an approach would involve someone from a nursing home or health care organization helping the person make the transition to not driving.

"That hopefully will help lessen the 'crisis' that they face when it's time to give up the keys," Stowe said. "They'll have a plan set, they'll have some steps toward trying it out, and we're hoping to smooth out the transition for those folks."

Kessel spoke about the health challenges that older drivers face, including cognitive problems. The cognitive process slows as people age, which could affect driving. Slow reflexes threaten not only older drivers but everyone else on the road, he said.

"Prolongation of a second may sound insignificant," Kessel said. "But in reality, when you're traveling 50, 60 miles an hour, the car is going to travel 88 feet in that interval of time." 

The police freed Krasnopoler from under the car after 15 minutes, but the damage was irreparable. He had been deprived of oxygen, and he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. He was revived but remained in a coma for the next five months.

"When no cognition came back whatsoever, we took him to hospice, and he died five days later," his mother recounted. He was 20 years old.

After her son's accident, Cohen left her job as an attorney with the Maryland Attorney General's office to raise awareness and change older driver laws across the country. She founded Americans for Older Driver Safety, an organization that lobbies for stricter older driver laws. She supports cognitive testing for drivers as they age to make sure they can still operate vehicles safely.

"I will work nationwide because this is what I do now," she said.

The police who arrived at the scene didn't recommend cognitive testing for the woman who hit Krasnopoler. She received two tickets, one for negligent driving and another for violating a bicycle lane law. Some points were added to her license but not enough to require additional driver education.

The woman did not lose her license.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.

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