by Douglas Birch
On a spring-like Saturday morning in February of last year, Jeanette Walke drove her silver Honda Civic northwest on University Parkway near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus and made a right turn across a bicycle lane into the driveway of her apartment house. Police say she cut off 20-year-old Nathan Krasnopoler—science fiction fan, chess player, enthusiastic amateur cook and Hopkins computer science student—who was carrying a bag of produce home from the Waverly Farmers Market on his Trek bicycle. A police reconstruction of the accident said Krasnopoler swerved, collided with Walke’s car and was thrown in front of it, trapping him underneath. Badly injured and apparently unable to breathe, he was caught between the searing heat of the engine and the pavement. He was still wearing his bike helmet, according to police, but his lungs had collapsed. His broken glasses were found at the scene.
Walke, then 83 years old, climbed out and sat on a low wall as passers-by gathered. A witness told police she held her purse on her lap and seemed to be staring into space until someone asked her to switch off the engine. “I started to turn into the alley, then I heard a crunch like metal crumbling,” Walke later told police investigators. “Then I saw a limb like an arm and then I saw a head and I stopped and realized that the person was under my car.” By the time Baltimore firefighters managed to pull Krasnopoler out, he had a broken collarbone, fractured ribs, two collapsed lungs and severe burns to the face. He suffered extensive brain damage from a lack of oxygen and died six months later.
While most media reports emphasized Walke’s age—“Elderly Woman Ticketed in Crash with Hopkins Bicyclist” was a typical headline—Walke told police she was in good overall health. She reported having had glaucoma surgery in 2009 in both eyes, but told police she had visited the ophthalmologist the previous month and was given “a good report.” Walke could not be reached for comment, but her attorney says he did not believe her age played any role in the incident.
Still, the tragic death of Nathan Krasnopoler bore some of the hallmarks of collisions involving older motorists. Walke, who was charged with negligent driving, told police she looked but didn’t see Krasnopoler riding in the bike lane on her right as she approached her driveway. “I kept checking,” she said, according to the police investigation. Experts say that drivers older than 80 or so who are involved in collisions are more likely to report never having seen the other vehicle.
In America and affluent societies around the world, driving has come to be regarded not just as a symbol of youth and independence, but perceived as a basic human right. Giving it up can be hard. If we live long enough, most of us will face increasing mental and physical problems that can affect our ability to drive. Yet many older drivers with declining skills fiercely resist giving up their licenses. Meanwhile some studies suggest that giving up driving can increase social isolation, raise the risk of depression and restrict access to health care—though these problems may be aggravated by other age-related health issues.
Researchers are seeking ways to help keep older people behind the wheel for as long as they can drive safely and to prepare them to call it quits if they can no longer do so. The goal: Help governments, families and society improve road safety while respecting the rights of older citizens.
Answers, however, have been elusive. “The evidence is really just not there yet on what policies and programs are most effective, and much more needs to be done in the area of older driver research,” says Andrea Gielen, ScD ’89, ScM ’79, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP).
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