Susan Cohen threaded sunflowers and hydrangeas through the frame of a white "ghost bike" on the sidewalk at West University Parkway, a memorial to her son Nathan Krasnopoler. The Johns Hopkins University student was 20 when he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle near campus.
Cohen has made many visits to the accident scene since the collision more than four years ago, when an 83-year-old woman turned right from West University into her apartment building driveway, hitting Krasnopoler and pinning him under her car. Krasnopoler, who never regained consciousness and was in a coma, suffered severe brain damage and died six months later on Aug. 10, 2011.
On Sunday, a visit to mark the fourth anniversary of her middle child's death carried yet another purpose for Cohen.
The attorney and former Ellicott City resident has embarked on a mission to help aging motorists drive more safely and recognize their limits. Cohen, who with her husband founded Americans for Older Driver Safety in 2012, has begun offering seminars using curriculum she developed to teach aging drivers about physical and cognitive impairments that could diminish their abilities.
"I've become a national expert, and it wasn't by choice," Cohen said. "Older drivers don't know when they're safe to drive. They can get the car turned on and on the roadway, but that doesn't mean they're safe."
It's an issue that gets too little attention, Cohen said, at a time when aging baby boomers will help swell the over-70 population over the next two decades.
During seminars at senior centers, libraries, churches and synagogues, she urges drivers to begin "downsizing" in their 70s in preparation for eventually stopping driving altogether. Such transitions can include planning routes and schedules to avoid driving at night, on highways or unfamiliar places, or reducing the number of days on the road. Cohen has tracked accidents around the country involving elderly drivers and has found they most often result after left turns or driving on the wrong side of the road.
"There are lots of ways ... to reduce driving and reduce risk and still stay mobile," she said.
She encourages older drivers to ask family members to ride along to observe them or seek out expert opinions from specialists such as occupational therapists or neurologists. Age may not matter, some older drivers may have no physical or cognitive impairments that would make their driving unsafe.
"It's not about age; it's about ability," she said, though "driving retirement is something we're all headed for."
Besides speaking with senior citizens, who she said have been receptive to her talks, she has advocated for state laws that would require competency testing or increase in-person evaluations as part of license renewals. She said Maryland's extension of in-person renewals from five to eight years put the state "at the bottom of the heap."
Cohen's work complements that of Bikemore, said Liz Cornish, executive director of the Baltimore bicycling advocacy organization. The group is advocating for planning and infrastructure that benefits and improves safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers, while promoting options that reduce automobile dependency, she said.
"We all want to live in a city where a college student can bike home from the farmer's market, and do so with the expectation of arriving at the destination safely," Cornish said.
Cohen, who now lives in a Kansas City suburb, has been able to develop her seminars in that area with the help of grants. Another grant from the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation will allow her to expand to Maryland. She will offer her first seminar in the state on Monday for about 60 men at the Edward A. Myerberg Center, a senior center, on topics such as good and dangerous driving habits and the transition to driving retirement.
On Sunday morning before visiting her son's "ghost bike," one of three such memorials in the city, Cohen stopped at the supermarket to buy seasonal flowers she knew her son would have liked. Nathan, who grew up in Ellicott City and was a computer science major, had been on his way home from the Waverly Farmer's market the Saturday morning of the accident. The sophomore was riding in the bike lane when he was hit.
"My son was an interesting kid, very brilliant, but he was all about doing things the best way," hence the trip to the market where he regularly bought local, seasonal produce, Cohen said, adding he liked to cook from scratch.
"He was a brilliant young man with a bright future," Cohen said. "There's very little I can do for my son, except to remember him, and that's what I'm doing."