Tiger Woods DUI Arrest Spotlights Complicated Problem Of Drugged Driving

After Tiger Woods’ recent DUI arrest, he issued a statement in which he said, “I want the public to know alcohol was not involved.  What happened was an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications.”  Prescription medications, as well as non-prescribed drugs, account for an increasing number of DUI/OVI cases in Ohio and throughout the United States.  Tiger’s situation very publicly spotlights the complicated problem of drugged driving.

Tiger-Woods-practicing-300x216

The Effects Of An Unexpected Reaction
At about 3:00 am on Memorial Day, a police officer found Tiger asleep at the wheel of his Mercedes.  The car was parked, partially on the road, and the engine was running.  The officer approached Tiger and woke him.  The officer noticed Tiger was sluggish and observed Tiger’s speech was slow and slurred.  When asked where he was going, Tiger said he was coming from L.A. and going to Orange County.  He was actually in Jupiter, Florida.

The officer had Woods get out of his car, and he was unable to walk alone.  The officer administered field sobriety tests, and Woods performed poorly on the tests.  Woods was arrested, and a breath test showed an alcohol level of 0.00.  However, his speech, coordination and demeanor were consistent with being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  His speech, coordination and demeanor can be reviewed on this dash-cam video and this police station video.  Tiger told the officers he had not been drinking but had taken prescription medication.

Prescription Medication May Impair Driving Ability
Like so many others, Tiger was legitimately prescribed prescription pain medications.  His chronic back pain led to multiple surgeries between 2014 and April of 2017.  Tiger apparently did not expect the pain medication to impair his driving.  “I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly”, he said.

Prescription pain medication definitely can impair driving.  As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed a program for officers to become Drug Recognition Experts (DRE).  Those officers are taught to administer drug recognition evaluations on drivers suspected of driving under the influence of prescription medication and non-prescribed drugs.

Drugged driving is reportedly a big problem.  According to the 2017 Drug-Impaired Driving report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), more fatally injured drivers had drugs their system than alcohol.  Of those tested, 43% of motorists had drugs in their system, and 37% tested positive for alcohol. The report does not say drugs or alcohol were responsible for the crashes which caused the drivers’ deaths.  The report also concluded that, out of drivers arrested for DUI, 41% tested positive for some drug, and 51% had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or more.

The Issue Of Drugged Driving Is Complex
Drugged driving is a complicated problem.  There are hundreds of drugs which may impair a person’s driving ability.  While the effects of alcohol are well understood, the effects of some drugs are not so well known.  In addition, drugs can affect individuals differently, so the danger posed by various drugs varies from one driver to another.  Finally, drug impairment is more difficult to detect than alcohol impairment.  The complicated problem of drugged driving is the subject of ongoing efforts by NHTSA, IACP and GHSA.

The topic of drugged driving received national attention with the recent arrest of Tiger Woods.  From an individual perspective, drivers need to know how medications affect them so they don’t have an ‘unexpected reaction’ while driving.  From a policy perspective, the challenge is to effectively combat drugged driving without overreaching.  When officers are trained with pseudo-science to make medical determinations, there is a risk of prosecuting sober individuals for impaired driving because the officers’ observations match a standardized profile.  For the forseeable future, there will be a role for DUI/OVI defense lawyers to ensure their clients are not the victims of error-prone investigation by checklist.