The arrest of the 41-year-old golf great Tiger Woods near his Florida home on Monday for driving under the influence underscores the growing role that drugs — prescription and otherwise — are playing in motor vehicle crashes.
According to media reports, Woods was arrested after police officers found him sleeping in his car with the engine running. His speech was slurred, and he failed roadside sobriety tests. Yet he registered zero on a breathalyzer test, indicating he hadn’t been drinking alcohol.
Instead, as a contrite Woods explained in a statement released to the press later that evening, his behavior had been caused by prescription medications.
“I want the public to know that alcohol was not involved,” he said in the statement. “What happened was an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications. I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly.”
Woods didn’t name the medications, but they may have been prescribed to reduce pain related to the back surgery (his fourth) he underwent in April. Nor did he say whether he had been taking the medications in the doses prescribed.
A major safety threat
Woods is far from being alone in underestimating the serious effect that drugs can have on driving abilities. As the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported earlier this year, drugs (illegal, prescription and over-the-counter) at levels that can impair driving are now more likely than alcohol to be found in drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes.
In 2015 (the latest year with complete data), drugs were found in 43 percent of fatally injured drivers with known test results, while alcohol was found in 37 percent of the drivers.
Just a decade earlier — in 2005 — a larger proportion of drivers killed in car crashes had alcohol in their bodies (43 percent) than drugs (28 percent).
The extent of the drugged driving problem may be even larger than that finding suggests. For, as the GHSA report points out, testing for driving under the influence of drugs is both “difficult and complex.”
“There are 430 specific drugs or metabolites in the national highway safety fatality database,” the report notes.
In addition, the effects of drugs on behavior — including on driving ability — can vary considerably from person to person.
Yet many people remain oblivious to the danger. Another recent study found that 20 percent of U.S. drivers randomly asked to complete a roadside survey reported that they had taken a prescription drug within the previous two days. The most common drugs cited were sedatives, antidepressants, narcotics and stimulants.
Significant proportions of the respondents said they had taken doses higher than those prescribed by their doctors, and about a quarter of the respondents acknowledged that the drug had not been prescribed for them.
The role of marijuana
Surprisingly, the author of the GHSA report — Jim Hedlund, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official — told Reuters reporter Ian Simpson that the rise in drugged driving does not appear to be primarily driven by the prescription opioid epidemic of recent years.
In more than a third of the fatal crashes in the GHSA report, the driver tested positive not for opioids, but for marijuana. The second-biggest category of drugs involved in those crashes was amphetamines, which were found in almost 10 percent of the fatally injured drivers.
The report points out that marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado rose 48 percent after the state legalized the recreational use of the drug. But it also notes that in European studies, marijuana use was found to only slightly increase the risk of a motor vehicle crash, while opioids, amphetamines and mixing alcohol with drugs greatly increased the risk.
“Drugged driving is a complicated issue,” said Hedlund in a statement released with the GHSA report. “The more we can synthesize the latest research and share what’s going on around the country to address drug-impaired driving, the better positioned states will be to prevent it.”
But the evidence from the research we already have presents a clear warning to drivers: “People generally should get educated that drugs of all sorts can impair your driving ability,” Hedlund said in his interview with Reuters. “If you’re on a drug that does so, you shouldn’t be driving.”
FMI: You can download and read the GHSA report at the organization’s website. You’ll find information on drugged driving — including a list of prescription drugs that can dangerously affect your ability to drive — on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website. You should also discuss with your doctor how the drugs you’re taking might affect your driving, particularly since it’s sometimes the combination of drugs — not the individual drugs themselves — that can impair driving.