The scourge of the road for decades remained the drunk driver, but now there’s competition as more Americans turn to prescription painkillers and tranquilizers: the drugged driver.
The recent arrest of Tiger Woods — the golfing legend and Jupiter Island resident — revealed a startling statistical fact: Drugged drivers may, in fact, be more deadly than their drunk counterparts.
Jupiter police found Woods, 41, asleep behind the wheel of a damaged and idling Mercedes-Benz on Military Trail.
After his arrest for alleged DUI, Woods blamed the incident on a bad reaction to prescription medications and stressed that “alcohol was not involved.”
But is driving under the influence of drugs, even doctor-prescribed meds, any more acceptable than being impaired by alcohol?
Not to police who are dealing with a growing wave of drug-fueled drivers navigating the nation’s roads.
“People say, ‘But I have a prescription for this,’ ” said Sgt. Todd Schimelfanick, who oversees the five-person DUI unit for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. “And maybe the guy had surgery and is taking something for pain. But just because you have a legal prescription doesn’t give you the right to operate a motor vehicle if you are under the influence.”
His DUI unit made 608 arrests in 2016, with up to 20 percent of those involving drugged drivers, according to the agency.
The shocking numbers don’t lie on the rise of painkillers use in the U.S.
Since 1999, the number of opioid painkillers prescribed in the U.S., a category that includes Vicodin and OxyContin, nearly quadrupled. In fact, U.S. patients buy and take 8o percent of the world’s prescription painkillers.
As far back as 2013, nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions were written in this country— enough to provide every American with their own bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, that number grew to a reported 300 million prescriptions.
And the result on the road?
According to a 2015 study released by the Governors Highway Safety Association, about 43 percent of fatally injured drivers were found to have either prescription or illegal drugs in their system, compared with 37 percent of drivers who had consumed alcohol. In 2005, only 27 percent of fatally injured drivers showed evidence of drug use.
The American Automobile Association reports that “prescription drugs are the most prevalent of all drugs” found in fatally injured drivers (46.5 percent).
Though the presence of a painkiller in the deceased driver doesn’t always mean it was the cause of the automobile accident, Jim Hedlund, who authored the 2015 GHSA study, says: “There are a lot of folks driving around with drugs in their system. It’s an increasing problem.”
Fueling this danger is that many of these motorists are unaware they are doing anything wrong by driving drugged.
“They simply don’t understand what the red label means on their bottle that says don’t operate heavy machinery,” West Palm Beach attorney Greg Lerman said. “People will say to me they can’t be DUI because they have a prescription. Just because you have a prescription for medication does not excuse you. ”
Lerman said that defending clients charged with DUI for being intoxicated because of prescription pills has become more common in his practice.
“I’ve certainly seen more of them over the last few years,” Lerman said.
Drivers suspected of DUI are put through a roadside sobriety test that includes four elements: walk and turn, one-leg stand, finger to nose and reciting the alphabet.
Woods performed miserably, failing to maintain a starting position on the walk and turn, placing his foot down several times during the one-leg stand and repeatedly being unable to comprehend the instructions he was given, according to the arrest report and a dashboard-camera video released by police. He managed to complete the alphabet after being given instructions several times.
Based on his performance and observing Woods, Jupiter officers decided they had enough evidence to arrest the golfer for DUI, no matter the results of toxicology screens. Woods registered a .000 blood alcohol reading after his arrest, supporting his claim that he hadn’t been drinking. The results of his drug screening were not available.
Unlike alcohol’s legal limit of .08, there is no similar threshold for prescription or illegal drugs.
Woods agreed to breath and urine tests following his arrest.
The golfer, who had back surgery in April, told police he was taking several prescription medications, including Vicodin. According to the Vicodin website, the drug can have several side effects including drowsiness, anxiety and “mental clouding” and warns users not to “drive or operate heavy machinery, until you know how Vicodin affects you.”
William Fagan, pharmacy director at Delray Medical Center, said people react differently to strong pain-killing medications based on a variety of factors.
“With alcohol, there’s a strong correlation between impairment and blood-alcohol level,” Fagan said. “With medications, there’s really not. People who have been on medications for a long time, they develop tolerance and take super-high doses that, if you or I took them, would probably kill us. Yet they are walking around functioning like normal human beings.”
David Kubiliun, a criminal lawyer in Miami, said he expects Woods to use an “involuntary intoxication” defense if his case goes to trial. Woods already hinted in that direction by blaming the incident on an “unexpected reaction” to his medication, the attorney pointed out. Douglas Duncan, a West Palm Beach attorney representing Woods, confirmed Thursday he will represent the golfer in the case but declined further comment.
“That defense is no slam dunk because the prosecutors are going to say the warnings on the medication bottles say you shouldn’t be operating a vehicle,” Kubiliun said. “They’re going to say he should have known better.”
The problem can be addressed if doctors step up when it comes to prescribing painkillers and tranquilizers, said Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County.
“It’s important physicians have that conversation when they write these prescriptions to make patients aware that these medications will make them impaired,” Alonso said. “They are not going to know. You are giving them this medication and they think it is safe because a doctor gave it to them.”