Tiger Woods’ history with Ambien, details of latest car crash raise questions
In the early morning hours of Memorial Day in 2017, a police officer in Florida observed a black Mercedes stopped on the road in the right lane with its brake lights on and the right blinker still blinking.
The officer then approached the driver, who was asleep at the wheel and had to be woken up.
The driver said he did not know where he was and acknowledged that he “takes several prescriptions,” according to the police officer’s affidavit. One of the prescription drugs found in his system was the sleep medication zolpidem, which is commonly known as Ambien.
The driver was golf legend Tiger Woods.
Nearly four years later, on Feb. 23, Woods was found off the road in a crashed car by a local resident who said Woods was initially unconscious. A Los Angeles County Sheriff deputy at the scene asked Woods how the crash occurred.
“Driver said he did not know and did not even remember driving,” according to a deputy’s affidavit obtained by USA TODAY Sports. When Woods was asked again later at the hospital, he repeated that he did not know and did not remember driving.
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Tiger Woods' vehicle after he was involved in a rollover accident in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, on Feb. 23, 2021. Woods had to be extricated from the wreck by Los Angeles County firefighters, and is currently hospitalized. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY)
Despite those statements, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said there was no evidence of Woods being impaired. The sheriff’s department therefore didn’t request blood evidence to check for drug use, prompting another question surrounding the incident: Was this latest crash another case of Woods driving on Ambien?
Experts say the evidence supports that suspicion, including the way they say his vehicle left the road as if he had been asleep at the wheel.
Then there’s his history. After another single-car crash in Florida in 2009, Woods was found unconscious in his SUV and snoring, according to a witness statement in a police report. Woods later acknowledged he used Ambien but didn’t directly answer when asked at a news conference if Ambien played a role in that crash.
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The experts contacted by USA TODAY Sports cautioned that they couldn’t draw conclusions yet and that there could be other explanations for what happened, such as other medicines or a medical emergency.
“But I know where you look at the prior conduct and suspect there may be something else here at play,” said Charles Schack, a former New Hampshire state police trooper who is now president of Crash Experts, which analyzes traffic accidents for law firms and insurance companies.
Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent, didn’t respond to a message Friday seeking comment.
The investigation into the crash on Feb. 23 is still active, though the actual cause may never be known without a toxicology report on Woods.
“We can’t just assume that somebody’s history makes them guilty,” Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy John Schloegl said March 2 when asked by USA TODAY Sports why they weren’t pursuing a search warrant to obtain blood evidence from Woods.
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Schloegl said the sheriff’s department lacked the “probable cause” necessary to obtain approval from a judge for such a warrant. He noted that first responders observed Woods to be alert after he crashed his SUV.
But the fact that Woods was awake on the scene after the crash is not in dispute. Whether he was conscious when his vehicle drifted into the median and off the road is an open question.
Woods, 45, suffered multiple broken bones in his lower right leg, jeopardizing his golf career. Woods was wearing a seatbelt, and “the majority of vehicle airbags had deployed,” according to a deputy’s affidavit sworn on March. 1. The affidavit did not mention any head injuries other than “injuries/lacerations to his face” with blood on his face and chin. Airbags can cause facial injuries but also combine with seat belts to help prevent head trauma.
With Ambien, the warning label says side effects may include “sleep-driving,” which is described as driving while not fully awake and then not remembering it.
“Peer-reviewed scientific research has shown that Ambien usage among drivers has been associated with reports of amnesia, despite remaining interactive with the environment,” said Rami Hashish, principal at the National Biomechanics Institute, which analyzes the cause of accidents. “So the current available evidence may be consistent with 'sleep-driving.'”
Such sleep-driving is familiar to former police detective Jonathan Cherney, who now works as an accident reconstruction expert in Southern California. He said he has investigated several car crashes in which Ambien was involved.
“I can tell you I do not recall a case where the driver had an independent recollection of what occurred immediately prior to the actual collision itself,” Cherney told USA TODAY Sports. “Now that’s not to say that there are some drivers who may recollect what happened, but I personally do not recall any who were able to provide a detailed description of how a crash occurred.”
Cherney and other car accident reconstruction experts told USA TODAY Sports that the evidence indicates Woods wasn’t paying attention and had a “very delayed response” to the emergency at hand on the morning of Feb. 23 near Rolling Hills Estates.
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