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The Problem with Standardized Field Sobriety Tests

Field Sobriety Tests

No one likes to be pulled over by the police, and it can be especially unnerving to be asked to step out of the car on suspicion of drinking. Many people are familiar with field sobriety tests, which ideally would be a foolproof way to judge whether or not someone’s drinking has impaired their driving. However, these tests are not designed to help the driver and have many faults that can result in unfair allegations or charges.

You may encounter both standardized and nonstandardized sobriety tests upon being pulled over by a police officer. Nonstandardized tests include tasks like reciting the alphabet backwards (which can be difficult for anyone, whether they’ve been drinking or not) or closing your eyes and touching the tip of your nose. These tests have not been scientifically validated, yet some officers may ask you to perform them as proof of your sobriety.

There are three official Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. These are the tests you will probably face if pulled over and suspected of drinking, as they are most likely to hold up in court. Although these tests were developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), they are still subject to the police officer’s discretion. It is up to the law enforcement official to decide if you are performing the tests well enough or if you are too intoxicated to pass.

Many aspects of the standardized tests pose challenges for people who are aging or have injuries to their joints, legs, or middle ears. Furthermore, some people may have trouble passing the tests if they are nervous around the police or feel pressured.

There are three main types of Standardized Field Sobriety Test:

Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test (HGN)

The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test involves following an object (such as a flashlight or pen) with your eyes to track any jerking or shaking in eye movement. Nystagmus is the involuntary shaking of the eyes that naturally occurs when your eyes are rotated at high peripheral angles. However, when intoxicated, you may experience nystagmus at lower angles. If an officer notices your eyes shaking at an angle less than 45 degrees of center, you may be deemed too under the influence to drive responsibly. The problem is there are many other causes for nystagmus other than intoxication, so even a sober person could fail this test.

Walk and Turn Test (WAT)

You’ve probably seen this test in movies: a police officer asks the driver to step out of the car and walk in a straight line while following other instructions, such as counting aloud or keeping their hands at their sides. This test is designed to judge whether or not you can divide your attention between several tasks at once, a skill that can be impaired by drinking.

According the NHTSA, the officer will be looking for several signs of impairment. As the driver, you may be in hot water if you:

  • can’t stay balanced while listening to instructions
  • pause while walking to regain your balance
  • begin before the instructions are finished
  • step off the line
  • do not touch heel to toe while walking
  • make an improper turn
  • use your arms to balance
  • take an incorrect number of steps

If you make an error on any aspect of the test, you fail. As you can imagine, most people may have trouble with these tasks, and anyone with an injury or balance disorder is likely to struggle

One Leg Standing Test (OLS)

This is another “divided attention” test designed to see how many directions you can follow at one time. In the OLS, you are asked to stand on one foot and count until the officer asks you to stop (usually after about 30 seconds). The four indicators of impairment cited by the NHTSA are:

  • swaying
  • using arms to balance
  • hopping to maintain balance
  • putting the other foot down

If you do any of the above at some point in the test, you fail. It is assumed that anyone who cannot successfully stand on one leg for an extended period of time will have a BAC of .08 or more.

Even the NHTSA states that none of these tests have complete accuracy, meaning that even competent drivers can fail. Again, many aspects of these tests are subjective and entirely up to the officer to decide. In court, it will be his/her word against yours. It is recommended that you never take a Field Sobriety Test, as clearly they are not designed with total accuracy or objectivity in mind.