Why Sober Drivers Can Fail Field Sobriety Tests

why sober people fail field sobriety tests


In our last post, we discussed the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. That’s just the first of three standardized field sobriety tests that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) uses to determine if someone is under the influence of alcohol.

In this post, we’ll look at two more standardized field sobriety tests: the Walk and Turn and the One Leg Stand.

The Walk and Turn Test

This is a divided attention field sobriety test, which means that a person under the influence of alcohol is not supposed to be able to perform the test correctly, because alcohol intoxication will not allow a person to divide their attention.

Original research revealed that this test, when properly administered and scored, was only 68% accurate in determining if someone was under the influence of alcohol. That means it was incorrect 32% of the time. Yes, in ideal circumstances, when performed exactly as instructed, this test was wrong 1/3 of the time. Not a very good indicator of whether someone is actually under the influence.

Several problems exist with the Walk and Turn test, including the fact that it is nearly impossible to perform correctly the first time, sober or not. Here’s how the test works:

The officer will ask you to stand in an uncomfortable position while you listen to the instructions for what to do. If you break that stance, it is a “clue” that you are impaired. While holding a balancing stance, the officer will instruct you to perform many, many tasks. What’s more, officers are taught to give these instructions in rapid order, which makes them hard to follow and remember. Any mistakes you make are additional “clues” that you are impaired by alcohol.  

Here’s what the officer will ask you to do: walk and turn sobriety test

  • Walk the line, heel to toe, for 9 steps,
  • Turn in a specific manner,
  • Keep your arms at your sides,
  • Look at your feet,
  • Count out loud,
  • Don’t stop walking,
  • Count in the proper order,
  • Keep your feet on the line, and
  • Return 9 heel to toe steps to the start.

Can you remember all that? The reality is almost nobody hearing these instructions for the first time can remember everything and do it exactly right. There is just too much information in this test.

Now imagine trying to do it all under the stress of having just been pulled over and accused of driving under the influence.

To make it even harder, police officers also won’t tell you what they are looking for. Even worse, some officers will tell you what not to do, which can get confusing when trying to remember all the instructions. During the Walk and Turn test, the officer will be watching for a total of 8 clues to determine if you are under the influence.

woman taking field sobriety test

For example: The picture above is a woman performing the Walk and Turn test. Most tests are now recorded on video, but in this still picture, she is currently showing two “clues” of intoxication:

  • Her heel is not touching her toe, and
  • Her arms are raised from her side.

She is also wearing heels that are over 2” in length, so she should have also been offered the opportunity to take her shoes off to perform the test. She should also not be holding her purse during the test. A police officer who has your best interests in mind, will consider those factors, and give you every opportunity to pass the test and prove you are not intoxicated.

The One Leg Stand

one leg stand field sobriety test The third and last standardized test in the NHTSA battery of field sobriety testing is the One Leg Stand or OLS test.

This is another divided attention test. Original research revealed that this test, when properly administered and scored, was only 65% accurate in determining if someone was under the influence of alcohol. If you remember, the Walk and Turn test was only 68% accurate. Thus, the OLS test is the least accurate field sobriety test of the three. It’s incorrect 35% of the time, which means, in ideal circumstances, when performed exactly as instructed, this test was wrong more than 1/3 of the time.

There is also a specific category of people who were not represented in the scientific studies behind this test. Therefore, the One Leg Stand test doesn’t have legitimate scientific support for some of the population.

The test is essentially very basic, but very difficult if you don’t have great balance. Again, the officer will give you rapid fire instructions on what to do. You are expected to do everything as instructed. For example, if you “sway” for balance, the officer will take that as a clue you are intoxicated.

Give it a try right now:

  • Raise either foot approximately 6” off the ground, keeping the bottom of the foot parallel to the ground.
  • While looking at your foot, keep both legs straight and arms at your sides.
  • With the raised foot in the air, count out loud from 1 to 30, saying, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three…” and so on, until the officer times you for 30 seconds.  

There are a total of 4 clues an officer is looking for during this test to determine if you are under the influence, including raising of the arms, swaying, hopping, and putting the raised foot down.

Problems With Field Sobriety Tests

court gavel trial There are many problems with these field sobriety tests. The science behind them is flawed, and they are designed to be very difficult — even for someone who is sober.

In fact, police are specifically taught that even sober people may have difficulty with these tests.

The majority of police officers will not give you proper instructions before either test. And most officers who try to demonstrate a test to you will actually show “clues” of intoxication themselves.

However, officers are also taught “cheats” that allow them to pass the tests more easily if they are asked to demonstrate in court. They don’t afford that luxury to anyone accused of DUI.

Only an experienced attorney who knows the small complexities of these tests, the scientific studies behind them, and how the officers are trained can actually use them to your advantage if you are accused.

What To Do If You’re Accused

How much of the information in this post did you already know?

Unfortunately, many DUI defense attorneys don’t know it either. This is exactly why, if you or someone you know wants premier DUI defense, you must seek an attorney who knows what he is talking about.

I personally have dedicated myself to becoming the most advanced DUI defense attorney I can be.

I have taken specialized training, exactly the same training law enforcement takes, which teaches the NHTSA manuals on law enforcement DUI detection in the United States. This specific knowledge is key to knowing how the officers were trained, what they are looking for, and how to catch them when they mess up, which they do.

For example, in a recent case an officer attempted to administer the Walk and Turn test upon one of my clients. I was able to establish that, because the instruction and administration of this test was so incompetent, the test results must be excluded from evidence.

Bringing to light an officer’s incompetence in administering and scoring these tests at trial is another great way to show that, just because someone is accused of DUI, does not mean they actually committed the crime, nor that the officer collected evidence in the correct way.

If you want premier DUI defense for a DUI charge, give me a call and I will personally discuss your case with you and see if our representation can help you out.

Martin Judnich, Esq.

President, Judnich Law Office

Attorney Feedback

Field sobriety tests play well on TV, but the reality is they are riddled with problems,” observes Julie Butcher, Founding Attorney of the Julie Butcher Law Office. “A detailed explanation of how each of the three major tests is administered as well as their limitations is incredibly useful to the average person who may find themselves on the side of the road for no good reason. Empowering individuals with information about what may happen during the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test, the Walk and Turn test, and the One Leg Stand test can be invaluable to the sober driver laboring under the stress of being accused of DUI by law enforcement.” – Julie Butcher

Photos: Scott L, SanDiego DUIAttorney, SanDiego DUIAttorney, Beth Cortez-Neavel