The History of Field Sobriety Tests

How sobriety tests came to be and how they are used today in DWI and DUI arrests.

Field sobriety tests are used by police officers to determine whether or not someone is sober while driving. They determine this by pulling over suspected drivers and begin to give the test once the driver has exited their car. Certain instructions include walking in a straight line and counting backwards. If an officer decides you aren’t sober enough to drive, then you are arrested and charged with either Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), or Driving Under the Influence (DUI). These charges can ultimately make life very complicated if you end up convicted. Learn the history of the test, how it works, and how these tests can be used against you.

Field sobriety tests have been used for as long as DUI laws have been around. However, until the late 1970s, it was up to the officer’s discretion on how he or she wanted to determine sobriety, which was hardly accurate. There were no agreed upon rules. In 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided to fund research to evaluate the tests that were being used at the time to determine if they were permissible in identifying intoxication. After using the help of over 200 volunteers, they eventually established and standardized tests which were more reliable. Out of all the measures police officers use on suspected drunk drivers, there are three recommended and preferred tests they give.

1. The walk and turn test is made up of two parts. The officer first asks the suspected drunk driver to place their feet so the heel of one foot is touching the toes of the other. The second part consists of the officer asking the driver to take 9 heel-to-toe steps in a straight line. In these tests, the officer looks for off balance, failure to complete the steps, using your arms to balance, or not walking in a straight line.

2. The one leg stand is a test that requires a driver to balance on one foot only for a specified amount of time. While it could be a difficult task for even sober drivers, it’s used to help determine inebriation. Police officers look for signs of swaying, balancing with your arms, or putting your foot down to regain balance.

3. The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, also known as the pen test, focuses on nystagmus- an involuntary jerking of the eye when someone looks to the side. This becomes very noticeable when someone is intoxicated. The officer has the driver follow an object with their eyes and watches for any exaggerated actions of nystagmus before the eyes reach a 45 degree angle.

Other tests include reciting a portion of the alphabet (either backwards or forwards), and the finger-to-nose test, which asks a driver to close their eyes and touch their finger to their nose.

Do you feel you’ve been unfairly arrested for a DWI or DUI and need an experienced lawyer? Or maybe you’re not sure what to do during field sobriety tests? Contact The Wilder Firm today.