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Field Sobriety Tests-What Should I do?

Posted Monday, February 19, 2018 by Andrew Charles Huff

Most people know what roadside “Field Sobriety Tests” are and many visualize a person teetering on one leg along a highway as a police officer watches intently, looking for any and all clues to use against them. These roadside exercises are used by law enforcement to gather clues of impairment but at the same time it’s just as easy for a sober driver to fail these tests as an impaired driver. Given this reality, submitting to them might be a mistake.

What Are Field Sobriety Tests?

Field sobriety tests (FSTs) are nationally recognized tests designed to help law enforcement officers identify drivers suspected of driving under the influence. You are NOT required to perform them in Washington.

In theory, these tests are designed for sober drivers to easily pass and for impaired drivers to clearly fail. As we’ll see, however, this is not always the case for a variety of reasons, such as nervousness, cold temperatures, distraction from oncoming traffic, or naturally poor balance. .
Throughout each of the tests, law enforcement officers will be looking for slip ups, or clues, indicating impairment. If you display enough of these “clues” and you will be placed under arrest. Unfortunately, the line between passing and failing these tests are completely subjective and open to the interpretation of a suspicious officer.


The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test is used to identify a nystagmus, or involuntary twitch in your eye, as an officer moves a stimulus (such as a pen or finger) across your face.

All eyes will have a nystagmus when the eye is at an angle greater than 45 degrees. Those with alcohol in their system, however, can have it happen before 45 degrees.

While the HGN test is the most scientific of all of the FSTs, it is still open to interpretation and highly subjective. While alcohol is shown to cause nystagmus, it’s not the only cause and this makes the reliability of the test shaky at best.


The walk and turn test is a divided attention field sobriety test. It is used to determine whether a suspect can complete tasks with divided attention.

During the test, an officer will instruct you to walk nine steps heel to toe in a straight line. Once you reach nine steps, you’ll then have to turn on one foot and head back the other direction. The police officer will be taking note if you…

Are able to maintain balance while listening to the officer’s instructionsStart before the officer has completed instructions Stop to regain balance while walking in the lineAre maintaining heel to toe walking throughoutAre using your arms to maintain balance Maintain balance while turning half way through Take the correct number of steps

If you display any of these, it will be taken as a “clue” you are under the influence.


Like the walk and turn test, the One Leg Stand is designed to test if you’re able to complete tasks with divided attention.

Standing with one foot approximately 6 inches off the ground and your foot pointed, you must keep perfect balance while counting to 30. Your arms are to remain at your side and you must be looking down the entire time. The officer will be on the lookout for if you…

Put your foot down before the test is complete Sway over the course of the 30 secondsHop while attempting to maintain balance Use your arms to help maintain balanceAgain, any of these will be taken as a “clue.”

Why Might You Fail a Field Sobriety Test?

It’s important to remember that field sobriety tests are designed to make you look impaired– whether you are or not. One reason is you are asked to walk and stand in certain ways that are both abnormal and unfamiliar to people. For example, most people don’t walk on a straight line touching heel to toe on a regular basis or attempt to balance on one leg for 30 seconds.

The fact of the matter is any police officer who pulls you over and is attempting to get you to take a field sobriety test is suspicious you are drunk. They are going to do whatever they can to conform these suspicions. Field sobriety tests are a way for them to do that.

Remember, field sobriety tests are not objective tests. All three tests take into consideration the subjectivity of the police officer in how they thought you performed.

Should You Submit to a Field Sobriety Test?

Unlike refusal of a BAC test, which will automatically net you a 1 year license-suspension , there is virtually no consequences for failing to submit to a field sobriety test and I normally advise people not to take these tests. Police officers know you don’t need to take the test, but will try to get you to submit to one anyways.

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