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The Reality of Field Sobriety Tests

It is something that often happens when people fail a field sobriety test. They stand before a judge at a bail hearing and are given an amount of bail they must pay to secure their freedom.

This payment is usually made possible after they speak with an agent from a bail bonds company and make the proper arrangements. Once their bail has been paid, these people can prepare to return to court and face their hearing on charges of drunk driving.

Field Sobriety Tests

These are sometimes referred to as roadside sobriety tests. They are utilized as a tool to enforce a state’s laws concerning driving under the influence (DUI). Once a person is pulled over by a police officer for suspicion of DUI, the driver could be asked to perform a field sobriety test. These tests permit a law enforcement officer to observe a driver’s physical ability, attention level, balance and any other factors they could use to determine if a person is DUI.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

This organization authorizes the use of three type of field sobriety tests. These are the walk-and-turn test, horizontal gaze nystagmus as well as the one-leg stand. Each test is able to measure certain reflexes or responses that are altered when a person in under the influence of alcohol or another substance. If a person is intoxicated, they may have involuntary eye jerking. This can be identified using the horizontal gaze nystagmus. An individuals coordination and ability to follow directions could be compromised by too much alcohol. This can be measured with the walk-and-turn test as well as the one-leg stand.


Field sobriety tests were first developed in 1975. The NHTSA asked Southern California Research Institute to analyze the different types of field sobriety tests utilized by law enforcement agencies around the country. The goal was to create a set of standardized field sobriety tests that were reliable. Initially, there were approximately 16 different tests that were taken into consideration. When the research was complete, the study’s authors recommended the horizontal gaze nystagmus, one-leg stand, and the walk-and-turn test.

Non-Standardized Tests

There are non-standardized field sobriety tests that law enforcement officers may be permitted to use. A suspect may be asked to stand with their feet together and tilt their head backward. An individual may also be asked to count the number of fingers a law enforcement officer is showing them. They could also be requested to count backward or even recite the alphabet. A person might also be asked to stand and lean back. Then told to look up at the sky as they hold their arms off to the side. They could also be requested to close their eyes and touch their nose with their index finger.


Law enforcement officers will record the performance of a DUI suspect as the field sobriety test is taken. This will be used as evidence in the suspect’s DUI case. A field sobriety test result is usually upheld when a DUI guilty plea is appealed to a higher court. The main purpose of a field sobriety test is to ensure a law enforcement officer had probable cause to pull someone over for suspicion of DUI.

Field Sobriety Accuracy Research

During the 1990s, Colorado police agencies provided records involving field sobriety tests for a period of five months. This research involved over 300 records made available for examination. The results of the field sobriety test administered were confirmed in over 230 cases where breathalyzer and blood testing was also done to determine blood alcohol level (BAC). These results did not include drivers who refused to take field sobriety tests. The results showed the decisions made by law enforcement to arrest individuals based on results of field sobriety testing was correct in over 92 percent of the cases. The study also showed the decision to release a driver was correct in more than 63 percent of cases.


It’s important for law enforcement officers to administer a field sobriety test on level, dry ground. Adequate lighting must also be available. Should weather conditions make this not possible, an officer can only administer the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. It’s also important to take into consideration a driver’s weight and age. Individuals who are overweight and elderly struggle with this type of testing even when completely sober.

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