Standardized Field Sobriety Tests


There are six standardized field sobriety tests which have been standardized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They’re designed to determine whether somebody is impaired by alcohol or drugs. Now, there are two terms we use in connection with field sobriety tests. One is standardized, the other is validated. Standardized means that they’re done the same; there’s a regular protocol to do the tests, and the tests are done the same way each and every time.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), validated means that the tests have been analyzed so that the officer can draw a conclusion that the person’s alcohol level is above .08% There are three tests that have been validated according NHTSA. The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), One is the walk and turn test, and the other is the one-leg stand test. Their studies would indicate that if at least four indicators are present with the HGN test and two on each the one leg stand and walk and turn tests, that would be an indication the person’s alcohol level is .08% % or more.   Conclusions about the performance as it relates to an alcohol level have not been validated for the three other tests, those being the Finger-to-nose, Rhomberg modified, and the finger count. The three that have been validated are the HGN (horizontal gaze nystagmus), the walk and turn, and the one-leg stand test.

Do these Tests Actually Determine if Someone is Impaired?

For the HGN, test, there’s been a number of scientific studies that have shown that the eye movement, assuming the cause is alcohol, does correlate to an alcohol level of .08% % or more. In that sense, all the scientific studies would indicate that every person is impaired at the alcohol level of .08% % or more.

Other field sobriety tests, including the walk and turn, one-leg stand, Romberg modified, finger count, and finger-to-nose, have not to my mind been shown to correlate to certain alcohol level. Since evaluations of a person’s performance is very subjective, a person’s performance does not indicate an alcohol level. Without being able to refer to an alcohol level, I don’t think they can show that a person is impaired.  Arizona Court of Appeals has said that no correlations can be made between a person’s performance on these tests and an alcohol level.

How Often Are Police Officers Trained and Updated to Be Able to Administer the Tests?

For the HGN test, there is specific training that officers have to go through initially. It’s approximately 16 hours of training. In terms of the HGN, they have to go through the initial training. They then have to perform it out in the field, and then they come back for further training and then become certified. They also have to maintain an accuracy log. I know of no officer who has ever lost a certification to do the HGN test, and frankly I don’t believe there’s any review to make sure an officer maintains a certification.

For the other field sobriety tests, the officers receive 16 hours of the training as a part of the initial police academy training.  Once an officer has been trained, they don’t have to do anything more because no further training is required.

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