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Professor's advice: Just say no to field sobriety tests

Field sobriety tests are methods used by police officers during traffic stops in effort to determine if a driver is intoxicated. The tests were developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1970s and they haven’t changed much since then.

In the most common field sobriety tests, drivers are asked to walk putting one foot directly in front of the other or stand on one foot. A nistagmus test is also commonly used in Colorado and elsewhere, which requires drivers follow an officer's finger with his or her eyes.

However, as we have discussed in the past, just because a driver fails a field sobriety test doesn’t always mean that the drive is intoxicated.  

The problem is that drivers who haven’t had a drop of alcohol can fail these tests due to poor balance, nervousness and other perfectly-legal issues. Even a study by the NHTSA concluded that trained officers were only able to correctly identify drunk drivers in 47 percent of the field sobriety tests they viewed.

In fact, a retired psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who has been studying field sobriety tests since the 1980s called the tests “designed to fail.” He explained that as an expert in the study of measurements, he questions the validity and value of the tests.

“There are no norms, there is no average score. We have no idea what the average person could do on the one leg with the heel to toe," he once said in an interview.

That’s why the former professor said he would “never recommend anyone take a field sobriety test.”

Good thing field sobriety tests are not required under the law in Colorado and many other states. Instead of agreeing to take the tests, a driver can politely decline without seeing any penalties. The same is not true, however, with breath and blood alcohol tests because of expressed consent laws.

Source: WSBTV.com, “Professor: DUI field tests designed to fail,” Nov. 18, 2014

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