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The walk-and-turn field sobriety test: What to know

On Behalf of | Dec 25, 2023 | Criminal Law

People who are pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving in Massachusetts will likely be asked to submit to several standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs). These are tests that have been standardized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and are supposed to indicate whether someone might be under the influence of alcohol. One of these tests, the walk-and-turn test, has been depicted in popular media as people in movies and on television are asked to walk a straight line by police officers. Here’s what you need to know about the walk-and-turn test and its reliability.

What is the walk-and-turn test?

The walk-and-turn test is one of several SFSTs that the NHTSA standardized as being indicative of alcohol impairment. It involves two phases. During the instruction phase, the police officer asks the individual to stand with their arms at their sides with one heel placed in front of the toes of the other foot while being instructed. After the officer finishes the instructions and provides a demonstration, the individual will be asked to walk a straight line by taking nine heel-to-toe steps, pivoting, and then taking nine heel-to-toe steps back to the starting point. The officer will make observations and grade the individual on how they stand at attention during the instructions and how they perform each step of the test.

Issues with the walk-and-turn test

Many non-impaired people can’t pass the walk-and-turn test. It requires balance and coordination. The NHTSA standardized it to a 66% accuracy in its ability to indicate impairment when the test is administered correctly. However, that means that 34% of sober people will fail the test when the officer correctly administers it and potentially be charged with a DUI.

People might also fail the walk-and-turn test for multiple reasons, including improper administration, medical conditions, uneven surfaces, improper shoes, and others. Like the other SFSTs, the walk-and-turn test can be challenged in court if the individual is subsequently arrested and charged with a DUI.