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Field sobriety tests: An examination of reliability

On Behalf of | Jun 1, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Law enforcement agencies routinely use field sobriety tests to gauge if a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These tests consist of physical and cognitive tasks designed to assess motor control, balance and attention.

But the question remains, how reliable are these tests?

Unpacking field sobriety tests

Field sobriety tests often involve a series of physical and mental exercises. Common examples include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which evaluates eye movement, the walk-and-turn test and the one-leg stand test. These tests aim to identify impaired motor skills or cognitive functions that can suggest intoxication.

Understanding how reliable the tests are

Assessing the reliability of field sobriety tests is complex. While these tests provide an immediate, on-the-spot evaluation of a suspect’s sobriety, they are not infallible. Physical conditions, nervousness, certain medications or even the lack of physical coordination can impact the test results. Moreover, the interpretation of the tests relies on the subjective judgment of the officer conducting the test, potentially leading to false positives.

Implications of unreliable tests

If field sobriety tests are not entirely reliable, it raises concerns about their use in determining impairment and legal consequences for drivers. Errors in these tests could lead to individuals being unfairly charged with driving under the influence, which can have profound impacts on their lives.

While field sobriety tests play an important role in maintaining road safety, it is vital to approach their findings with a critical eye, given the inherent limitations and potential inaccuracies. Improving the standardization and administration of these tests could go a long way toward enhancing their reliability.