When you’re pulled over at the side of the road and an officer clearly suspects that you’re intoxicated, the situation can feel pretty grim – so you may jump at any chance to prove that you’re sober. That includes agreeing to participate in standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs). A lot of drivers assume that – since they’re sober – they can easily pass these tests and avoid any further legal complications.
Unfortunately, it’s not actually that easy. Studies indicate that SFSTs are only quasi-reliable under controlled conditions, and less so when they’re performed in the “real world.”
SFSTs can be challenging for several reasons
Standing on one leg, following a penlight with your eyes and walking and turning in a straight line doesn’t sound hard, but a lot of different things can actually affect your physical and mental coordination, which is essentially what the tests gauge. Consider the following:
- Nervousness and stress: Being pulled over by law enforcement can be an intimidating and stressful experience for anyone, regardless of their sobriety. Nervousness and stress can affect a person’s performance, leading to errors that may be interpreted as signs of impairment.
- Lack of familiarity: Most people are not familiar with SFSTs or the specific procedures involved. They may not fully understand the instructions provided by the officer, leading to confusion and potential mistakes.
- Pre-existing medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as inner ear disorders, musculoskeletal issues and neurological impairments, can affect a person’s balance and coordination. These conditions may give the impression of impairment, even when alcohol isn’t involved.
- Environmental factors: SFSTs are often conducted under less-than-ideal conditions, such as on the side of a road with distractions, uneven surfaces, poor lighting and adverse weather conditions.
- Subjectivity and interpretation: SFSTs rely on the subjective judgment of the law enforcement officer conducting the test. The interpretation of the results can vary depending on the officer’s training, experience and personal biases. This subjectivity leaves room for mistakes.
SFSTs are not foolproof indicators of intoxication or impairment. They are designed to provide law enforcement officers with additional evidence to establish probable cause for a DUI arrest – which is why it’s better to decline to participate. Unlike chemical testing post-arrest, you’re under no legal obligation to take an SFST. If it’s too late and you’re now facing drunk driving charges, it’s time to find out more about your potential defenses.