Understanding field sobriety tests

There are three standardized field sobriety tests that are sanctioned for use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For most people in New York, the sight of blue flashing lights in a rear view mirror can make the heart pound faster. Regardless of the reason, being stopped by law enforcement officers can make people feel nervous or scared. When a traffic stop turns into a potential exploration of drunk driving , this level of fear may logically increase.

Anyone who has been in this situation should have a good understanding of exactly what the different tests used measure and how accurate they really are.

What is a field sobriety test?

As the name implies, a field sobriety test is something administered at the site of a stop, hence the term "field" in its name. Contrary to what some people may think, FieldSobrietyTests.org indicates that these tests do not confirm that a person is actually intoxicated.

Instead, a field sobriety test is intended to give enough support to the fact that a drive might be impaired or intoxicated so that an officer can place the person under arrest. It is a means to collecting probable cause, essentially.

What are the tests used?

There are three different field sobriety tests that are approved for use by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA outlines very clear parameters for the administration of these tests.

The horizontal nystagmus gaze test measures an involuntary jerking motion of the eye that is said to be magnified if a person has consumed alcohol. An officer will look into a person's eye with a light while having the driver move their eyes to either side without moving the head.

The walk-and-turn test requires a person to take nine steps in a heel-to-toe fashion while counting without any loss of balance or miscounting. The one-leg stand test checks to see how well a person can balance on one foot without the use of the arms while counting.

Are the tests accurate?

Despite being approved by the NHTSA, field sobriety tests have an accuracy rate of only 82 percent when all three tests are performed together. Individually, the accuracy rates are even lower. The accuracy rate of the eye test is 77 percent. The accuracy rates of the walking and one-leg tests are 68 and 65 percent, respectively.

The only real way for an officer to identify a driver's true alcohol content is by a breath, blood or urine test. However, the New York Department of Motor Vehicles indicates that a chemical test is not required to convict someone of driving while intoxicated.

What should I do after a drunk driving arrest?

It is important for New York drivers to contact an attorney immediately after being charged with an impaired driving offense. There are many things that may invalidate the field tests used and an attorney will know these and be able to help a person learn if these provide options for a defense.