Police officers use a battery of tests called field sobriety tests (FSTs) to determine whether the driver of a vehicle is impaired and to develop probable cause to arrest the driver for drunk driving. FSTs fall into two categories: (1) Standardized FSTs under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); and (2) Non-standardized FSTs. The Walk and Turn test is a standardized field sobriety test under NHTSA.
What is the Walk and Turn Test?
In the Walk and Turn test, the subject is directed to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, in a straight line and then turn on one foot and return, again taking nine steps, heel-to-toe, in a straight line. It is considered a “divided attention” test, designed to test – among other things – cognitive skills, balance and coordination. Like other field sobriety tests, the Walk and Turn test is designed to determine whether or not the officer has probable cause to arrest a person for driving under the influence. However, the test will likely be used to show that the defendant was actually under the influence at the time of driving. Like all field sobriety tests, the best way to “pass” this test is to refuse to do the test.
How is the Walk and Turn Test Administered?
In the Walk and Turn test, the driver is instructed to place the left foot on a line and then instructed to place the right foot in front of the left foot with the toe of the left foot touching the heel of the right foot. The hands are to remain at the side. The driver is then instructed to take nine steps, counting out loud, placing one foot in front of the other, each time with the toe of the rear foot touching the heel of the front foot. Again, the arms and hands are to remain at the side and the driver is told to look at his or her feet. On the ninth step, the subject is told to turn using the front foot as a pivot foot and told to turn 180 degrees around taking small steps with the rear foot around the pivot foot. Then the driver is told to return with nine steps, counting out loud, looking at his or her feet and with his or her arms at the side. The ability to understand and follow instructions is, in and of itself, a part of the test.
During the test, the officer looks for several indicators of impairment:
- Stopping during the test.
- Missing heel to toe. Any failure to meet heel with toe on any steps will be noted.
- Steps off the line.
- Using the arms to maintain balance.
- Improper turn.
- Taking the wrong number of steps.
Is the Walk and Turn Test Accurate?
Because the Walk and Turn test is a standardized NHTSA test, there have been several studies performed to determine whether the Walk and Turn test is an accurate indicator of whether someone is impaired to the point of not being able to operate a vehicle safely. In 1998, the studies showed that a person, who had made two or more of the indicators (explained above) in the Walk and Turn test, was 79% accurate in determining whether the person was above the legal limit of .08% BAC. The Walk and Turn test was inaccurate in over 1 in 5 individuals.
Like other coordination and balance field sobriety tests, various factors may influence the Walk and Turn test. Those individuals who are elderly, overweight, have leg or back injuries, or have illness or injury related to the inner ear may “fail” the One Leg Stand test even if completely sober. In addition, the ground upon which the test is done must be hard and flat, or otherwise it may skew the results. There must be enough room to perform the test. There must be sufficient light. Most importantly, there must be an actual line. If no natural line is available such as a parking stall, then a line must be drawn. Walking parallel to a curb is sufficient.