Toe the Line: Myths and Truths About Field Sobriety Tests

Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) are physical and cognitive evaluations conducted typically roadside by law enforcement officers, ostensibly to gauge the likelihood of a driver being under the influence of substances such as alcohol or drugs. These assessments, which are designed to test balance, coordination and the ability to perform tasks that require a good deal of attention simultaneously, are among the key tools law enforcement officials use to determine the potential impairment and make arrest decisions at traffic stops. 

With the considerable discourse and misinformation being circulated about FSTs, it’s critical to clear up these myths and provide definitive information to the public. Through an exploration of common FST myths against proven facts, we aim to promote a more informed understanding and foster responsible decision-making related to drinking and driving performance.

What is a Field Sobriety Test?

A Field Sobriety Test (FST) is a group of physical and cognitive tests used by law enforcement officers to determine if a driver is impaired due to the consumption of alcohol or other substances. The primary purpose of these tests is to gauge the driver’s level of physical coordination, balance, and cognitive function, which can help in assessing their capacity to operate a motor vehicle safely. Always consult with a DUI attorney about the legalities that apply to your state and jurisdiction.

Three field sobriety tests are most commonly used by law enforcement officers. The first is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. In this test, the officer will look for involuntary jerking of an individual’s eyes as they slowly move a pen or small flashlight horizontally in front of the person’s eyes. The second test, the Walk-and-Turn test, requires the individual to take nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line, turn around, and return nine steps in the same manner. This test assesses balance, coordination, and the ability to follow instructions. The final standard FST is the One-Leg Stand test, during which an individual must stand on one foot for approximately 30 seconds. This test examines balance, and like the Walk-and-Turn test, the ability to follow instructions. 

Common Myths about Field Sobriety Tests

1. FSTs Determine Your Level of Intoxication

One of the foremost misconceptions that surround field sobriety tests (FSTs) is that they can accurately gauge the level of an individual’s intoxication. Contrary to this belief, these tests are not designed to measure the amount of alcohol in the system, but rather to assess the impairment of an individual’s physical and cognitive abilities. 

2. FSTs are 100% Accurate

While FSTs are widely used to establish probable cause for arrest, it would be misleading to assert that they deliver consistently perfect results. Various factors, including the individual’s physical condition, the environment, and the manner in which the tests are being conducted, can affect the accuracy of their results. 

3. Failing an FST Means You’re legally Intoxicated

This prevalent myth is indeed fallacious as failing an FST does not automatically equate to being legally intoxicated. It simply suggests that there may be probable cause to believe that the individual is under the influence.


4. You Can Trick or Fake-Out FSTs

This may sound like a viable theory to some, but the notion of deceiving FSTs is largely unrealistic. Police officers are trained to administer these tests and keep an eye out for specific indications of impairment. 

5. You are Legally Required to Take the FSTs

Many assume that there is a legal obligation to perform these tests. However, in most jurisdictions, you are within your rights to respectfully decline to participate in FSTs. 


Facts about Field Sobriety Tests

1. FSTs Test Physical and Cognitive Abilities

Field Sobriety Tests are not merely designed to show evidence of an individual being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but rather to evaluate their physical and cognitive capabilities. They test balance, coordination and the ability to perform multiple tasks at once, as well as mental traits, such as attention and memory. 

2. FSTs Have a Margin of Error

Contrary to common belief, FSTs are not 100% accurate. According to research, these tests have shown to have a substantial margin of error, even when administered under ideal conditions. 

3. Results of FSTs Can Be Influenced By Several Factors

The outcomes of FSTs can be impacted by many things other than alcohol or drug use. Variables such as physical conditions, age, weight, footwear, weather conditions, nervousness and more can have sway on the test results. 

4. You Can Legally Refuse to Take a FST

One has the legal right to refuse to undergo a FST. However, refusing to take the test might carry certain unfavorable consequences depending on jurisdiction. 

5. Even Sober People Can Fail FSTs 

Due to the margin of error associated with FSTs, and the number of external variables that can influence the results, it is possible for a sober person to fail these tests. For example, tiredness, anxiety, or a lack of coordination could lead a sober person to perform poorly during an FST. 

It becomes clear that field sobriety tests, while an important tool for law enforcement, are not infallible, and there are several myths surrounding them. For instance, FSTs are not designed to determine your level of intoxication, but rather to gauge physical and cognitive abilities that can be negatively influenced by alcohol. This leads us to debunk a major false belief; it’s very possible for sober individuals to fail an FST due to factors such as poor balance, medical conditions, or even nervousness. Contrarily, passing an FST does not prove a subject’s sobriety. It’s also important to emphatically disprove the myth that you can trick FSTs. Lastly, while you are legally able to refuse an FST, there are usually consequences depending on the laws of your state.


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