Updated on: 3/6/2019
It’s 8 am and I’m sitting in the cafeteria of Washington State’s police academy, watching a class of recruits learn how to restrain someone sitting in a chair. They pair up to practice, laughing as they launch themselves sideways to the floor for the takedown.
The real criminals won’t be so cooperative. Which is why I’m here: the recruits need to practice performing a field sobriety test, a set of three indicators that police use to determine whether someone’s too impaired to be behind the wheel. The consequences of performing these tests wrong can be high: some of the signs of impairment are subtle enough to be difficult for the untrained eye to detect, and if an officer’s instructions are unclear, defense attorneys will argue that their clients should be let off the hook for causing a drunk driving accident.
What is a field sobriety test?
The standard field sobriety test is designed to divide your attention between a mental task (like counting or remembering instructions) and a physical task (like walking down a straight line). For sober people, these tests aren’t difficult. Because alcohol impairs a person’s ability to focus on multiple tasks at the same time, a drunk person will have difficulty with these tests.
First, the recruits hold a pen and ask me to hold my head still and track it with my eyes as they move it from side to side or up and down. A sober person should be able to track the movement smoothly with their eyes. But a drunk person’s eyes will involuntarily jerk in a distinctive pattern, called nystagmus, especially when they’re trying to follow a pen held at the very edge of their vision.
Walk and turn
This is the famous “walk the line” portion of the test. The recruits watch as I take nine steps down a line, looking at my feet and walking heel to toe with my arms at my sides, turn, and take nine steps back. It seems easy in theory, but when someone’s drunk and distractible, it’s harder to balance and remember the specific instructions.
The recruits ask me to look down at my foot, raise it six inches off the ground, and count to thirty while keeping my arms at my sides. Sounds simple, but it’s not so easy to do with alcohol messing with your sense of balance.
At 10 am, the volunteers are ready to begin drinking in one of the academy’s classrooms. The setup is more like a bar than a house party, although our cocktails are being mixed by an officer of the law, not a bartender. As I sip my first vodka cranberry, I can taste a hint of booze, but I have a hard time accurately guessing how much I’ve been served. That’s by design: the recruits are going to ask me how much I’ve been drinking, and like many drunks who let the bartenders call the shots, I’m going to have to give them my best guess.
After our first drink, we’re given snacks. The officer doesn’t tell us at the time why he waited to hand out the pretzels; later, he reveals that the food caused the pyloric valve in our stomachs to close, prolonging our drunkenness by trapping more unabsorbed booze. Turns out that no amount of greasy or salty food will help you “soak up” alcohol.
Several more cocktails and a boxed lunch later, we’re ready to take our tests. The officers in charge of the workshop have been monitoring our blood alcohol with a breathalyzer, making sure we’re above the legal limit. Even without seeing the exact number, I can tell that I’m definitely too drunk to drive after lunch. It takes all my concentration just to speak without giggling or slurring my words too obviously.
Why use a field sobriety test?
I had always assumed that the breathalyzer was the gold standard of sobriety testing. Surely someone who’s failing the breathalyzer test must be drunk, right? The truth is that DUI defense attorneys will try to argue with the results of the breathalyzer, claiming that there are too many ways for the machines to fail or pick up a false positive. Whenever a new model of breathalyzer comes out, defense attorneys may argue in court that the machines are untested or not proven to be reliable.
A properly performed field sobriety test will give an officer more evidence to use when they’re called to testify against a drunk driver in court. Once someone has flunked a field sobriety test, it’s also easier to get a warrant for a blood test. Blood test results hold up well in court, but the blood needs to be drawn at a police station or hospital, not on the side of the road. That delay in getting a suspected drunk driver to a place where they can be tested might give them a chance to sober up.
We’re led to the gymnasium, where the recruits have split up into groups to test and observe us. They’re all in uniform, carrying the tools that they’ll have access to on the road, although only the officers supervising the tests will be using a breathalyzer on us. The recruits will have to make a judgment call about whether or not it would be safe for us to drive based solely on the results of the field sobriety test.
My first time out of the gate, it’s obvious that I’m too impaired to drive: I’m giggling at the officers’ instructions and wobbling as I try to stand with my arms at my sides. In the middle of my first attempt walking the line, I decide that it’s a great time to stop to tie my shoe. The other drunk volunteers are exhibiting a wide range of behaviors: some are silent, some are giggly, some are doing their best to follow the directions to the letter, some are arguing with the instructions. It’s good for the recruits to see a cross-section of drunks in this controlled environment. When they hit the road, many will be working alone, dealing with intoxicated drivers who may be belligerent, uncooperative, or violent.
I feel like I’m doing pretty well, considering my inebriation, on the balance tests after the first few false starts. But no matter how hard I try to act sober, my twitching eyes give me away. It’s a little disconcerting to have five police officers in uniform staring into your eyes, commenting on every erratic movement. I’m doing my best to track the pen smoothly with my eyes, but it’s immediately apparent that I’m too drunk to drive.
By the end of the testing, I’m feeling tired, sick, and far more sober than I was at the beginning. The field sobriety test isn’t designed to be strenuous for the average adult, but it’s a far cry from relaxing on a bar stool. I’m not sure if I’d trust myself to drive home at the end of the tests, but I definitely don’t feel drunk.
We’re led back into the makeshift bar for more breathalyzer tests as the recruits head upstairs for a lesson. As we wait to sober up, we find out that some of us are way less drunk than others according to the breathalyzer. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, which filters the toxin out of the bloodstream and breaths it down with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. Some people produce more of that toxin-busting enzyme, but others might keep a buzz going for hours after their last cocktail.
We meet up with the recruits again to find out the results of our breathalyzer tests and field sobriety tests. At my drunkest, I was blowing a staggering 0.102, way over the legal limit. By the end of the testing, I was blowing 0.042, legally in the clear to drive, although I certainly wasn’t feeling as alert as I would be at my best. One volunteer was so steady on his feet that even at his drunkest, the recruits had to rely on the nystagmus tests to figure out how drunk he really was.
How to beat a field sobriety test
The short answer: you can’t, and you shouldn’t try.
It’s theoretically possible to pass the balance portions of the test if you’re unusually active, good at following directions even when you’re under the influence, and particularly steady on your feet. But there’s no way to cheat the nystagmus gaze tests. Officers are also allowed to take other clues into consideration: if they see you driving erratically or smell alcohol on your breath, they can testify about that in court. And even if a tenacious DUI attorney manages to get your breathalyzer test thrown out, a blood test is likely to hold up in court.
More importantly, you shouldn’t put yourself in a position where you need to cheat on a field sobriety test. Sobriety checkpoints exist for the protection of drivers and pedestrians: they take people off the roads who are absolutely not safe to drive. Even at 0.02 blood alcohol concentration—which is well below the legal limit in Washington state—drinkers can suffer from impaired judgment and difficulty multitasking. By 0.08, drivers are working with serious impairments of judgment, reaction time, vision, and concentration. At 0.102, I don’t think I could have navigated a parking lot successfully, let alone a highway.
Call a cab or a ride-share service, and you might be out $30 at most. Get caught driving drunk, and you could end up with a suspended or revoked drivers license, a maximum fine of up to $5,000, a nearly $3,000 hike in the cost of your car insurance, and a jail sentence of up to a year. Injure or kill someone when you’re intoxicated at the wheel, and you’re looking at all of the above expenses, plus potentially millions in damages to your victim and possible charges of vehicular assault, homicide, or negligence.
Images are from the Center for Disease Control.