What are the “Walk & Turn” and “One Leg Stand” Tests?

The two most commonly used roadside (field sobriety) balancing tests are called the “One Leg Stand” and the “Walk & Turn.”[1] These tests measure not only one’s balance, but also one’s ability to follow directions. This is because when people are impaired by alcohol and/or drugs, their abilities to balance and to follow directions are both weakened.

How does the “one leg stand” test work?

I carry certifications in field sobriety that are more current than those held by most police. Here’s how the test works.

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In the “One Leg Stand” test the officer will first instruct you to stand in the “starting position”, which is with your feet together and with your arms down at your side. He will tell you to maintain this position until he has given you the rest of the directions (to see if you can follow directions). When he tells you to begin, you will be asked to lift up a leg of your choice approximately six (6) inches off of the ground and hold it there until he tells you to stop (about 30 seconds). You will be required to keep your legs straight, keep your arms down at your side, look at the raised foot, and to count out loud (one one-thousand, two one-thousand, and so on). The Officer must demonstrate the test for you.

The Officer will look for four (4) clues (or mess-ups):

1) Putting your raised foot down.

2) Hopping.

3) Raising your arms more than six (6) inches for balance.

4) Swaying while balancing.

If the Officer observes two (2) or more of these clues, you have failed the test. Many people assume that if they don’t fall on their face, then they have passed. This is not the case.

How does the “walk & turn” test work?

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In the “Walk & Turn” test the officer will first instruct you to stand in the “starting position”, which is with your right foot directly in front of your left (touching heel to toe) and with your arms down at your side. He will tell you to maintain this position until he has given you the rest of the directions (to see if you can follow directions). He will tell you to imagine a straight line in front of you[2] and, when he says ‘go’, to take nine (9) heel to toe steps down that imaginary line (touching heel to toe on each step). When you have reached your ninth step you will be required to turn back around (using a series of small steps with your right foot, while your left foot is pivoted) and take nine (9) heel to toe steps right back down the same imaginary line. You should end up right where you began.

While you perform the test you will also be required to keep your arms down at your side, count your steps out loud, look at your feet, and, once you begin the test, to complete it without stopping. The Officer must demonstrate the test for you.

The Officer will look for eight (8) clues (or mess-ups):

1) If the subject steps out of the heel-to-toe “starting position” during instructions.

2) Starting the test early (before he tells you to).

3) Not touching heel to toe on every step.

4) Taking an incorrect number of steps in either direction (any number other than nine (9).

5) Stepping off of the imaginary line.

6) Turning incorrectly.

7) Raising your arms more than six (6) inches for balance.

8) Stopping the test before you have completed it.

If the Officer observes two (2) or more of these clues, you have failed the test. Many people assume that if they don’t fall on their face, then they have passed. This is not the case.

Note: You don’t get extra credit for doing extra steps, or doing a military style about-face on the turn, or doing a back flip, or for any other action you take to demonstrate your balance by making the test harder for yourself. Instead, you will get dinged for not following the very specific directions.

Are there people that cannot do these balancing tests?

Yes. The 2013 NHTSA Manual states that the reliability of these balancing tests is decreased when the test subjects are; over 50 pounds overweight, over the age of 65, or that have back, leg, or inner ear problems. Those wearing high heels or sandals must be allowed to remove them before attempting the tests. I have also noticed in my training and experience that people who have performance anxiety issues (difficulty performing under pressure) also tend to do poorly on these tests. Those who suffer from any of the issues listed here tend to perform poorly on these balancing tests even when they are completely sober.

Performance anxiety?

When I received my training and certifications in field sobriety, we had to prove our skills by accurately testing “voluntarily dosed test subjects” (drunk people who were paid to get drunk and be tested by us). In most instances their eyes (the HGN test) would give them away if they were very drunk, but regardless of how drunk they were, almost none of them failed the “Walk & Turn” or “One Leg Stand” tests! I remember one 100-pound girl who had drank an 18-pack but who did not exhibit a single clue on either test! How could this have happened?

Well, that testing environment was in a hotel conference room, with only lawyers in it, who weren’t going to arrest the subjects if they failed. The test subjects weren’t going to jail, and they weren’t going to lose their jobs, or their driver’s licenses if they failed. There was no pressure on them.

On the other hand, when someone is standing on the side of a highway, while pulled over, on a cold night, while cars are speeding by at 70 mph, worried that they’re about to get arrested, and lose their license and their job, that’s not a very good recipe for performing well. I have seen many police cruiser videos of completely sober people doing very poorly on these balancing tests; probably because of the performance pressure that the situation creates. Remember, you are the best judge of how your personal level of performance anxiety may affect your ability to complete these balancing tests.

Are there people that perform well on these balancing tests?

Yes. As these tests measure one’s ability to balance, those who are particularly athletic, or that simply have naturally great balance, tend to fare well on these tests. I have seen many very intoxicated people perform these balancing tests without exhibiting a single clue.

Is it a good idea to submit to these tests?

Often times our clients want universal advice or whether or not everyone should, or should not, take these balancing field sobriety tests. Unfortunately, it is impossible to give universal advice because everyone is physically different. You must consult your attorney for advice specifically tailored to your particular situation.

However, if you are over 50 pounds overweight, over the age of 65, have back problems, leg problems, or inner ear problems, or have a higher level of performance anxiety, it may be better to refuse these tests for those reasons. And if you refuse these balancing tests for any of these reasons, make sure you clearly tell the officer why you are refusing the tests.

What happens if I refuse these tests?

If you refuse to take them, the officer will simply mark that you refused to take them. Your refusal can be used by a jury (and/or judge) as some potential evidence that you knew that you were intoxicated. This is why it is always best to tell the officer specifically why you are refusing the balancing tests, if you refuse them.

How do juries consider the results?

If you submit to these balancing field sobriety tests, the clues (or mess-ups) that you display can be pointed out by the police officer. The officer can tell the jury how many clues you displayed and what those clues mean. Technically the “fail point” is two (2) clues on either test. Juries however, in my experience, aren’t so much deciding your case on the technical number of clues that you displayed. Juries are instead usually simply looking at your movement on video to determine whether or not they think you are intoxicated. As you might imagine, different juries can come to very different conclusions about what someone’s lack of balance actually means. For example, I have seen police impose these balancing tests upon people on an icy road, on a hill, and even in the middle of a windstorm…

[1] They are the most common balance tests used by police because they are the only two balance tests sanctioned by the current (2013) NHTSA Manual (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

[2] Or tell you to use a painted line if one is nearby.

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