Criminal defense in Austin Texas.

Field Sobriety Tests – Walk and Turn

Posted By on January 30, 2009

When I was a younger (actually not that long ago, but getting longer every year) I was selected to take part in a DWI training class.  It was the same one police officers take, although this one happened to be attended mostly by other lawyers.

My role, difficult as it was, was to be a test subject, get drunk, and then take the tests again.  It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.

I’m a little bit clumsy by nature.  I didn’t listen to the instructions all that well, and performing the tests in front a group of people gave me a case of nervers.  Long story short: I bombed.

I took the wrong number of steps, started before I was instructed to, did the turn improperly, and I think I stepped off the line, as well.  There are 8 clues on the walk and turn, and I think I got them all.

The second time around, I did much better. I began when I was supposed to.  I took the right number of steps.  I touched heel to toe, and I even did the turn more or less the way you’re supposed to.  (By the way, nobody ever does the turn right.)

What happened?  Well, after my trip to the bar, I wasn’t the least bit nervous anymore.  More importantly, this was my second time around.  I’d had a bit of practice, and this time I knew what they were looking for.

What’s the moral of all of this?

Well, it’s certainly true that drinking affects your balance.  But the walk and turn tests a lot of things that have nothing to do with alcohol.  For one, it tests your memory, and how well you listen to, and follow instructions.  It also tests how nervous you are, and possibly, how tired.

The bottom line, though, is that the walk and turn is a test that’s designed to make you fail.  That’s part of the reason the officer performs the test (or part of it) on camera, before he tells you to start.  He’s done it hundreds of times before, and he knows the instructions by heart.  He doesn’t have to stand in an unnatural, awkward position, while listening to a complicated set of instructions that have to be performed just right.  And perhaps most importantly, he’s not wondering whether he’s about to be arrested.

There is, unfortunately, even more to it than that.

Shoes count.  You want to be wearing something with a wide, heavy sole, and preferably something that laces up the ankle, well.  Something, in fact, that’s a lot like the boots a lot of police officers wear.

Heels are deadly.  You could never ever do the test in those.  But second worst is barefoot, which is often the only other choice women have.  Aside from the fact you’re doing it on the side of a highway, or in a parking lot, that’s littered with bottle caps, tiny sharp-edged rocks, and who knows what else, it’s simple much easier to keep your balance in a pair of shoes, than barefoot.  (Try it sometime, and see.)

Comparing someone trying to perform the tests barefoot, to someone wearing a pair of boots, is comparing apples to oranges.

One other thing you’ll notice, if you watch a lot of DWI videos, is that the officer will usually demonstrate the test perpendicular to the camera, while instructing the suspect to walk toward, and away from it.

Not to be cynical, but there are a couple of reasons, I believe, that officers do it that way.  One is that the side of the highway, or the shoulder, is on a grade.  If you’re trying to balance on a grade, you want to be facing uphill – not parallel to the slope, as the officer will direct you to do.  The other is that facing the camera will tend to highlight any side-to-side motion, while standing perpendicular will tend to hide it.

The bottom line is if you’re out of shape, clumsy, or wearing high-heeled shoes, you might want to consider refusing the tests, which, like I said, are designed to make you fail.


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