The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests: A Review of Scientific and Legal Issues

Abstract

This article details the history and development of the National Highway and Safety Administration’s Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. They are reviewed in terms of relevant scientific, psychometric, and legal issues. It is concluded that the research that supports their use is limited, important confounding variables have not been thoroughly studied, reliability is mediocre, and that their developers and prosecution-oriented publications have oversold the tests. Further, case law since their development has severed the tests from their validation data, so that they are not admissible on the criterion for which they were validated (blood alcohol concentration), and admissible for a criterion for which they were not (mental, physical, or driving impairment). Directions for further research are presented.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A confidence interval is set using the SD rather than the average deviation. For a normal distribution, the SD equals 1.25332 times the average deviation (see Senter 1969).

  2. 2.

    A full explanation of this figure and analysis is available from the author.

  3. 3.

    (a) Problems with the inner ear labyrinth; (b) irrigating the ears with warm or cold water under peculiar weather conditions; (c) influenza; (d) streptococcus infection; (e) vertigo; (f) measles; (g) syphilis; (h) arteriosclerosis; (i) muscular dystrophy; (j) multiple sclerosis; (k) Korsakoff’s syndrome; (l) brain hemorrhage; (m) epilepsy; (n) hypertension; (o) motion sickness; (p) sunstroke; (q) eyestrain; (r) eye muscle fatigue; (s) glaucoma; (t) changes in atmospheric pressure; (u) consumption of excessive amounts of caffeine; (v) excessive exposure to nicotine; (w) aspirin; (x) circadian rhythms; (y) acute trauma to the head; (z) chronic trauma to the head; (aa) some prescription drugs, tranquilizers, pain medications, anti-convulsants; (ab) barbiturates; (ac) disorders of the vestibular apparatus and brain stem; (ad) cerebellum dysfunction; (ae) heredity; (af) diet; (33) toxins; (ag) exposure to solvents, PCBs, dry-cleaning fumes, carbon monoxide; (ah) extreme chilling; (ai) lesions; (aj) continuous movement of the visual field past the eyes; and (ak) antihistamine use (Schultz v. State).

  4. 4.

    Average correlations cited for the SFSTs do not include data from Foss et al. (1990) or Perrine et al. (1993) as they used Somers’ d rather r.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank H. Anthony Semone, H. D. Kirkpatrick, Jorey Krawczyn, Robert McIntyre, Joel Wiesen, J. Ray Hays, and Troy McKinney who provided their support and feedback on this article.

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Correspondence to Steven J. Rubenzer.

Appendix

Appendix

Summary of Studies that Examined Either the SFSTs or Constituent Elements

Study Setting Test Crit. BAC Crit. N BR Accur. Sens. FPR LR d Corr.
Pentilla et al. (1974) F SPa T .10 408 .85 .84 .88 .43 2.1
Tenhu and Pentilla (1976) F SP T .10 1952 .81 .85 .90 .36 2.5
Lehti (1976) L AON T         −.76b
Burns and Moskowitz (1977) L SFSTsc J .10 238 .27 .76 .84 .27 3.1 .67
L GN T .10 231 .27 .82 .68 .13 5.2 .67
L WAT T .10 229 .27 .75 .60 .19 3.1 .55
L OLS T .10 229 .27 .76 .65 .20 3.2 .48
Tharp et al. (1981a, b) L SFSTs J .10 441d .28 .81 .64 .12 5.3 .65
L AON T   42        −.78b L
            −.74b R
L AON T   438 .28 .78, .88e −.72b L
             −.71b R
Anderson et al. (1983) L, F HGN T .10 1072f .77,g.82
L, F WAT T .10 1072f .68,g .80
L, F OLS T .10 1072f .65,g .78
L, F 2 Testh T .10 1072f .80,g .83
Giguire (1983) DC HGN T .10 23 .43 .52 .90 .77 1.2i
DC WAT T .10 23 .43 .70 .50 .15 3.3i
DC OLS T .10 23 .43 .74 .50 .08 6.5i
Compton (1985) SCP HGNj T .10 300k .21 .74 .95 .31 3.0
SCP HGN and Obs.j,l J .10 300k .21 .74 .95 .32 3.0
Norris (1985) L AON T   38, 88m        .73, .90m
Good and Augsburger (1986) F HGNn T .10 2429 .92 .90 .96 .82 1.2 0.9o
Golding and Dobie (1986) ER AONp T .10 46 .96
Golding and Dobie (1986) F AON T .10 149q −.89b
Streff et al. (1989) SG HGN T .10 70 .23 .76 .50 .17 3.0 .51r
  OLS T .10 70 .21 .84 .67 .11 6.1 .60
Sussman et al. (1990) F–B SFSTss J .10 96 .29 .82 .75 .14 5.2 .70
Foss et al. (1990) F SFST J .10 190 .13t .59 .68 .42 1.6 .20u
Perrine et al. (1993) F HGN T .05 185 .41t .72 .08 9.0 .49u
F HGN T .08 185 .79 .17 4.6 v
F HGN T .10 185 .24t .85 .23 3.7 v
F WAT T .10 185 .24t .73 .49 1.5 .13u
F OLS T .10 185 .24t .56 .27 2.1 .16u
McKnight and Langston (1993) WAT T .08 .44 .22 2.0 0.6
WAT T .10 .54 .25 2.2 0.8
OLS T .08 .46 .09 5.1 1.2
OLS T .10 .58 .17 3.4 1.2
Richman and Jakoblowski (1994) L HGN T .08 210k .43 .87 .88 .13 6.6
Cole and Nowaczyk (1994) L WAT and OLSw J .10 294k .00 .54   .46    
Kennedy et al. (1994) L HGN T   67x        .77
L WAT T   67        .54
L OLS T   67        .57
Kennedy et al. (1995) L HGN T   62k        .64
L WAT T   62k        .37
L OLS T   62k        .16y
Burns and Anderson (1995)z F SFSTs J .05 234 .79 .86 .89 .24 3.7
Burns and Dioquino (1997) F SFSTs J .08 256 .80 .93 .96 .18 5.3
Stuster and Burns (1998)aa F SFSTs J .04 83 .78 .80 .78 .17 4.7
F SFSTs J .08 297 .72 .91 .98 .29 3.4 .69
F HGN T .08 290 .72 .88 .98 .37 2.6 .65
F WAT T .08 271 .72 .79 .92 .53 1.7 .61
F OLS T .08 273 .73 .83 .92 .41 2.2 .45ab
McKnight et al. (1999) L HGN T .10 78k .69
McKnight et al. (1999) F–B HGN T .10 60k .35 .93 1.00 .10 9.8 4.5 .77
Burns et al. (2000) L GN T .08 48 .51 .93 1.00 .14 7.0
McKnight et al. (2002) L HGN T         .55
McKnight et al. (2002) F HGN T .04 240k .79 .38 2.1 1.3 .56
Citek et al. (2003)ac L HGN T .08 284k,ad .73–.77 .80–.89 .29–.56 1.9–2.8 1.3–1.6 .63
Citek et al. (2003)ab L HGN T .10 284k,ac .61–.69 .89–.97 .41–.46 1.7–2.2 1.4–1.7 u
  1. Note. Values were not given or could not be calculated for some cells. This is indicated by a dash (“–”). Values were not applicable for some cells, which are left blank. DNMD = distinct nystagmus at maximum deviation; AON = angle of onset of nystagmus. Setting = setting in which data were collected: F = field (actual traffic stop), L = laboratory, DC = driving course, SCP = simulated check point, F–B = field, boating stop, SG = social gathering, ER = emergency room; Crit. = Criterion: whether decision was based on test score (T) or examiner’s judgment (J); BR = Base rate; N = Number of observations, some studies were repeated measures designs; Sens. = Sensitivity; Spec. = Specificity; % Corr. = percentage of correct decisions overall; FPR = false positive rate; d = Cohen’s d. All correlations and LRs were statistically significant at p < .05 unless noted. Data from Hlastala et al. not reported because they are presented earlier and are derived from and partially redundant with Stuster and Burns (1998). Under “Corr.,” L = left; R = right
  2. aBased on “coarsely divided” nystagmus
  3. bCorrelations for AON with BAC are negative, as increased alcohol leads to onset of nystagmus at lower angles of deviation from the visual midline
  4. cThis study used Gaze Nystagmus rather than HGN, and judgments were based on a total of six tests. However, the results for a discriminant analysis using Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn, and One Leg Stand were reported to be “essentially the same” as for the six test battery
  5. dIncluded subjects who were retested
  6. eFirst figure is for judgment of AON of 45 degrees or less; second figure is for continuous measure; both made with aid of an apparatus
  7. fThis is the total number of subjects tested; some may have refused individual tests and the actual number may be considerably less
  8. gCalculated from data in Tharp et al. based on N of 441
  9. hTwo test combination of HGN and WAT
  10. i95% CI includes 1.0, not significant. Author did not report any statistics in the original article and did not disclose anything about the raters or their training
  11. jHGN was performed through a car window with subject seated
  12. kRepeated measures design
  13. lIncluded divided attention sobriety tests
  14. mThe first figure is the correlation with BAC, the second with the BAC estimate from a breath test
  15. nOfficers apparently administered other field sobriety tests as well, which likely contributed to arrest decisions
  16. oReported by Citek et al. (2003)
  17. pHGN in this study apparently did not include DNMD and held the stimulus closer than specified by NHTSA standards. Although the smooth pursuit phase was administered, analyses were based only on AON
  18. qTwo or more officers made observations on 149 subjects. The article does not state if their observations were pooled or treated separately
  19. rVery limited training probably led to lower correlation with BAC than in other studies
  20. sIncluded tests not part of the SFST battery
  21. tBase rates were not reported and were estimated from the full data set
  22. uThis coefficient is Somer’s d, not r
  23. vSame value as for the cell above
  24. wIncluded tests in addition to WAT and OLS
  25. xNumber of observations inferred from number of subjects and description of design
  26. yThis correlation not significant at p < .05
  27. zUsed HGN cutoff score of two clues. This study examined accuracy at .10% but did not report the results
  28. aaOfficers in this study had access to portable breath tests and there were no observers to ensure they were not used
  29. abThis figure is probably reduced by atypical scoring by some officers
  30. acRange of numbers reflects figures for HGN administered in standing, sitting, and supine positions. This applies to ranges for all figures reported for this study
  31. adThis number refers to the number of BAC readings obtained. However, each subject was tested by two or three officers

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Rubenzer, S.J. The Standardized Field Sobriety Tests: A Review of Scientific and Legal Issues. Law Hum Behav 32, 293–313 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10979-007-9111-y

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Keywords

  • Driving while intoxicated
  • Sobriety test
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus
  • HGN
  • Walk and Turn
  • One Leg Stand
  • Driving safety