CINCINNATI - Every night across the country, police officers pull over drivers they suspect may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and administer roadside tests that have become such a standard, everyone knows the drill.
Walk a straight line. Lift your leg while standing still. Follow a flashlight beam with your eyes only.
Now, some critics say those very tests deserve an “F,” and the fact that someone can follow directions in stressful situations doesn't reveal if they're drunk
Talk to officers and they’re clear that the standard field sobriety tests, as they’re called, are about one goal: To take inebriated drivers off the road.
“Our whole mission here is to save lives,” Ohio state trooper Sgt. Scott Coomer said.
Drive along with Sgt. Coomer on a Friday night and you’ll see him pull over a series of people who cross the yellow line or swerve their cars. He steps out of his patrol car and asks people politely, “You weren’t drinking tonight?”
Sgt. Coomer says drivers often are not under the influence but if he’s suspicious, he depends on the field sobriety tests to help him decide.
“Absolutely they’re a good indicator. I mean it’s a basic task," Coomer said. "I perform the task, I’m sober. I can complete them, so I think it’s a good gauge.”
But critics say the tasks aren’t so basic.
“We have no idea what the average person can do on the leg extend and heel-to-toe [walking test],” said Dr. Spurgeon Cole, a retired Clemson University psychology professor whose area of expertise is the study of measurements.
He says all ages are scored the same, and “whether you’re a good athlete or you’re a klutz, you get the same [test].”
Dr. Cole says he’s been studying the validity of the tests since the 1980s, just after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the federal Department of Transportation, devised them as “divided attention tests,” asking people to count out loud as they walk or lift a leg. The theory is that the tests mimic the divided attention skills a driver must possess to function behind the wheel.
He throws out a lot of figures with one bottom line: Even NHTSA’s lab tests showed that trained officers using these tests judged some sober drivers drunk.
Dr. Cole says he did his own study with two sets of information for officers to consider. One group walked back and forth normally and gave the officers basic information like their phone numbers and addresses. He says officers judged correctly if those people were under the influence 85 percent of the time. Another group performed the standard field sobriety tests, walking heel to toe on a straight line and lifting one leg without lifting their arms if they tottered. In those tests, he says officers were wrong 46 percent of the time because some people just didn’t have the balance skills even when sober.
“I would never recommend anyone take the field sobriety test. It’s designed to fail,” Dr. Cole said.
Attorney MJ Donovan, a Cincinnati attorney who defends people accused of driving under the influence, takes it one step further. She says most people already are nervous when police pull them over. Then they hear a series of rapid-fire instructions they must follow precisely on sometimes uneven or hilly roadsides, with gravel and debris under their feet and loud trucks blasting past, often with no clear straight line to follow on the road, just a line they're told to imagine. She says officers also don’t tell people what not to do, that if they raise their arms past six inches or diverge from the instructions in their precise order, the officer may use those clues against them.
Donovan says she knows from experience that the tests can cause officers to misinterpret. She served as a Cincinnati police officer for years, performing the very tests she now decries.
“I made the wrong call based on those tests,” Donovan said of arresting people she later had to let go after blood alcohol tests proved they were below the legal limit.
“They are setting you up to fail," Donovan said. "These are not tests that are designed for you to succeed. They are tests that are designed for you to fail.”
Cincinnati City Prosecutor Charlie Rubenstein disagrees. He’s faced off against Donovan in court.
“With all due respect to her, I think (Donovan) drank a little too much of her own Kool-Aid," Rubenstein said. "They’re not designed to make you fail.”
Rubenstein says police officers don’t want to arrest people who aren’t guilty.
“It’s not some conspiracy that they’ve made up these tests that everybody’s going to flunk," Rubenstein said. "Field sobriety tests are a tool. That’s all they are.”
Rubenstein says the tests simply reinforce other clues like the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, difficulty walking and of course erratic driving.
“That’s what it’s about. It not about one test. It’s a combination,” Rubenstein said.
So if there are so many other ways to determine if someone is under the influence, why bother with tests some call flawed?