Professor: DUI field tests designed to fail

by: Richard Belcher Updated:

ATLANTA,None - When police officers stop a suspected drunk driver, they usually ask the driver to take a field sobriety test, but Channel 2 Action News spoke to some critics who said the tests are designed to fail.

Georgia drivers are not legally required to take a field sobriety test. Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Richard Belcher looked into whether or not the tests work to provide valid evidence of a person's ability to drive.

"You can tell within a few minutes of doing the three tests whether or not someone is impaired by alcohol and or drugs," said Corporal Michael Blute with the Gwinnett County Police DUI Task Force.

The tests are used by police agencies all over the country and often require subjects to walk putting one foot in front of another, or standing holding one foot off the ground or take a nistagmus test, where drivers are asked to follow an officer's finger with his or her eyes.

"I would never recommend anyone take a field sobriety test," said Dr. Spurgeon Cole a retired psychology professor at Clemson University.

Cole is an expert in the study of measurements and a skeptic about the value of field sobriety tests.

"It is designed to fail. It's designed to fail. There are no norms, there is no average score. We have no idea what the average person could do on the one leg with the heel to toe," said Cole.

Cole told Belcher he has been studying the validity of the test since the 1980s and is convinced they are neither reliable nor valid.

"If you use all of them, and do them right. You are only 26 percent better than chance, 74 percent as much error as you would be if you just randomly guessed," said Cole.

Cole told Belcher the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which developed the tests in the 1970s, conducted one study in which trained police officers viewed field sobriety tests then incorrectly identified 47 percent of the drivers as intoxicated.

Blute said he is certain the tests are accurate.

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"All three tests, validation studies have been proven over 90 percent. If the three tests battery is done and interpreted correctly, then you make a correct arrest decision," said Blute.

"The best thing to do is politely say, 'No thank you. I don't want to try to do those,’" said lawyer William Bubba Head.

Head is one of the most accomplished DUI defense lawyers in the country. Head told Belcher drivers should not be tempted just because the field sobriety tests seem simple.

"People get out there and suddenly they find out the road has rocks, glass, pebbles. They got a tractor trailer going by at 70 miles per hour on the interstate and they can't believe they're standing out there," said Head.

Critics like Head and Cole contend that officers rarely employ the field tests to conclude that a driver is not impaired.

Larry Hanawalt of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers disputes that.

"Watching officers in the past at roadside sobriety checkpoints, people have done the field sobriety tests and the officers have thanked them and let them go on their way," said Hanawalt.

"I've probably stopped and done field sobriety evaluations probably more than 4,000 times in my career and have made less than 1,000 DUI arrests," said Blute.

The field sobriety test is not mandatory in Georgia, but a blood alcohol test is mandatory.