Walk Away from the Walk and Turn Test

Moriarty & Associates on the Walk and Turn Test for Drunk DrivingThe Walk and Turn Test is the second test in the battery of three Standardized Field Sobriety tests (SFSTs). It sounds simple. The Washington State Patrol trooper tells you to walk nine steps down a line, turn around, and walk nine steps back. Easy enough, right?

Not so fast. The Walk and Turn Test is simple … simple to fail. The devil, as always, is in the details. The Walk and Turn Test contains a laundry list of specific instructions that, if not followed to the letter, can easily result in a failing grade.

The Walk and Turn Test is known as a divided attention test. It consists of two stages: the instruction phase and the walking phase. In this light, it is important to keep in mind the conditions under which you are asked to perform the test. Remember, you’ve just been pulled over. It’s probably late at night or early in the morning, so it’s dark and likely cold. You’ve been ordered out of your car on the side of a highway or street. Cars are passing and hitting you with their headlights, and the traffic is loud. There’s at least one cruiser on the scene, and its strobe lights are flashing. If you’re like most people in that situation, you’re nervous, embarrassed, and scared. You’re wondering if you are going to be arrested and thrown in jail. These are not exactly ideal testing conditions.

The officer tells you to perform the test following this set of instructions:

  1. Place feet on a line in heel-to-toe manner (left foot behind right foot) with arms at sides. Hold that position.
  2. Do not to begin test until instructed to do so.
  3. Take nine heel-to-toe steps on the line.
  4. Turn by planting your left foot (9th step) and walking around it with your right foot, returning to the heel-to-toe position.
  5. Return on the line, taking nine heel-to-toe steps.
  6. Count your steps out loud.
  7. Look at your feet while walking.
  8. Do not to raise your arms from sides.
  9. Do not to stop once you begin.
  10. Do you understand the instructions?

The officer then administers the Walk and Turn Test, observing your performance for eight clues:

  • Cannot keep balance while listening to the instructions
  • Starts too soon
  • Stops while walking
  • Does not touch heel to toe
  • Steps off the line
  • Uses arms to balance
  • Improper turn
  • Incorrect number of steps

Guess how many clues it takes to be considered to have failed the test? Just two clues means you did not complete the test successfully. That’s correct, only TWO clues. I cannot tell you how many reports I’ve read over the years where the subject of the test fails before they ever begin. For example, the person who cannot maintain the heel-to-toe stance during the instruction phase and then starts too soon—he/she has already failed under the scoring criterion.

And that is why you should politely decline the invitation to perform the Walk and Turn Test. It’s designed for you to fail, and the conditions under which people are asked to perform the test make the chances of passing that much more remote.

Attorney Patrick M. Moriarty earned his Juris Doctorate from Western New England College School of Law in 1990. He is the founder of Moriarty & Associates, PLLC, and serves as a judge pro tempore in district and municipal courts in Snohomish County. Learn more.

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