The walk and turn test is a standardized field sobriety test (FST) that police frequently administer in order to detect whether a DUI suspect is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.1
The test is also sometimes referred to as the nine-step test, nine step walk turn, DUI straight line test, or DUI walk the line test.
During the walk and turn test, the suspect is ordered to take nine heel-to-toe steps along a straight line.2 After taking nine heel-to-toe steps, the suspect is then directed to turn on one foot and return in the same exact manner in the opposite direction.3
Law enforcement officials look for eight indicators of impairment when administering the test:
- if the suspect cannot keep his or her balance during instructions,
- starts too soon,
- stops while walking,
- doesn’t touch heel-to-toe,
- steps off the line,
- uses arms to balance,
- performs improper turn or turns incorrectly, or
- takes an incorrect amount of steps.4
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), studies have revealed the walk and turn test to be 68% accurate in determining whether a driver has a blood alcohol concentration of 10. or greater.5
NHTSA has formulated particular procedures for officers to follow when overseeing the walk and turn test, as well as specific clues to look for in scoring the test.
Nonetheless, law enforcement officials often administer the walk and turn test incorrectly and/or interpret the clues erroneously. This in turn leads to even greater uncertainty surrounding the actual reliability / accuracy of the test in determining whether or not a particular driver is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
In the article below, our California DUI defense lawyers will explain:
You may also wish to visit our page on Field Sobriety Tests in DUI cases.
The walk and turn test is a “divided attention” standardized field sobriety test.6 A divided attention test essentially involves splitting the attention of a suspected DUI driver between mental and physical tasks.7
The walk and turn test is deliberately intended to have a suspect listen, follow and remember instructions while performing various physical movements.8
The walk and turn test is one of three NHTSA standardized field sobriety tests. The other two standardized field sobriety tests are:
These three tests are considered “standardized” as a result of several scientific studies establishing with statistical significance the correlation between the three tests and DUI impairment.9
Nonetheless, both standardized and non-standardized FSTs are used by law enforcement officials to back their DUI investigations.
These non-standardized FSTs include
Out of the three standardized field sobriety tests, the walk and turn test has proven to be the second most reliable SFST, being 9% less accurate than the HGN test.10
Senior DUI/DWI Field Sobriety Test Instructor Robert “Bob” LaPier contends that the walk and turn test should be a sidekick to the more reliable HGN test.
Having taught thousands of polices officer and hundreds of attorneys (both DUI defense lawyers & prosecutors) in the proper administration of standardized and non-standardized field sobriety tests, Mr. LaPier has asserted that the HGN test should be at the forefront of any effective DUI field investigation.
Nevertheless, the walk and turn test has been and continues to be validated through NHTSA’s research program. Therefore, it still carries a great deal of weight, especially when juxtaposed to the above-mentioned non-standardized field sobriety tests.
However, as noted by our California DUI defense lawyers in subsection five, the walk and turn test may very well be a critical source of deception and error in DUI investigations.
Below are the walk and turn test instructions given by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These instructions are given to DUI law enforcement officers during their training so that they may correctly administer the walk and turn sobriety test once out in the field:
For standardization in the performance of this test, have the suspect assume the heel-to-toe stance by giving the following verbal instructions, accompanied by demonstrations from a position of interrogation (that is, with your weapon away from the suspect)
PLACE YOUR LEFT FOOT ON THE LINE (real or imaginary)
- Demonstrate this to the suspect
PLACE YOUR RIGHT FOOT ON THE LINE AHEAD OF THE LEFT FOOT, WITH HEEL OF RIGHT FOOT AGAINST TOE OF LEFT FOOT
- Demonstrate this to the suspect (officer should not look at his feet when conducting the demonstration-Officer Safety)
PLACE YOUR ARMS DOWN AT YOUR SIDES
- Demonstrate this to the suspect
MAINTAIN THIS POSITION UNTIL I HAVE COMPLETED THE INSTRUCTIONS. DO NOT START TO WALK UNTIL TOLD TO DO SO
- At the end of the count or after about 30 seconds, if the count is slow, tell the person to put his foot down-if necessary
DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE INSTRUCTIONS SO FAR?
- Make sure the suspect indicates understanding.
WHEN I TELL YOU TO START, TAKE NINE HEEL-TO-TOE STEPS, TURN, AND TAKE NINE HEEL-TO-TOE STEPS BACK
- Demonstrate three heel-to-toe steps
WHEN YOU TURN, KEEP THE FRONT FOOT ON THE LINE, AND TURN BY TAKING A SERIES OF SMALL STEPS WITH THE OTHER FOOT
- Demonstrate this to the suspect
WHILE YOU ARE WALKING, KEEP YOUR ARMS AT YOUR SIDES, WATCH YOUR FEET AT ALL TIMES, AND COUNT YOUR STEPS OUT LOUD
ONCE YOU START WALKING, DON’T STOP UNTIL YOU HAVE COMPLETED THE TEST
DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE INSTRUCTION?
- Make sure the suspect understands the instructions
BEGIN, AND COUNT YOUR FIRST STEP FROM THE HEEL-TO-TOE POSITION AS ‘ONE.'”
- Demonstrate this to the suspect11
Officers observe a number of different behaviors when a suspect performs the walk and turn test. Law enforcement officials specifically focus on the clues listed below as indicators for whether or not a suspect has a BAC of 0.10 percent or more. In scoring this test, law enforcement officials are trained to give only one point for each item observed (even if it is observed more than once) with a maximum score of 9 points.
If the DUI suspect scores two or more points on this test, officers are to classify his or her BAC as above 0.10 percent. Using this field sobriety test, an officer will be able to correctly classify about 68 percent of suspects with respect to whether they are drunk driving. The decision point on the Walk-and-Turn Test is simply two of the below-mentioned nine clues.
- CLUE 1: Cannot keep balance while listening to the instructions– Two tasks are required at the beginning of this test: the suspect must balance heel-to-toe on the line and, at the same time, listen carefully to the instructions.
– Typically, the person who is intoxicated can do only one of these things. He may listen to the instructions, but not keep his balance.
– Officers are to score this item if the suspect does not maintain the heel-to-toe position throughout the instructions. The officer is not to score this item if the suspect sways or uses his arms to balance but maintains the heel-to-toe position.
- CLUE 2: Starts before the instructions are finished– The suspect may keep his balance, but not listen to the instructions.
– Officers are to score this item if the suspect does not wait for all the instructions to be given. Other aspects of not listening to the instructions are to be included in other clues.
- CLUE 3: Stops while walking to steady self— The suspect pauses for several seconds after one step.
– Officers are not to score this item if the suspect is merely walking slowly.
- CLUE 4: Does not touch heel-to-toe– The suspect leaves a space of one-half inch or more between the heel and toe on any step.
– Officers are also to score this item if the suspect does not walk straight along the line.
- CLUE 5: Steps off the line– The suspect steps so that one foot is entirely off the line.
– Officers are to only count this item once, even if the suspect steps off several times.
- CLUE 6: Use arms to balance- The suspect raises one or both arms more than six inches from his sides in order to maintain his balance.
- CLUE 7: Loses balance while turning– The suspect removes the pivot foot from the line while turning.
– Officers are to score this item if both feet are removed from the line.
– Officers are also to score this item if the suspect clearly has not followed directions in turning; for example, he pivots in one movement instead of the four step movement that he was instructed to perform.
- CLUE 8: Incorrect number of steps– The suspect takes more or less than nine steps in each direction.
- CLUE 9: Cannot do the test- The suspect steps off the line three or more times, is in danger of falling, or otherwise demonstrates that he cannot do the test.
– If this item is scored, the suspect gets 9 points for this test, the maximum score.
∗Should the DUI suspect have difficulty with this test, (for example, if he or she steps of the line), the officer should have him repeat the test from the point of difficulty, not from the very beginning.12
NHTSA requires that the walk and turn test be performed under safe test conditions. In particular, there are three main test conditions that law enforcement officials must keep in mind:
- Surface Settings:
- The walk-and-turn test should be given on a reasonably dry, hard, level, non-slippery surface, and under conditions in which the DUI suspect would not be in danger of falling.
- There should be sufficient room for the suspect to complete nine heel-to-toe steps.
- If these guidelines cannot be adhered to at the place where the supsect is stopped, then the law enforcement official should try to move the suspect to a better location.13
- Surface Settings:
- Demarcation Settings:
- The Walk-and-Turn Test requires a line that the suspect can see. If a natural line is not present, the officer is to draw one in the dirt with a stick or on the sidewalk with chalk. Walking parallel to a curb is also adequate.14
- Demarcation Settings:
- Light Settings:
- The officer should further make sure that adequate lighting exists. If the suspect can see the officer fairly well, then the lighting should be determined to be adequate.
- If the lighting is not adequate, then the officer should use a flashlight to illuminate the ground. In total darkness, the walk and turn test result may be deemed invalid.15
According to government studies, the walk and turn test is 68% accurate in determining whether a driver has a blood alcohol concentration above .10.16 Hence, nearly one out of three people who fail the test are not drunk driving.
This percentage rate is based on the supposition that the walk and turn test is given correctly in accordance with NHTSA guidelines. In reality, however, not only does the test carry its own inherent defects, but its administration by law enforcement officials, including the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), often dip below NHTSA standards.
According to Ventura County DUI lawyer17 John Murray, “the reliability of the walk and turn test is certainly debatable. Our DUI defense attorneys are skilled in exposing and unraveling the weaknesses of the procedures/ administration of the walk and turn test in a DMV hearing and/or in the courtroom.”
Some of these weaknesses ripe for attack include:
1. Unsuitable Surface settings:
- The walk-and-turn test should be given on level ground, on a hard, dry, non-slippery surface.18 If these surface conditions are not in place, then the validity of the walk and turn test may be greatly diminished.
2. Impairments related to the mind and/or body:
- If a suspect is elderly (i.e. over 60 years of age) or has certain problems with various parts of the body, or is extremely small and/or obese in nature-then these bodily impairments, along with a myriad of others-may incorrectly skew the results towards failure.
- Similarly, if a suspect has mental disabilities and/or brain damage that would inhibit an ability to understand and/or adhere to instructions, then the test results may be deemed invalid.19
3. External Distractions:
- The suspect should be able to perform the test away from common roadside distractions such as oncoming traffic and/or sirens/honking.
- Furthermore, the officer is supposed to remain as motionless as possible during the test so as not to interfere with it. If an officer, however, decides to walk around or exhibit any other forms of distractive behavior during the testing, then the test results will be all the more dubious.20
4. Unfitting attire:
- A suspect should be allowed to take off her heels if they are more than two inches high at the time of the test. If the officer does not give the suspect the opportunity to remove the shoes, then any test result may be deemed invalid.
- The same may reign true if a suspect is wearing particularly tight/inflexible clothing, markedly baggy clothing, and/or any other type of clothing that may inhibit his or her ability to maneuver during testing.21
Call Us For Help…
If you or a loved one is charged with a DUI and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California. For information about the Nevada walk and turn test, see our article about the Nevada walk and turn test.
1 U.S. Department of Transportation “DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing” NHTSA Student Manual (February 2006): VII/5
2 Stuster & Burns, Validation of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test Battery at BACs Below .10 percent. U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. Dot-HS-808-839 (1998),
3 Id., at 32.
4NHTSA Student Manual (2006), at VII/5
6 Id., at VII/4
8 Id., The best divided attention tests are ones that challenge a person’s information processing, short-term memory, judgment and decision making, balance, steady, sure reactions, clear vision, small muscle control, and coordination of limbs.
9 Id., at VIII/1; See also Burns & Moskowitz, Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrest, U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. DOT-HS-802-424 (1977) (recommended the three-test battery of one-leg stand, walk and turn, and HGN to aid officers in discriminating BAC level); Anderson, Schweitz & Snyder, Field Evaluation of Behavioral Test Battery for DWI, U.S. Dept. of Transportation Rep. No. DOT-HS-806-475 (1983) (field evaluation of the field sobriety test battery (HGN, one-leg stand, and walk and turn) conducted by police officers from four jurisdictions indicated that the battery was approximately 80% effective in determining BAC above and below .10 percent).
11 Id., at VIII/9
13 Id., at VIII/10
16 Id., at VII/5
17 Ventura County DUI lawyer John Murray is qualified by NHTSA to administer field sobriety tests, including the walk and turn test, in connection with DUI roadside investigations. Attorney Murray practices in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, including Simi Valley, Van Nuys, San Fernando, Lancaster, Burbank and Glendale.
18 Id., at VIII/11
19 Id., at VIII/9-11
21 Id., at 11