Walk and Turn Test

James Parker
March 23, 2022

What Is a Walk and Turn (WAT) Test?

The walk and turn test is an examination designed to demonstrate to an observer the theoretical disturbance of balance that an intoxicated individual is suspected to have. This test is part of the standardized field sobriety test set.

The standardized field sobriety tests are a set of three assessments indicated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to demonstrate whether it is more likely than not that an individual may be intoxicated. The walk and turn test is one part of the standardized field sobriety test,  along with the horizontal gaze nystagmus test and the one leg stand test.

The walk and turn is performed by a participant who must take nine steps, stepping heel-to-toe in a straight line, turning 180 degrees on one foot, and walking back nine steps in a straight line the same way they came. In theory, an intoxicated individual does not have the balance or ability to split focus and will either fall down or fail to walk in a straight line.

This examination is being observed by an outside participant, usually a police officer. If the participant performs in a way that the officer deems is a failure, then the officer may determine that they have the probable cause necessary to have the subject submit to additional tests such as a breath, urine, or blood sample test.

Key Takeaways

  • The walk and turn test is a physical examination that requires the participant to take nine steps stepping heel-to-toe in a straight line, turn 180 degrees on one foot, and walk back the same way.
  • The walk and turn test is one of the three official assessments approved as part of the standardized field sobriety test by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • While the walk and turn test does have a theoretical set of criteria that allows an individual to pass or fail, the test is designed to find intoxication and does not account for any outside influences that may account for the failure.
  • If you have been charged with a DUI after being subjected to a walk and turn test, an experienced DUI attorney may be able to improve the outcome of your case by leveraging experience and expert testimony.

WAT and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Charges

The WAT is not the exclusive evidence that will be used to file DUI charges against an individual. There are two primary purposes for administering the walk and turn and roadside sobriety tests.

The first reason a WAT test is ordered is for the short-term benefit of allowing the officer to find some fault with it that they can use as a probable cause. With probable cause the officer may believe they have justification to administer a breathalyzer, search the vehicle, or take the driver in for a blood test. The second reason that a WAT or any other roadside sobriety test is administered is so that it can be recorded on the body cam or dash cam of the officer to submit alongside the officer’s testimony. 

The WAT test does not appear to be especially rigorous and many jurors may be swayed after seeing footage of a subject wobbling or even falling over and concluding that they were intoxicated. The juror may feel that either they or an average person should be able to pass this test without difficulty and therefore if someone were to fail it, it could only be because they were intoxicated. There are in fact many factors that could impact the performance of an individual taking the WAT test. 

The logic behind the WAT test, like most field sobriety tests, is that an intoxicated person has a compromised vestibular system, which accounts for the body’s sense of balance. This system is housed partially in the inner ear and does usually become somewhat compromised when someone is intoxicated. This is not the full story though.

Not only do other reasons exist for a compromised vestibular sense, people with a high alcohol tolerance or who have experience with heavy drinking may have too high of a tolerance to fail the WAT test. Other reasons that a person’s vestibular system could be impaired exist and they include:

  • A head injury
  • An infection or illness
  • Aging
  • Dizziness

Another cause of failure could be from stress or anxiety. An individual who is overthinking how they step in order not to jeopardize their future could be exhibiting anxious behavior. Something that is not unlikely upon the driver learning that they are being tested under suspicion of being drunk, and also something the officer is likely to include in their report as evidence of intoxication.

While the WAT test is not mandatory, a defendant’s refusal to take the WAT test can be used against them in a court of law. In either case, it puts the potential defendant in a disadvantageous position.

Bottom Line

The walk and turn test is not the objective test it is presented as. Roadside sobriety tests are not designed to test for neurological conditions, or other obscuring factors: they are designed to indicate to an officer whether an individual could be under the influence. In the worst cases, a walk and turn test is a pretense used to compel drivers to submit to additional testing, no matter how well they performed. If you were charged with a DUI and you were told to perform a roadside sobriety test, you should contact an experienced DUI attorney.

A DUI attorney can prevent unfair evidence such as a video of an unflattering roadside sobriety test from being presented or being discussed by filing a motion to suppress. A DUI attorney can preserve your right to a fair and unbiased trial, while pursuing the best possible outcome for your case.

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