Guest Author – September 2023

Todd Radabaugh

SFSTs, Overcoming Mobility Challenges
Todd Radabaugh
National Association of State Boating Law Administrators
Boating Under the Influence Program Manager

Let’s face it. No law enforcement encounter is ever “routine”. This is especially true when it comes to impaired driving enforcement. Well-trained officers are adept at gathering evidence during all three phases of the Driving While Impaired Detection Process. What drew their attention to the suspect vehicle in the first place? How did the vehicle come to a stop? What possible evidence of impairment came to light during the interview and observation of the driver that would warrant having the suspect exit the vehicle for structured standardized field sobriety testing? The days of securing convictions with “six clues of HGN and a positive PBT reading” are long gone because judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys expect us to prove impairment. Officers working DWI Enforcement should administer the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn and One Leg Stand tests every time they suspect an individual of driving while impaired. Historically, this has been an easy ask, especially in medium to large metropolitan police departments where there is an abundance of relatively smooth, flat, level surfaces available to safely administer the standing battery of tests. However, what about the officer whose work area consists of rural paved roads or the officer whose work area is a busy interstate? What about any officer in any work area who encounters a suspect who has hip, leg, ankle, or other mobility issues? How does an officer make the most of their evidence gathering then? Fortunately for the law enforcement community there is some additional training available for those situations when the Walk and Turn and One Leg Stand are not practical or possible.

MADD is creating partnerships to provide these additional tools to our law enforcement professionals. In July, Regional Executive Director Steven Burritt was able to facilitate training for 43 Drug Recognition Expert Instructors from 37 agencies representing three states. With the help and support of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and the Rock Hill Police Department this training equipped these instructors to deliver training in the Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Battery to their peers and partners. The impact on traffic safety in the tri-state community will be tremendous. These new instructors will make the Seated SFST Training more accessible to highway safety professionals.

We, as human beings, have had the ability to easily recognize impaired individuals in social situations from a very young age. We might not have fully understood what we were seeing, but we knew individuals who were not acting sober when we saw them. Impairment detection is not difficult, but to secure a conviction officers must be able to articulate signs of impairment observed during all three phases of the DWI Detection Process. Structured Standardized Field Sobriety Tests have been a game changer since the early 1980’s when a scientifically validated battery of Standardized Field Sobriety Tests was developed and validated by the Southern California Research Institute. The Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, Walk and Turn, and One Leg Stand have been in widespread use by law enforcement for 40 years. The public and law enforcement are very familiar and comfortable with them. It should be stated again that these tests should be administered each and every time that an officer suspects a subject is driving while impaired to develop probable cause and gather all of the available evidence. If an officer CANNOT administer one or more of these tests, then they need to document why. Up until 2010 that is often where the investigation would end because officers had no other tools to rely upon. However, today, a well-trained DWI Enforcement Officer has access to a new set of tools for those instances where the Walk and Turn and One Leg Stand are not practical.

The Southern California Institute was chosen to develop a Standardized Seated Field Sobriety Testing Battery for boating while impaired enforcement with funding from the United States Coast Guard and the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators in 2007. It is no accident that the Southern California Research Institute was asked to develop and validate these tests. This is the very same organization that developed and validated the Standing Standardized Field Sobriety Tests in the early 1980s. Over the 37 years since they developed the standing SFSTs they learned quite a bit about human behavior, alcohol dosing, and many other things that they could apply to the development of SFSTs for use in the seated position. All the tests were validated in a lab under the supervision of some of the same scientists who were involved with the Standing SFSTs from the beginning. This battery of Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Tests has been in widespread use both on the road and on the water since 2010.

The Seated SFSTs were developed for use in the marine environment, and that fact alone gives some officers pause when contemplating their use outside of the marine environment. To be effective in a marine environment there were four criteria that had to be met. Due to the dynamic nature of marine enforcement, the tests had to be EASY to administer. Most officers work alone in a boat, while most suspect boats have multiple people on board. Furthermore, everything is in constant motion on the water. The scientists had to be keenly aware of the fact that the administering officer (for the safety of everyone) had to be able to pay attention to what was going on around them. The tests had to be ACCURATE at detecting the alcohol impaired individual at a .08 BAC which is the illegal limit for operating a vehicle or vessel in most states. When all the research was completed, the tests proved to be just as accurate as the Standing SFSTs for making informed arrest, no arrest decisions at a .08. The tests had to be administered in the SEATED position. For suspect safety any divided attention test administered in a boat must be conducted with the subject sitting down and wearing a Personal Flotation Device. If you have ever spent time on a boat you understand why this is so important. The final criterion was that EQUILIBRIUM could not be a factor in the tests. Boating takes place in a dynamic and constantly changing environment. Balance challenges or “sea leg” issues could be brought up for any SFST that required the subject to balance for the maritime enforcement officer. Although the tests were developed at the request of the maritime law enforcement community, it is easy to see why any structured standardized field sobriety test that was EASY, ACCURATE, SEATED and did not take EQUILIBRIUM in to account could be useful to the Highway Traffic Safety Professional who found themselves in a rural area, out in inclement weather, or when dealing with a suspect who had mobility issues. It is very easy for a well-trained law enforcement officer to articulate that if these tests work in the constantly changing maritime environment, they will also work with a suspect seated in a stable position beside the road — even with a foot of snow on the ground. Four tests were found by the scientists to meet this criteria and after extensive laboratory and field work the Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Testing battery was rolled out in 2010.

The Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Battery consists of four tests which proved to be EASY to administer, ACCURATE at detecting operators at the illegal limit, administered in the SEATED position for officer and suspect safety, and that did not need take EQUILIBRIUM in to account. The first test in the Seated SFST battery is the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test. HGN has long been known to be a reliable test for assessing the alcohol impaired individual and has proven effective whether the suspect is standing, seated or lying down. The Finger to Nose Test is the second test in the Seated SFST Battery. The Finger to Nose Test had been used for years by Drug Recognition Experts as part of their evaluation. The biggest difference with administering the FTN in the seated position is that now scientific research has identified 13 validated clues of impairment for the trained officer to observe, document and articulate. The third test in the Seated SFST Battery is the Palm Pat test. This test had been in widespread use nationwide since the 1990’s both as a “pre-exit” test and as part of the “afloat” battery used by maritime professionals. As a result of the research and validation completed by the Southern California Research institute, ten scientifically validated clues of impairment have been identified for this test. The fourth and final test in the Seated SFST Battery is the Hand Coordination Test. This test was developed by the same scientists that developed the Walk and Turn Test in the original Standing SFST Battery and is in fact based on that test. The Hand Coordination is a very simple version of the Walk and Turn that does not rely upon the subject’s balance. Administered in a seated position, the subject moves their fists in a step like fashion while counting to four, claps their hands three times and returns their fists to the memorized position, moves their hands back to their chests in a step like fashion while counting from five to eight, and then places their palms in their lap. Again, the same scientists that developed and validated the Walk and Turn identified fifteen validated clues of impairment for the Hand Coordination Test.

The world has changed since 1998. Although alcohol is still the most abused drug in our country, the decriminalization and social acceptance of cannabis has by no means made our roadways safer. Today’s law enforcement professionals need a diverse and robust set of tools to identify all the potential evidence in an impaired driving case. It is not enough to remove these drivers from the road or the water when they are found to be operating under the influence. Officers need to be able to gather all available evidence so that they can work with the prosecution team to convict the perpetrators of the 100% preventable crime that is impaired driving. The most effective and reliable tool for assessing impairment roadside continues to be Standardized Field Sobriety Testing. Now if an officer encounters snow, mobility issues or other environmental challenges for the Walk and Turn and One Leg Stand there are options. Sometimes it is nice to have a screwdriver and a hammer. The right tool for the situation can make all of the difference.

The Seated SFST Program is administered by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators in partnership with the United States Coast Guard and all United States State and Territorial Partners. Additional information on the Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Battery can be found by visiting the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators website at: Information on upcoming courses, as well links to the history of the program and impaired boating enforcement initiatives can also be found on this site. No DWI stop is ever the same. Through collaboration and strong partnerships MADD is working hard to make sure our law enforcement community has all the available resources in their tool belts.


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