In this Fourth article on the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFST), I will review the Walk-and-Turn (WAT) test. The WAT is the second test in the NHTSA approved 3-test battery. The first is Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), which I’ve covered in a previous article. The final SFST is the One Leg Stand (OLS) test, and there is another article covering that test.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 4 of a 6 part DUI Training series. This training article is on the Walk and Turn test. Other articles cover Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, One Leg Stand, Vehicle in Motion, Personal Contact and specific safety concerns when conducting DUI investigations.]
The Walk-and-Turn (WAT) Test
The Walk-and-Turn (WAT) is another important test in determining sobriety or lack thereof. As with the other NHTSA tests this test has a strict way of instructing and performing an example of the WAT. As with any of the tests I recommend to officers I instruct to take their time, focus, and learn to move right through moments of memory loss like it was a planned event. There is probably nothing more intimidating and frustrating to an officer than to appear flustered to a suspect. It WILL happen – let me teach you to overcome that fear and nail the administration of these tests.
When I became a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) I had to show proficiency in administering the SFST’s. When I became a DRE Instructor I had the opportunity to also become an SFST Instructor. Having seen so many officers struggle with not only physically demonstrating the tests, but providing the verbal instructions as well, I worked with a Course Administrator to come up with a 4-step process to help officers remember all of the instructions, and be able to nail to demonstrations.
The 4-Step Instructional Process
There is a lot of information that has to be passed on during the instructional phase of the test. Proper instructions provide the sober driver the best opportunity to pass the test, and the best evidence to capture the impaired driver. In order to ensure everything is covered, and to provide natural breaks for an officer to gather his/her thoughts, we came up with a 4-Step Instructional Process:
- Starting Position Instructions
- Basic Test Overview
- Demonstration and Instructions
- Head-to-Toe Instructions.
Starting Position Instructions
The first step in the WAT test is to place the test subject in the proper position to receive the instructions. NHTSA determined that a good way to test for balance was to place the test subject in the heel-to-toe stance during the instructions. As the test is standardized for the test subject to begin walking with their left foot as the first step, the proper starting position placement is to have the subject place their left foot on a line, and then place their right foot directly in front of their left foot and touching heel-to-toe. This starting position will be maintained by the subject until the instructions are ended and they are ready to begin the actual performance test.
However, I first have the person stand with their feet together – heels and toes touching, and their arms down to their side (same starting point as all the other tests). Often times we do not have an actual line for the subject to walk, and I absolutely do not recommend using a lane line (safety first for everyone). I then stand approximately 10 feet in front of the subject and ask them if they can imagine a line from the tip of their left foot to my foot. Almost without fail they will say yes.
I then instruct them to place their left foot on that line, and place their right foot directly in front of their left foot and touching heel-to-toe. I then instruct them to remain in that position until I tell them to begin the test, and ask them “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Get a verbal acknowledgement! If at any time the subject says they do not understand, then find out exactly what it is they don’t understand and then only repeat instructions for that part – do not start repeating all of the instructions.
These simple instructions are critical for three reasons. If you just tell a person to walk a line (and there is no line) then a defense attorney can always create doubt by saying their client (who was scared and nervous) did not know what line you meant. By the subject acknowledging their own line and then placing their foot on that line they have determined THEIR line. When the defense attorney gets smart and asks “officer how big was this line in the dark?” you can respond “you’ll have to ask your client, because it was the line that they imagined.” Defense destroyed.
The second important reason for this instruction is that NHTSA requires the subject to maintain that position until all instructions are completed and they actually begin walking. Don’t let them get out of that position during your instructions, and if they do then score a clue. It is important to note that NHTSA requires the subject to stay in this position, so do not let them step out while you continue on with other instructions. If they absolutely cannot stand in the position, mark them down as unable to perform the test, and note their extreme difficulty in balancing.
The third reason is that the test requires the person to start walking by taking a step with their left foot. This is so the turn will be properly performed on step #9, so make sure you get them in the correct starting position – it matters! As you will note from Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus, NHTSA starts everything with the subject’s left. When testing the eyes the officer moves to the subject’s left. The subject starts walking during WAT with their left foot, etc.
Scoreable Clues During Instructions Phase (WAT):
- Starts walking too soon (before instructions are complete)
- Fails to maintain starting position (heel-to-toe stance).
Each clue is ONE clue, but that one clue may be observed multiple times. This understanding is important because NHTSA says that if you observe 2 or more clues on the WAT than the subject is likely impaired. If they start too soon five times that is NOT five clues. That is one clue observed five times, and should be documented that way.
There is something else critically important to understand at this point of the test. Raising the arms for balance during the instructions phase, or bending the legs, or swaying, or hopping, etc. ARE NOT clues that can be scored! Note them for the report, but do not score those signs as recognized clues of impairment!
Be reasonable! If the person steps out of position numerous times gauge their balance and if needed – STOP THE TEST! If they’re minor steps out then you can probably get them back in position and continue. If they’re about to fall down – STOP THE TEST! Make sure you document that you stopped the test for their safety. This next video articulates our need to be reasonable very clearly!
OK – so we all probably had a little chuckle at this when we first watched it. I know I did. Then my thinking brain and critical observation skills started an analysis. Prior to the officer handing over the tape, the suspect is seen staggering and stumbling to walk to the starting position – badly! (Now the masking tape idea is a great one for removing any doubt about a line! However, the officer should place the line without assistance.) Or … in this case … why not just use the stinking parking space lines? In the end, the officer may face a civil suit for engaging a noticeably drunk individual in an activity that resulted in their injury. Of course, that will come AFTER the criminal trial so the defense does not have to admit intoxication until it is advantageous to them.
If a person can’t stand in the starting position because their balance is effected so badly … you’ve made your case for impairment! It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get the test completed. Videos from patrol cars will help make your decision conclusively valid. Having someone fall down may seem like a slam dunk for your case, but a judge or jury may see it as a failure of duty to protect this suspect from foreseeable injury!
Basic Test Overview
This is simply a way for the officer to gather their thoughts and give the simplest explanation of what they are going to expect the subject to do. Don’t get detailed here, this is simply an overview of what the test is going to require.
During this time I like to be in the same starting position (right foot in front of left, heel-to-toe) as the subject. I am right handed, so I set up with my left side facing the subject in a perpendicular position about 10 feet away for adequate reactionary distance. You can give these instructions outside of the starting position, but I do it (on video) to dispel defense claims that the surface made it impossible to stand in position during the instructions.
The Basic Test Overview should be as simple as this – “I am going to have you walk 9 heel-to-toe steps down that line, turn around using a small series of steps like I’ll show you, and walk 9 heel-to-toe steps back down that line. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Get a verbal acknowledgement. That’s it! Plain and simple and easy to understand.
Demonstration (or Walking) Instructions
Regardless of if you are a left-handed officer you need to start with your left side facing the subject. When you provide an example, including the turn, you will expose your back to the subject unless you start with your left side towards them. Turning to the left will actually turn you towards the subject. You have already given a basic description of what the subject is going to do, so at this point simply focus on actually showing them what they are going to do. Wait to give the final instructions until after the walking demonstration.
I tell the subject “this is what the test will look like.” Remember, I’ve already been in the same starting position they are in. I then start walking heel-to-toe and counting my steps “one, two three.” Now the NHTSA manual actually instructs the officer to stop at step “three” and explain that the you have only taken three steps but the subject will continue until taking nine steps. They will then perform a turn in the manner that you will verbalize and demonstrate.
“Leave your left foot down, while taking a small series of steps to turn around, just like I’m doing.” For my example turn I usually take 3 partial steps in a semi-circular motion with my right foot. The return (9) steps begins with the first step of the RIGHT foot – the left foot being the pivot point.
Now I must admit a slight variance that I do compared to the NHTSA instructions. We are supposed to be instructing and giving an example just as we expect the subject to do. By stopping during our walking instructions we are providing an example of a clue that we will score against the subject if they do the same. The NHTSA videos even show the stop during instructions – ugh! So to avoid this problem I have practiced my instructions to coincide with a continual movement of 3 steps, a slow series of steps to turn, and then 3 steps back.
So for clarity:
- Start in same heel-to-toe starting position
- Move and count out loud (3) heel-to-toe steps (ending on left foot)
- Immediately begin small turn around steps, point to left foot, and say “leave that foot down and make a small series of steps to turn around, just like I am doing”.
- Move and count out loud the (3) return heel-to-toe steps (ending on right foot).
- “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
To accomplish this as I’m making my third step I say “on down to nine steps” while pointing to my left foot. At the same time I’m beginning my semi-circle steps with my right foot. In the same movement I explain “leave that foot down and make a series of small steps to turn around”. By that time I’m usually done with my turn and I immediately go into my return walk – just like I expect them to do. I count those steps out loud and finish with “on down to nine steps. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
It is a slight variance from NHTSA but I feel it is more then reasonable and actually eliminates a defense claim if they stop and I score that clue. Your call.
The Final Head-to-Toe Instructions
DO NOT try to give detailed instructions while you are performing your example! It is the surest way for you to screw up, get flustered, and then forget critical components of the instructions. Screwing up and embarrassing yourself is also likely to cause you to avoid investigating DUI in the future, and that’s bad for everyone on the road.
The last instructions can best be remembered by the Head-to-Toe method:
- HEAD – “I want you to look down and watch your steps”
- MOUTH – “I want you to count your steps out loud like I did”
- ARMS – “I want you to keep your arms down to your side at all times”
- LEGS – “Once you’ve started the test don’t stop until the test is finished”
- “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
These instructions are necessary because most are going to be clues that are scored if the subject doesn’t perform them. I will admit that through experience I have realized that many subjects that step off the line once will simply stop the test at that point. Sometimes that is because we instructed, “once you’ve started the test don’t stop until YOU ARE finished.” Make sure you instruct not to stop until the TEST is finished.
One method to try to avoid any confusion is to add on the Legs instruction – “if you step off the line, regain your balance, and keep walking where you left off.” Again, this is NOT a part of the NHTSA instructions, but I have never been challenged on that, because an instruction that goes above and beyond to explain the test is not one that the defense will want to attack. If you give incorrect or incomplete instructions – that’s a different story.
Finally, before actually starting the test I will ask the suspect, “is there any reason you would not be able to perform the test”. DO NOT ask them if they have any medical conditions. If you do, you will open up a Pandora’s Box and get a long list of everything that has ever ailed them. They should be sufficiently aware of their capabilities and medical conditions. Having heard and seen a demonstration of the OLS test, let them come up with a reason they cannot perform the test.
As always – be reasonable! If the suspect tells you they have “bad knees” or their back hurts, get more specific answers. Make sure you don’t avoid the test for conditions we all get from time to time, and ones that should not prohibit them from doing the test. However, if the person has bad arthritis, joint replacements, current injuries then make a sound and reasonable decision on whether you should continue. You’ve already had them exit the car and walk to the starting position. Did they seem like they could do that alright, or did it look like they could barely make it due to their conditions?
Scoreable Clues During Walking Phase (WAT):
There are a total of (6) clues that can be scored a clue of impairment during the walking or performance phase of the Walk-and-Turn (WAT) test:
- Steps off line
- Misses heel-to-toe (more than 1/2″)
- Stops while walking
- Incorrect number of steps
- Improper Turn/Loses Balance
- Raises arms (more than 6″ from sides).
Here are a few videos of actual Alcohol Workshops conducted in accordance with SFST classes. As you will note, each of the videos depicts someone who is above the 0.08% B.A.C. level that most states use as presumptive impairment. These people are not falling over, or staggering all over the place, but are clearly too impaired to drive. If you fail to master the SFST tests, and score as strictly as I’ve provided, you will likely think these people are O.K. to go – especially if your HGN skills are weak.
This woman is only 105 pounds, has consumed (9) oz. of Honey Whiskey in 2.5 hours. She has been instrument tested at a 0.09% B.A.C. How many clues did you score? Her first step is off the line. This is what I’m talking about when not being heel-to-toe AND in-line. She realized this and took time to slide her foot over in the proper position – in effect stopping for more than 1/2 second. She stepped off just like that on #5 as well. There are my two necessary clues.
She also stepped off line at least three times on the return (9) steps by duck walking (toes are pointed way out) on steps #3, #4, and #5. Also, if you weren’t paying attention she stumbled at the end of the test, nearly tripping herself and taking an improper 10th step. At the same time she stepped off line again and missed heel-to-toe. She had already completed nine steps, and some may stop scoring at that point, but the test isn’t completed until you tell them they are done.
Still this lady is above the legal limit, but you have to be on your A-game to score the clues for impairment. Also, did you notice that she had grabbed her Daisy Duke shorts during the whole test? Do not let them do this. Their arms were instructed to be down at their sides. By grabbing her shorts she is able to use her arms to pull her body back into balance.
Don’t expect them all to be this obvious! If this is what you are expecting to score – YOU HAVE FAILED! Some will be this easy, but this guy is most likely above 0.15% B.A.C. or nearly double the legal limit in most States. If this is the only impaired driver you feel comfortable removing from the streets, you need more practice and determination. You will be letting plenty of impaired drivers continue down the roadway, endangering the lives and property of your community – and the next horrific crash call is just a few minutes away. YOU DECIDE! Stop the impaired driver, or clean up the mess!
Mastering Proper Scoring
It is important to understand when a clue can be scored, and when a clue cannot be scored. There are additional requirements in the NHTSA SFST Manual in regards to what is a clue and what is not.
STEPS OFF LINE: This is probably one of the most misjudged clues during the WAT test. Most officers only count the clue when the person stumbles or staggers off the line completely. That is a clue no doubt. However, if you’ve provided proper instructions, then the suspect was told to make heel-to-toe steps on a “line” that they imagined.
A line is straight (the shortest distance between two points). In order to complete heel-to-toe steps (on the line) the heel must meet the toes. If a person does not bring their feet in-line with each other they have stepped off the line – CLUE. If they duck walk, or do touch heel-to-toe but their toes are angled outward or inward (not in line), they have stepped off the line – CLUE.
Think this is being too hard core? Do the Walk-and-Turn test sober and in your patrol gear. If you can walk a straight line, heel-to-toe, without problems with your extra 30-40 pounds of duty gear then another sober person should be able to do so as well. We are looking for impairment, and we shouldn’t discount the slighter signs of impairment as desperate impaired drivers try to pass the test.
MISSES HEEL-TO-TOE: According to the NHTSA Manual the suspect must miss heel-to-toe more than 1/2″ for the clue to be scored. Now 1/2″ is pretty small from a standing position, so you should have at least a reasonable idea of how to testify that the miss was more than 1/2″. As an example:
- One cent penny = 0.75″ in diameter
- Apple iPhone USB port for iPhone 5 and greater = 0.50″.
That way you can clearly articulate the space needed to properly score a misses heel-to-toe clue.
STOPS WHILE WALKING: This is another clue that is often not scored because we are too lenient during the test. By definition STOP = “a cessation of movement”. So any stop of movement during the test is a scoreable clue. Now to ensure that I don’t score a slow person, I tend to give about 1/2 second before counting a stop. So if it looks like they’re stopping, and I can count in my head “one thous..” then it is a clue.
Now you know why I emphasized the demonstration and final instructions so much, and why I absolutely do not like the NHTSA training videos that show us stopping during the test. A stop is a stop – score it!
INCORRECT NUMBER OF STEPS: This is what it is. If they do not take (9) heel-to-toe steps down, and then return with (9) heel-to-toe steps, score this clue and note how many actual steps were taken. I’ve seen the extremes on both ends of this one. Someone taking a couple of steps and stopping, and then others taking 20 steps in one line.
For safety reasons I would recommend not allowing a suspect to take more than 20 steps in either direction. You can clearly indicate why you intervened or stopped the test. Not to mention, you will want to keep up with them if they keep going, because this could be a ruse creating distance for the ultimate fleeing on foot.
IMPROPER TURN/LOSES BALANCE: You should have provided clear instructions on how the turn should be performed, so if you get the military about-face pivot – CLUE. If they stumble out of the pivot point – CLUE. If they simply walk around, not keeping their left foot down to pivot – CLUE. If they turn to the right – CLUE. If they stumble or stagger losing their balance – CLUE, but be sure to articulate your observations.
RAISES ARMS FOR BALANCE: The NHTSA Manual states that the suspect must raise their arms “more than (6) inches” from their sides in order to score this clue. Again, have a good idea of what six inches looks like to properly gauge their actions. This provision is in their specifically to account for different body types and stances, allowing for people to be relaxed with their arms straight down.
However, if they raise their arms more than (6) inches then score the clue. If you can, note whether it was one arm or both arms, but it only requires one arm to meet the scoring standard.
Walk-and-Turn (WAT) Review:
- TOTAL POSSIBLE CLUES = 8
- IMPAIRMENT = 2 or more clues
- CLUES DURING INSTRUCTIONS = 2
- Starts too soon
- Fails to maintain starting position
- CLUES DURING WALKING = 6
- Steps off line
- Misses heel-to-toe
- Stops while walking
- Incorrect number of steps
- Improper Turn/Loses Balance
- Raises arms for balance.
Not looking at feet, or not counting out loud are a part of the instructions (divided attention), but are NOT clues to be scored. You should still note their failure to do following these instructions, because you instructed them to do so, and they responded that they understood the test four times. I will also re-instruct them during the test if they are not doing them. These are divided attention tests (divided attention is critical to safe driving). If they cheat, even on those “small” things, they are making the test much easier for themselves.
You will notice that during the test I have instructed you to ask the subject a minimum of four (4) times “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”. A positive response four times is pretty much an impossible hill to overcome with a “didn’t understand the test” defense.
CATCHING UP ON INSTRUCTIONS
Here’s a great hint – anytime you feel like you’re getting lost in the instructions, pause to think and ask the suspect “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” If you ask it four or fourteen times it’s all good, and hopefully will give you time to regain your composure. And it’s OK to have brief pauses in the instructions for the same reason. Trust me, it’s more fluid than you might think and it looks totally natural and planned.
Remember that there are (8) separate clues on this test. Observing multiple violations of the same clue still only gets scored once for that particular clue. Document the number of times each clue is violated to build your case’s strength, but it still only counts as one clue observed. So if the suspect stops on every step = ONE CLUE. You would have to see at least one other type of clue in order to reach the two clues necessary to indicate impairment.
Practice makes perfect on these tests. There is a lot to remember and perform, but if you break it down in the four sections I’ve laid out, you should be able to remember everything and be confident.
Wes Evans says
Just an FYI, but I hope I’m interpreting your verbiage correctly. In recent years NHTSA clarified in their manual what an improper turn is as it pertains to turning backward.. if they turn backward, but otherwise as instructed, any improper turn clues not counted. However many times these folks will take the wrong number of steps, which would be a clue obviously.
Wes I believe you are correct. The original posts are almost 10 years old now and were accurate when written. However, in recent years NHTSA has updated some of the scoring protocols. You are correct on the turning scoring. If the person takes a series of small steps to turn around it is considered a “proper” turn, and it does not matter which way they turn. In those cases there is no score for the turn, but like you say, their action will likely result in an improper number of steps, which remains a clue.
In another adjustment from NHTSA, a person is no longer required to walk directly on the line. Originally the subject had to walk in a literal line, heel-to-toe, each foot directly in front of the other. Now NHTSA has relaxed that requirement so a person can be slightly off the line with each step, as long as the heel still touches the toe. So in essence, if the subject just puts the inside portion of their foot on the line, and the heel touches part of the toe of the foot behind, this is now acceptable and not a clue.