The One Leg Stand Test in DWI Cases: Drunk or Just Not Qualified to Be a Circus Monkey?

Just prior to a DWI arrest, the driver is usually subjected to a "one leg stand test", as the last act of a three-test skit. The procedure for administering the "test" is spelled out below. As you read this, ask yourself what any of this has to do with one's ability to drive a car. The police are taught a mantra that this is a "divided attention test", and that somehow a driver needs to be able to stand on one leg for thirty seconds to be able to safely drive a car. They are also trained that if the driver can't do it he's drunk. But besides perhaps screening circus monkeys for jobs under the Big Top, what is this "test" worth?

The following is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA")'s manual used in police training titled "DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing" (February 2006 Edition):

Procedures for One-Leg Stand Testing

1. Instructions Stage: Initial Position and Verbal Instructions

Initiate the test by giving the following verbal instructions, accompanied by demonstrations.

o "Please stand with your feet together and your arms down at the sides, like this." (Demonstrate).

o "Do not start to perform the test until I tell you to do so."

o "Do you understand the instructions so far?"

2 Demonstrations and Instructions for the Balance and Counting Stage

Explain the test requirements using the following verbal instructions, accompanied by demonstrations:

o "When I tell you to start, raise one leg, either leg, with the foot approximately six inches off the ground, keeping your raised foot parallel to the ground." (Demonstrate one leg stance).

o "You must keep both legs straight, arms at your side."

o "While holding that position, count out loud in the following manner" one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three, until told to stop". (Demonstrate a count...Officer should not look at his foot when conducting the demonstration-OFFICER SAFETY).

O "Keep your arms at your sides at all times and keep watching the raised foot."

o "Do you understand?" (Make sure suspect indicates understanding.)

o "Go ahead and perform the test." (Officer should always time the 30 seconds. test should be discontinued after 30 seconds).

3. Test Interpretation

o You may observe a number of different behaviors when a suspect performs this test...Look for the following clues each time the One Leg Stand test is administered:

A. The suspect sways while balancing.

B. Uses arms for balance.

C. Hopping.

D. Puts foot down.

What does that all have to do with driving? Fair question. Unless you are a Circus Monkey, how often do you stand on one leg while driving? Do you really need to "divide your attention" to drive? Isn't it actually better to focus your attention on one thing, like say, driving, when you are driving, rather than "divide it"?

PREPARATION FOR THE WORST CASE SCENARIO: Ttry this absurd test on your own at home and see if you can ever pass it. It may help you make a more informed decision when the cops ask you to stand on one leg. If you are asked to stand on one leg, it is highly likely that the officer has already decided to arrest you, and he is now in the evidence gathering stage. Choose whether to incriminate yourself very carefully.

Have a safe weekend,

Mark Stevens




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  1. Driving in and of itself is divided attention, is it not? There is the ability to observe and take in information, and then physically react to what one is seeinga?

  2. Dear White Hat,
    I beleive what you are describing is paying attention and reacting, not "divided attention". Hopefully everyone is paying attention while driving and their attention is not "divided".