In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) evaluated a variety of field sobriety tests to determine which ones were scientifically accurate. NHTSA identified the Southern California Research Institute as the center to conduct a thorough testing of the various field sobriety tests to determine which ones had the highest level of accuracy.
The SCRI and NHTSA determined that three tests had the highest level of accuracy: the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test, the Walk and Turn Test (WAT), and the One Legged Stand (OLS) test. These three tests became the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests. While officers can perform other kinds of tests at the roadside, none of those other tests are part of the SFSTs and none of those tests have been evaluated for their validity and reliability.
One common non-SFST test is an ABC test. The officer will ask the person to say his or her ABCs from a letter to another letter. The problem with the ABC test is that no one knows whether it’s indicating impairment, or whether it’s simply indicating that, in stressful situations, people simply don’t do their ABCs very well regardless of whether they are impaired.
In 1986, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended that member law enforcement agencies begin using the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests developed by NHTSA as part of their investigations into Driving While Impaired (DWI, DUI, OUI) incidents.
One of the important things to know about the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests is that they must be conducted in accordance with NHTSA instructions in order to maintain their validity. The NHTSA SFST student manual states in all capital letters that “IF ANY ONE OF THE STANDARDIZED FIELD SOBRIETY TEST ELEMENTS IS CHANGED, THE VALIDITY IS COMPROMISED.”
Sometimes when a defense attorney shows that the SFSTs have not been performed according to NHTSA guidelines, a judge will dismiss that argument by saying “Well, NHTSA is not the Law in North Carolina.”
This is only partially true. It’s accurate that North Carolina has not formally adopted NHTSA guidelines as the “law”.
But North Carolina’s Assembly has in NCGS Sec. 17C created the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission.
The Commission has the sole authority to set the minimum training standards in order to be recognized as a law enforcement officer by the State of North Carolina.
The Commission has established Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) as the formal minimal training standards that all people must complete before they can assume the duties of a Law Enforcement Officer in North Carolina.
And, the BLET training manual establishes the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests as validated by NHTSA as the tests Law Enforcement Officers are permitted to use in order to determine whether someone has been DWI (Driving While Impaired).
So, in an important sense, NHTSA is North Carolina law.