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Highway Safety Initiatives

Professional Practices and Perceptions in Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Training

By Robert E. Weltzer, PhD, Associate Member IACP, DRE Ambassador, and Member of Subject Matter Expert Committee of the Colorado Attorney General’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board; Robert Ticer, Chief of Police, Avon, Colorado, Arizona Highway Patrol Commander (Retired), Member of IACP Highway Safety Committee, Drug Recognition Expert Instructor, and President, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police



Professional Practices and Perceptions in Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Training

By Robert E. Weltzer, PhD, Associate Member IACP, DRE Ambassador, and Member of Subject Matter Expert Committee of the Colorado Attorney General’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board; Robert Ticer, Chief of Police, Avon, Colorado, Arizona Highway Patrol Commander (Retired), Member of IACP Highway Safety Committee, Drug Recognition Expert Instructor, and President, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police

From 1994 through 2011, the United States has made substantial strides in reducing overall alcohol involvement in fatal crashes. Since this article explores only the involvement of law enforcement in a particular facet of roadside interventions, that is, alcohol-impaired driving, this introductory analysis examines possible changes influenced by the subject training on fatal crash–involved drivers rather than on the fatalities themselves.

The total number of persons killed in fatal crashes fell by 21 percent, from 40,716 in 1994 to 32,367 in 2011. The number of drivers with a reported blood alcohol concentration (BAC) equal to or greater than .08 grams per deciliter declined almost 41 percent, from 16,589 in 1994 to 9,878 in 2011.1

These data suggest an overall impact in the driving community by the alcohol-impaired driving enforcement efforts nationwide by lowering the overall numbers of impaired drivers in fatal crashes. Standardized Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) training for law enforcement officers has been a significant part of the tools used by officers in impaired-driving enforcement efforts.


Standardized Field Sobriety Testing

Historically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approved the SFST curriculum, adopted by states nationwide, providing an option for use of alcohol-dosed subjects during two training labs.2 Sessions 11 and 14 of this SFST curriculum are, by definition, the wet or live labs, using consumed alcohol to create individual impairment experiences for drinking volunteers and live interaction between the law enforcement trainees and the drinking subjects. In this discussion, these will be identified as “11 Wet” and “14 Wet.” Alternatively, Sessions 11A and 14A of the approved SFST curriculum are, by definition, the dry or video labs, using nationally recorded video to present alcohol-dosed subjects to law enforcement trainees for their determination of the known impairment level. These are identified as “11A Dry” and “14A Dry.” Law enforcement training agencies are free (unless otherwise restricted by state or departmental requirements) to implement the optimal combination of these two sessions to accomplish training objectives. This article explores professional practices and opinions of state Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) Coordinators using either of these two options.

During the mid-1970s NHTSA provided the law enforcement community with information on driving behaviors that were most often predictive of driver impairment. Concurrently, agency-sponsored research led to the development of a standardized battery of tests for officers to administer to assess driver impairment during enforcement stops. This included the walk-andturn test and the one-leg stand test, which are now found in the SFST test battery, plus a measure of an autonomic reaction to central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol, known as Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN).

In 1992, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) adopted uniform procedures to guide the training of SFST instructors and practitioners. Those standards include 24 hours of NHTSA-approved SFST instruction.

As a precautionary statement, NHTSA's DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) Detection & Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Student Manual indicates that the procedures described in the approved training program demonstrate how the SFST should be administered under ideal or laboratory conditions.3 It also recognizes that ideal conditions do not always exist in the field. Officers are advised to fully comply with NHTSA’s guidelines when administering the SFST. Variations from ideal conditions and/or deviations from the standardized procedures may affect evidentiary weight given to test results. If deviations occur, officers and courts should understand that any deviation from the established testing procedures directly impacts the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. This conformance gives viability to the current two options for teaching SFST.


Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus

HGN is an involuntary jerking of the eye that occurs naturally as the eyes gaze to the side.

The … HGN test is considered by many law enforcement officers to be the most effective technique to provide evidence of alcohol in a motorist’s system. The normal variation in human physical and cognitive capabilities, and the effects of alcohol tolerance, can result in uncertainties when arrest decisions are made exclusively on the basis of physical and/or cognitive performance tests. These uncertainties have resulted in many DWI suspects being released rather than detained and transported to another location for evidentiary chemical testing. This is because some experienced drinkers can perform physical and cognitive tests acceptably, even with a BAC greater than 0.10 percent. However, experienced drinkers cannot conceal the physiological effects of alcohol from an officer who is skilled in HGN administration, because Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus is an involuntary reaction over which an individual has absolutely no control.4


Survey Methodology

The target population for this data collection effort was the DRE coordinators for the 50 states of the United States. Through the assistance of an IACP field liaison, two email messages were sent to the coordinators asking for the completion and return of a four-page survey instrument. Twenty-six surveys were completed and returned. Email follow-up was initiated with several respondents where clarification and/or elaboration were desired.

The researchers recognized that the response opportunities would not be perfect, meaning that the coordinators spoke of their own responsibilities, which sometimes did not include major law enforcement training academies in their respective states. This was not a liability since the intention of this effort was not to gather an exhaustive inventory of programs, but rather to gather insights into their professional perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the two approved lab options, and how they might address certain restrictions imposed externally on their teaching methods.


Survey Results

To provide the least biased set of responses for analysis, the users of 11 wet and 14 wet labs were considered a single group, while the users of 11A Dry and/or 14A Dry, optionally with combined with a wet lab were considered the second group. Tables 1 and 2 display the operational responses of both groups.

Examining table 1, almost 27 percent of the departments require use of both 11Wet and 14 Wet labs for the first HGN hands-on training session, and less than 8 percent specify the use of 11A and 14A Dry labs; 65 percent of the respondent departments do not establish requirements other than training in accordance with NHTSA standards. As far as scheduling and manpower advantages, the respondents report favoring the 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs at 23 percent and 27 percent, respectively. However, almost 62 percent recognize the 11 Wet and 14 Wet lab as providing a proficiency advantage.



Table 1: SFST Training Sessions 11 Wet versus 11A Dry
 11 Wet%11A Dry%No Response%
Dept. requirement7 26.9227.69 17 65.38
Cost advantage13.85415.382180.77
Equipment/Supplies [including alcohol] advantage13.85311.5422 84.62
Facilities advantage27.69415.382076.92
Scheduling advantage13.85623.081973.08
Manpower advantage13.85726.92869.23
Proficiency advantage1661.5427.69830.77
Other415.3827.692076.92


Table 2 shows a similar picture with nearly 31 percent of the departments requiring use of 14 Wet labs for the second HGN hands-on training session, and less than 8 percent specify the use of 14A Dry labs; almost 62 percent of departments do not establish requirements other than training in accordance with NHTSA standards. Additionally, almost 62 percent once again recognize the 14 Wet lab as providing a proficiency advantage over 23 percent favoring the 14A Dry lab.



Table 2: SFST Training Sessions 14 Wet versus 14A Dry
 14 Wet%14A Dry%No Response%
Dept. requirement830.7727.69
Cost advantage13.8527.692388.46
Equipment/Supplies [including alcohol] advantage27.6927.692276.9
Facilities advantage311.5413.852284.62
Scheduling advantage13.8527.692388.46
Manpower advantage13.85415.382180.77
Proficiency advantage1661.54623.08415.38
Other311.5427.692180.77


Tables 3, 4, and 5 display the professional perceptions of respondents distributed by the combination of training approaches used. These are not controlled for reported actual lab use. Note that the value is shaded where the amount of change does not exceed 1.0 from Dry labs to Wet labs.

Three very telling comments were made here. There is a definite professional opinion that the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs provide a higher acceptable level of training. When the negative response to the 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs is considered against the positive response for the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs, the result strongly favors Wet labs. Additionally, 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs, not unexpectedly, are reported to have a negative impact on the training budget. Finally, when the negative response to the 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs is considered in light of the positive response for the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs, consistency of training across SFST, firearms, and driving also strongly favors the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs.

Operational considerations are explored in table 4. Professional opinion definitely favors the use of the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs in terms of professional experience and subject control. At the same time, the respondents report an increased difficulty in recruiting volunteers for the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs.

The average response across both types of labs shown in table 5 suggests that both labs are less likely to be subject to legal challenges under evidentiary rules. However, specific exceptions to this interpretation were reported, so every effort should be made to comply with state or local courts’ rules for admissibility of evidence.


Summary of Data Analysis

Tables 1 and 2 indicate that while some departments and academies specifically require 11 Wet and 14 Wet or 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs, over 60 percent do not impose restrictions on course administrators. At face value, this provides course administrators the opportunity to optimize the training package for the best combination of efficiency and effectiveness. The responses suggest that 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs offer more convenience (critical in several rural jurisdictions). Similarly, a high percentage (almost 62 percent) reported a proficiency advantage of the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs. Finally, consideration must also be given to the evidentiary requirements of the court jurisdictions where trained officers operate.

When examining the professional opinions for “Operational Element—Before Training,” as indicated in table 3, respondents favored the use of 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs by more than double where a difference was reported. The 11A Dry and 14A Dry lab is preferred as having less of a negative budget impact; the 11 Wet and 14 Wet lab had a neutral budget impact. Training calendar impact ratings are similar, suggesting that there are definite trade-offs in the operational considerations of the choice.



Table 3: Professional Perceptions of Respondents Regarding Strengths and Weaknesses of Established Training
Perceptions/OpinionsAverage response on Scale: 1–5
Operational ElementTraining OptionsTraining OptionsTraining Options
Before Training11A Dry and
14A Dry
Combination of
Dry/Wet
11 Wet and
14 Wet
Provides an ACCEPTABLE level of training2.153.434.64
Has a NEGATIVE impact on the training calendar2.122.472.74
Has a NEGATIVE impact on the training budget1.792.552.80
Is CONSISTENT with experiential training for firearms and driving1.783.164.00
Note: the response scale is “1 = Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree.


The professional opinions for “Operational Element—During Training” shown in table 4 indicate a lack of substantial difference of opinion for five of the nine questions dealing with staffing and managing the training lab. However, in three of the remaining four questions relating to an officer’s ability to handle behavioral problems encountered in a roadside traffic stop, professional opinion more than twice as many favored 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs. Operationally, respondents favored 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs over 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs when recruiting volunteers. This set of questions suggests that the operational considerations for allowing the two choices of labs are similar, except for the behavioral outcomes of the trained officers who prefer 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs.



Table 4: Professional Perceptions of Respondents Regarding Strengths and Weaknesses while Conducting Training
Perceptions/OpinionsAverage response on Scale: 1–5
Operational ElementTraining OptionsTraining OptionsTraining Options
During Training11A Dry and
14A Dry
Combination of
Dry/Wet
11 Wet and
14 Wet
I can reach the recommended monitor: volunteer ratio [1:4]4.084.504.43
I can reach the recommended drinker: students ratio [1:3/5]4.54.504.39
The type of experience provided is appropriate for the departmental position descriptions and
job duties.
2.474.055.00
Provides officer experience in controlling a subject drinker1.173.574.43
Provides experience in managing subject behavior less than predictable1.333.384.17
Lab training must include departmental executive presence.1.472.102.00
There is little problem in recruiting volunteers.4.253.103.22
There is little problem in managing volunteers.4.253.813.91
There is little problem in chaperoning volunteers post-session.4.253.954.00
Note: the response scale is 1 = Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree.


Table 5 addresses the court acceptability of the two training scenarios. Except for specifically reported exceptions, there was not a substantial difference in acceptance.



Table 5: Professional Perceptions of Respondents Regarding Strengths and Weaknesses to Legal Challenges
Perceptions/OpinionsAverage response on Scale: 1–5
Operational ElementTraining OptionsTraining OptionsTraining Options
After Training11A Dry and
14A Dry
Combination of
Dry/Wet
11 Wet and
14 Wet
This training is subject to Daubert challenge.2.712.882.80
Note: the response scale is 1 = Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree.



Concluding Comments

This research effort attempted to capture the strengths and weaknesses of both the HGN Wet labs and Dry labs in SFST training. Relying on the reported experiences and professional perceptions of state DRE coordinators, a pattern was detected favoring the use of 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs for enhanced learning experiences was detected—in spite of the reported increase in staffing, scheduling, and budgeting associated with the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs. Strategies are suggested for minimizing the impact of these constraints.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that both 11 Wet with 14 Wet labs and 11A Dry with 14A Dry labs continue to meet the minimum requirements for SFST training as established by NHTSA and
recognized by many states.

Future research should examine the applicability of current evidentiary testing, including SFST, in detecting and documenting vehicle operation while under the influence of licit and illicit drugs.

Insights

A series of open-ended questions were asked to elicit professional suggestions for overcoming political, moral, or other types of constraints imposed on the training program by outside sources. These are summarized below.
  1. Oftentimes the media and/or public expresses concerns about the use of public funds to buy alcohol for training purposes. What are other options for securing this necessary training aid?
    Respondents suggested the following:
    • Community donations be used to purchase alcohol.
    • Using alcohol seized during enforcement operations after adjudication of cases.
    • Including in the budget alcohol as a required training tool, just as bullets are for firearms training and fuel is for driver training.
    • It is important for law enforcement agencies to be able to articulate the need for alcohol to dose subjects under guarded conditions for specific training, which is designed to enhance public safety.
  2. Several respondents reported departmental concerns about liabilities associated with sponsored alcohol use. What can be done to mitigate these concerns?
    In response to these concerns, several training programs have done the following:
    • Moved the alcohol-involved labs off-site to private facilities.
    • Required strict adherence to stated training protocols.
    • Included a “plant” drinker who is tossed out for not following protocols.
    • Ensured drinkers sign a waiver and have their vital signs evaluated by a DRE prior to drinking.
    • Carefully monitored drinkers by counting the drinks consumed and by monitoring BACs throughout the wet lab.
    • Ensured drinkers be driven to their residences by law enforcement professionals following the wet lab.
  3. One of the challenges reported in managing 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs is working with volunteer drinkers. What strategies were suggested?
    • Seek out volunteers from military units or other governmental entities.
    • Conduct afternoon sessions instead of evening sessions.
    • Provide a separate bartender (SFST or DRE ) to control/monitor doses of alcohol.
  4. What are the benefits of 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs?
    • Provide live training, both for observational skills and for client control.
    • May be the only acceptable method to some courts.
    • Provide students an opportunity to evaluate alcohol-dosed subjects through all three SFSTs (HGN, walk-and-turn, and one-leg stand) and allow instructors to evaluate the skills of the students.
  5. What are the benefits of 11A Dry and 14A Dry labs?
    • Tend to be less resource intensive.
    • May reduce training time.
    • Meet NHTSA-approved curriculum requirements.
    • May reduce exposure to liability.
  6. Responses from many SFST training professionals around the country suggest an optimal combination of training. What is this combination?

    There is support for three engagements: a familiarization session with the 11A Dry lab, followed by the hands-on 11 Wet lab, and shortly thereafter the 14 Wet lab. This should provide optimal training exposure for the officers.
  7. The previous six discussion points have covered quite a range of ideas, strategies, and best practices. Did the surveys identify any other ideas that need to be identified?
    • Academies should offer to train traffic safety resource prosecutors (TSRPs) to enhance their understanding of SFST and subsequently their prosecution based on such evidence.
    • Including presentations by TSRPs in SFST training programs will provide officers with a better understanding of the prosecutors’ role in the court process.
    • Conduct HGN 11 Wet or 14 Wet training at night to familiarize officers with testing in less than ideal settings.
    • Conduct SFST 11 Wet or 14 Wet training sessions roadside to familiarize officers with the operational considerations of administering the SFST test battery in a safe manner.
    • Create a scenario village where roadside stops can be replicated for scene management and safety.
    • Those officers receiving only 11A Dry and 14A Dry lab exposure in basic training will be required to participate in 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs prior to advancing to DRE training.
    • In order to keep the class sizes small and more manageable, rotate half of the class members at a time through the 11 Wet and 14 Wet labs.
    • Require completion of an officer’s SFST testing log for final certification of officer proficiency.
    • Maintain strict adherence to the systematic SFST curriculum.
    • Provide opportunities for law enforcement leadership to observe critical portions of the training program to gain executive support.
    • To minimize potential negative media coverage of any training effort, periodically brief the departmental/academy Public Information Officer (PIO) on training strategies and approaches. The PIO may consider inviting media to observe some of the training to further deter the public from driving while impaired.


The Future and Today

The SFST program is the first in a series of available training curriculums designed for law enforcement to detect and remove impaired drivers from roadways. While SFST was designed to detect impairment by alcohol, it can also be used to identify the drug impaired driver at roadside. At the other end of the evidentiary spectrum is the Drug Evaluation and Classification Program; graduates of which are known as DREs. DREs can provide court accepted testimony as to drug impairment based on a systematic and standardized evaluation of persons impaired by drugs.

Between SFST and DRE lies a growing need to develop officers’ ability to recognize impairment from drugs other than alcohol, and to exclude other causes for such behavior, including medical and psychological issues. NHTSA’s 16-hour Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) program provides trained officers with the ability to rule out or parse alcohol involvement, thus providing an initial determination of drug impairment.

In 2012, the voters in Colorado passed Colorado Constitutional Amendment 64, which modified the Colorado State Constitution to allow recreational use of marijuana in addition to the existing use of medical marijuana. Amendment 64 working groups appointed by the governor recommended the inclusion of ARIDE in the existing basic training curriculum of the Colorado Peace Officer Standard Training (POST). This recommendation was accepted by the Colorado legislature and now is a reality. Aside from the funding challenge, ARIDE training may place officers who complete SFST training using 11A Dry and 14A Dry HGN labs at a disadvantage because ARIDE training requires a demonstrated competency in managing and completing roadside SFST testing.♦


Notes:
1NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA), Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) Encyclopedia, http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx (accessed July 26, 2013). NHTSA’s NCSA, Traffic Safety Facts 1994—Alcohol, 1, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/94Alcohol.pdf (accessed July 26, 2013). NHTSA’s NCSA, Traffic Safety Facts: 2011 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview, December 2012, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 811 701, 1 and 4, http://wwwnrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811701.pdf (accessed July 26, 2013).
2 NHTSA, Development of a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Training Management System, DOT HS 809 400, November 2001, http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/alcohol/SFST/index.htm (accessed July 26, 2013).
3NHTSA, DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) Detection & Standardized Field Sobriety Testing: Student Manual, HS 178 R2/06 (U.S. Department of Transportation, Transportation Safety Institute, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2009), preface.
4NHTSA, Development of a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST)Training Management System.

Please cite as:

Robert E. Weltzer and Robert Ticer, "Professional Practices and Perceptions in Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Training," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 120–126.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 10, October 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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