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Test anxiety can even impact field sobriety test results

Field sobriety tests are the physical coordination exams that police subject drivers to when suspected of driving under the influence. You have likely seen them on TV or even experienced them yourself. The three standard tests used in Pennsylvania and elsewhere include:

  • The walk-and-turn: walking heel to toe in a straight line, spinning around and coming back
  • The one-leg stand: Standing on one leg with the other raised off the ground for about 30 seconds
  • The horizontal gaze nystagmus: Following a moving object with your eyes from side to side while the officer looks for certain twitching patterns that could indicate intoxication

While these tests have been deemed reliable indicators of a suspect’s intoxication, they are far from perfect. Even if you were completely sober, you could fail for numerous reasons, including physical health issues that impact your balance or coordination.

But one factor that could skew results often doesn’t get mentioned: anxiety. Perhaps you suffer daily from anxiety. Perhaps you get nervous before any kind of test you take. Or perhaps you’re normally confident on written exams but get nervous when taking a test that could eventually result in criminal charges.

Recent alcohol use can cause or increase anxiety

Alcohol typically leads to feelings of relaxation and calm while drinking, but many people don’t know that it can have the opposite effect when you sober up. Alcohol causes changes in the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain such as serotonin. When it wears off, you may actually experience anxiety for several hours or up to a full day after ingesting alcohol.

Consider this common scenario: You went out with friends for drinks one evening. Even though you were likely safe to drive home at the time, you decided to wait several hours, just to be sure. On the way home, a police officer pulls you over. Anxiety triggered by alcohol consumption could impact your performance on the field sobriety tests.

To be sure, police will usually not arrest someone based on field sobriety tests alone. They will often follow up with a portable breathalyzer test (if the person agrees to take one). Still, traffic stops are unpredictable. If you ever drive after drinking – even hours later – the best way to protect yourself is to fully understand your legal rights and to know which factors could negatively influence an interaction with law enforcement.