PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A drunk-driving test introduced by the federal government four years ago is being applauded by police from Southern California to Rhode Island, although a few officers have difficulty accepting its simplicity.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after 11 years of research, recommended the nystagmus gaze test as one of three drunk-driving tests to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
It is deceptively uncomplicated. A police officer moves a pen or other pointed object horizontally in front of a suspect's eyes. A sober person's eyes follow the pen smoothly, but an intoxicated individual's eyes jerk or bounce.
Police officers say the reflexes of a drunk's eyes do not react to the movement as quickly as normal, and this can be the first clue to a blood-alcohol content of 0.10%, which means intoxication under many states' laws.
With a drunken person, "the farther the eye moves, the more the jerking is exaggerated by alcohol," according to James Ryan of the Traffic Safety Administration's Cambridge, Mass., office. "The nerve becomes stimulated, the eyes become relaxed and the jerking more pronounced."
Sgt. Richard C. Studdard, director of the drug recognition expert training program for the Los Angeles Police Department, said the test began as a way of determining barbiturate use.
The gaze test already was being used by Los Angeles police when federal research began in 1970 with evaluations initially done in Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Maryland and North Carolina.
In 1983, the federal government began training officers to use the gaze test and two other field sobriety tests--the walk-and-turn and the one-leg-stand tests.
Officers from all 50 states--1,400 in all--were trained in the first 16 months, said Ron DeFore, spokesman at the highway safety administration's Washington office.
'How Do You Get a Reading?'
Now, Studdard said, "it's unusual to find an officer who doesn't use the test." He suspects that those who are skeptical of it probably have not been trained to administer it properly.
One skeptic, Pawtucket police Detective Robert Force, said, "What I want to know is, how do you get a (blood alcohol content) reading from it?"
Pawtucket police look for appearance clues like a flushed face or bloodshot eyes. They also smell the suspect's breath, ask questions and conduct balance, finger-to-nose, repetition and coin pick-up tests. All this precedes a Breathalyzer test at the station, Force said.
The gaze test "is proven to be far superior" to the roadside tests used by police such as Pawtucket's, Ryan said. It also is effective for spotting "a drunk who's practiced at masking the symptoms of insobriety because he's living life drunk," he said.
Marcelline Burns of the Southern California Research Institute said her agency has done research on the gaze test and other field sobriety tests for the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal government.
"It's the most sensitive, it's the most reliable, and it has the greatest validity of any test that can be used at roadside," Burns said.
The gaze test should complement, not replace, traditional tests, federal officials say, recommending in particular the walk-and-turn and one-leg-stand tests.
"We feel very confident that these tests are very effective in establishing probable cause . . . for driving under the influence," Ryan said.
Three Days of Training
DeFore said some police departments probably are not using the tests because they lack the manpower to schedule officers for the three days of training.
Providence Police Lt. William Devine said his department noted that "this gaze test is given to a borderline person" who does not show many outward signs of inebriation. "Obviously, if the person is falling all over his face, you don't need to give him the gaze test."
"We've had a 95% success rate" with the gaze test, Devine said, referring to the rate of confirmed blood alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher. But he believes that it should not replace others, including the Breathalyzer.
"You need something official, and the machine gives an official answer. That, along with the gaze test, locks it in a little better," he said.