Will the Officer Really have Me Recite the Alphabet Backwards?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on April 9th, 2014

(Please welcome guest blogger, Jon Ibanez!)

During conversations about field sobriety tests, I can’t even tell you how many times someone has said, “I can’t even recite the alphabet backwards while sober!” My response is that they’re right, which is why officers don’t usually ask a person to perform this task as a field sobriety test during a California DUI stop. But they can.

If the alphabet is used at all as a field sobriety test, the officer may ask a DUI suspect to recite the alphabet forward without singing. Or they may be asked to recite the alphabet forward with their eyes closed. The officer will then look for the presence of impairment indicators. These indicators include the following: Whether the DUI suspect improperly states the alphabet, whether the DUI suspect sways, opens their eyes, or needs to use his or her arms for balance.

Like other field sobriety tests, the alphabet is a divided attention test. This means that the test requires a DUI suspect to divide their attention between a mental task and a physical task.

The alphabet test is not often used because it is not endorsed by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This means that it is not supported by research and does not meet requirements for standardization. In other words, the alphabet test is so unreliable that the NHTSA refuses to endorse it.

Since the alphabet test is not endorsed by the NHTSA, there are no set guidelines for which an officer can administer it. Some officers may have a DUI suspect begin reciting the alphabet beginning on an arbitrary letter such as “J.” Other officers may have the DUI suspect stop at an arbitrary letter. And some may have the DUI suspect say the alphabet backwards!

Forget trying to say the alphabet backwards, the NHTSA has determined that the alphabet (forward) test fails to differentiate between drunk drivers and sober drivers.

Amongst other criticisms, the alphabet test does not account for people whose first language may not be English, people who may not have had to recite the alphabet since they were in grade school, or those who are illiterate.

  • Larry E Sears

    point being is that I do have respect for the police, in fact I have a
    great deal of respect for the police. Rather in school there was never a
    need for one to learn to say the alphabet backwards thus few people I
    believe can. Much like the school system giving up teaching children the
    ability to write in cursive but rather teaching only to write in block
    letters. There is nothing about operating a motor vehicle that requires
    one to read the alphabet backwards thus it is a poor test for assessing
    one’s ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. The speedometer and the
    tachometer all read from zero forward. No device in a vehicle requires
    one to read the alphabet backwards and is a poor test of one’s ability
    to operate a motor vehicle safely. Tests to the assess one;s hand eye
    coordination and ability to manage their motor skills are indeed valid
    as are breathalyzers and blood work and a suspect’s demeanor toward a
    law officer are all valid tests of whether a suspect is operating a
    vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant, however, I dare say few
    people can say their alphabet backwards because in school there was no
    reason for instructors to teach them to recite the alphabet
    backwards………………………I do concede there are people who
    are so gifted to do so sober but not being able to do so does not
    suggest a person is intoxicated. My point is if police use such a test
    it is unfair and illegitimate.