Further validation of the Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Tests: A South Dakota Perspective


In South Dakota, conservation officers are tasked with doing most of the boating enforcement across the state. In the spring of 2013, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP) department instructors, who had been trained by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), fully trained and transitioned all state conservation officers in the use of the newly validated Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs). From that point forward, all conservation officers would use the Seated SFSTs for all boating under the influence (BUI) investigations.

The impact of transitioning to the Seated SFSTs was immediate. Officers now had the ability to complete all BUI investigations on the water, making investigations of those thought to be under the influence much less time-consuming for both the officer and the subject being investigated. In 2013, SDGFP conservation officers set record numbers of BUI arrests across the state and were putting the new Seated SFSTs to the test. 

During the 2013 annual NASBLA conference NASBLA, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, announced they were looking to further validate the Seated SFSTs. Knowing that South Dakota was likely one of few states that had fully transitioned to the Seated SFSTs, we offered NASBLA a possible study site to conduct further research. However, I did have some concerns as to whether South Dakota would be able to provide enough valuable data.

Of concern was the size of our state, length of our boating season, nature of our conservation officers’ jobs, and overall number operators being administered the SFSTs in a given year. South Dakota is small state. On average we have approximately 50,000 registered boats. That accounts for less than 0.50% of the total registered boats nationwide. South Dakota has a short boating season (June-August on average) and sees the vast majority of our boating activity on the weekends. Additionally, our conservation officers only spend a fraction of their time on the water as boating enforcement comprises a small portion of their overall job duties. Lastly, even though we had set record numbers of BUIs arrests in 2013, the number of operators being run through SFSTs in a given year was not being tracked. Therefore, there was no good avenue to gauge just how many tests we would be able to run at a given location. Cautiously, I offered South Dakota as a possible study site.

In November of 2013, I was contacted by Dr. Dary Fiorentino, who had worked on the original Seated SFSTs validation study. Dr. Fiorentino was looking for two or three study site locations across the country to participate in further validation of the Seated SFSTs.

I immediately expressed my concerns with South Dakota as a study site. Having never participated in a study such as this, the biggest question was whether South Dakota would be able to produce enough contacts to produce any valid research data. Both Dr. Fiorentino and I agreed that South Dakota would offer some challenges. However, after several brief discussions, a plan of operation was formed and a study site was chosen.

For a study site, we needed to choose a location that would offer the best chance to collect data for the study. Several locations came to mind, but ultimately we choose Yankton. Yankton is home to one of South Dakota’s busiest boating destinations. Yankton is also home to one of the state’s largest and busiest state parks, which houses two of our department’s conservation officers who would be able to assist directly with the study and provide some direct oversight.

The South Dakota study started during Operation Dry Water weekend (June 27-29, 2014) and concluded September 1. Shifts for the study were scheduled during the peak boating periods of Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Since officers were not strictly dedicated to the project, we had officers from the across the state participate in the study. Officers both veteran and new participated and were assigned to work in pairs alongside the civilian observers who were hired for the study. 

Evening-PatrolThe summer of 2014 turned out to be mild one. For the third year in a row, temperatures rarely reached the 90s most of the summer and thunderstorms persisted late into August. Like most states, the amount of alcohol consumption on the water typically increases with the temperatures in South Dakota. Our officers had their work cut out for them if they were going to reach the target number of tests run for the study.    

In combination with conducting several checkpoints, numerous probable cause stops, and safety inspections, the 24 officers who participated in the study were able to slightly exceed the targeted number of tests. Another result of the study was that 52 percent of the total BUI arrests for the state were made as part of the study in 2014.

Participation in the study proved to be an invaluable endeavor for our agency. Aside from scheduling officers, putting together some operational plans, and providing data from our BUI investigations, it was business as usual for our conservation officers. The civilian observers selected for the study were a pleasure to work with and Dr. Fiorentino made participation in the study a very easy undertaking. 

Unfortunately, South Dakota was the only state that participated in the study in 2014, which resulted in the lower than anticipated study results. Regardless, we were able to provide data and if asked to participate again, there is little we would do differently. I would strongly suggest others join this effort if given the opportunity. The Seated SFSTs have changed the way we conduct BUI enforcement in South Dakota, and, ultimately, these tests have the ability to change the way we do BUI enforcement across the country.


These officers and civilians comprise part of the team that participated
in a study to further validate the Seated Standardized Field Sobriety Tests.

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