Reckless Driving: How It’s Defined and the Penalties for a Conviction

What’s considered “reckless driving,” and what to expect if you’re convicted.

All states have laws that prohibit "reckless" driving. Some states, however, call the offense by different names, such as "reckless operation" and "driving to endanger." Reckless driving is typically defined as operating a vehicle in "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property" or in some similar fashion. Generally, a motorist comes under this definition by purposefully or knowingly driving in a way that poses a danger to property or other people.

A judge or jury will normally look to all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a motorist has committed a reckless driving offense. In other words, there's generally no set formula for what qualifies as reckless driving—it just depends on the situation. For example, a jury might conclude that driving 100 miles per hour on a remote desert highway doesn't amount to reckless driving. But the same jury would undoubtedly come to a different conclusion if the motorist was driving the same speed through a school zone while children were present.

A handful of states also define one more "per se" reckless driving offenses. Depending on the state, a driver might face a per se reckless driving charge for:

  • fleeing in a vehicle from a law enforcement officer
  • jumping a vehicle
  • passing another car without sufficient visibility
  • unlawfully passing a school bus
  • committing three or more moving violations within a certain driving distance
  • being involved in a street race, or
  • exceeding the speed limit by a certain amount.

With per se offenses, the driver can be convicted regardless of whether the driving actually posed a danger to people or property.

Misdemeanor or Felony

Driving-related offenses generally fall into one of three categories: traffic infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Traffic infractions—which generally aren't considered "crimes"—are the least serious type of offense. Traffic infractions typically carry fines but no jail time. Misdemeanor crimes, on the other hand, are generally punishable by a fine and up to a year in jail. And felonies—the most serious offense classification—carry fines and the possibility of more than a year behind bars.

In most states, a standard reckless driving offense is a misdemeanor. Penalties vary by state. But maximum penalties usually range from about 90 days to a year in jail and $100 to $1,000 in fines.

Reckless driving offenses that involve injuries, deaths, or property damage can sometimes be charged as a felony. (A reckless driving offense that leads to a fatality can also lead to vehicular homicide charges.) Depending on the circumstances, a felony reckless driving conviction could result in thousands of dollars in fines and multiple years in state prison.

In addition to fines and possible jail time, motorists convicted of reckless driving often face license-related consequences. A reckless driving conviction will generally add demerit points to a motorist's driving record. And in some states, license suspension is mandatory for a reckless driving conviction.

Reckless Driving as a Plea Bargain to a DUI Charge

Sometimes, it's possible for a motorist who's charged with driving under the influence (DUI) to plea bargain for a less serious charge. When such a plea bargain results in a DUI being reduced to a reckless driving charge, it's sometimes called a "wet reckless."

Some states (like California and Florida) even have two distinct types of reckless driving charges: standard reckless driving and reckless driving involving drugs or alcohol. The penalties for drug or alcohol-related reckless driving are typically more severe than those for standard reckless driving but less severe than those for a DUI.

Careless Driving

Some states also have an offense called "careless driving" (sometimes called "negligent operation"). Careless driving is similar to reckless driving but carries less serious penalties. The difference between reckless and careless driving usually has to do with the mental state of the driver. A reckless driving conviction typically requires proof that the driver purposefully or knowingly drove dangerously, whereas a driver can usually be convicted of careless driving based on negligent bad driving. In practice, however, the two offenses can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. In other words, it can be tricky to discern whether a motorist's dangerous driving is attributable to deliberate action or mere negligence.

Talk to an Attorney

Reckless driving is a criminal offense that can result in serious consequences. If you've been arrested for reckless driving—or any other crime—get in contact with an experienced criminal defense attorney. State laws vary, and the facts of every case are different. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can help you decide how best to handle your situation.

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