Reckless Driving Violations and Penalties

The crime of reckless driving occurs whenever someone operates a vehicle in such a way that it poses a risk to others. Unlike some other traffic laws, such as speeding violations, reckless driving is highly dependent on the circumstances of each individual case.

The goal of traffic laws is to make driving conditions safer for motorists and pedestrians. There are lots of specific traffic rules that place limits on vehicle operation. But all states also have more general traffic laws that make "reckless driving" illegal.

This article covers how state driving laws define reckless driving and the penalties you might face if you're ticketed for a reckless driving offense.

What Is the Definition of "Reckless Driving"?

All states have laws that make reckless driving illegal. However, among the states, there's some variance in how reckless driving is defined. While all states have laws that define the offense generally, some states also have more specific definitions that categorize certain conduct as per se reckless driving.

Most Common Ways Reckless Driving is Defined (General Definitions)

General reckless driving laws differ somewhat among the states. But, in substance, all these laws prohibit the same type of conduct. Typically, these general laws define reckless driving as operating a vehicle in a manner that shows a "willful" or "wanton" disregard for the safety of others or the property of others.

In other words, driving behavior that obviously poses a threat to people or property is considered reckless driving. The word "obviously" is important here because, in most states, making an honest mistake doesn't qualify as reckless driving—the conduct needs to be egregious enough that the driver reasonably should have been aware of the danger posed.

Factors of Consideration in Determining Whether Driving is Reckless

Unlike some other traffic laws, such as speeding violations, reckless driving is highly dependent on the circumstances of each individual case. However, judges and juries might look to some of the following factors in deciding whether a driver's conduct amounts to reckless driving:

  • Weather conditions. Weather is a significant factor in determining whether driving behavior poses a risk to others or the property of others. When weather conditions are bad (icy conditions, for example), reasonable drivers keep their speeds down and take more precautions. But if weather conditions are good, a driver might be able to use this factor to their advantage in arguing the conduct wasn't unsafe.
  • Traffic conditions. Traffic conditions also play a part in the assessment of driver safety. When there's lots of traffic or vehicle speed are high (like on a freeway), it's reasonable to expect that drivers should be more vigilant. But if you're all alone on a country road, judges and juries might give you a bit more leeway.
  • Geographic features. The amount of risk posed by certain types of driving is additionally a function of the geographic features of the roadway. For instance, roads with lots of curves increase the risks of driving fast because of limited visibility and the possibility of losing traction. Similarly, hilly terrain can make it difficult to know what's up ahead.
  • Pedestrian traffic. The amount and type of pedestrian traffic are other factors judges and juries are likely to take into account when assessing driver conduct. It's reasonable to expect drivers to be more cautious in areas where there are lots of pedestrians. This factor is even more significant if the pedestrians are children or vulnerable in some other way.

These are probably the most common factors that judges and juries considered in cases involving reckless driving charges. However, any factors that bear on the dangerousness of the driving and whether the driver should have been aware of the danger are valid considerations.

Types of Conduct That Could Qualify as Reckless Driving Under General Definitions

As you might imagine, there are countless scenarios that could fall under the general definition of reckless driving. However, here are some illustrations:

  • Driving absurdly fast. Lots of motorists break speed limits. But when a driver exceeds the speed limit by a huge amount (for example, driving 100 miles per hour on a city street), the substantial danger it poses to others is plain to see. Excessive speeding alone can certainly lead to a reckless driving conviction.
  • Spinning donuts and peeling out. Lots of states have laws that specifically prohibit exhibitions of speed and peeling out. But this kind of driving, especially in urban areas, could easily lead to a reckless driving charge as well.
  • Street racing. Again, many states have laws against street racing. However, participating in a street could also lead to reckless driving charges, particularly when there are other cars or pedestrians in the vicinity.

These are just a few examples of conduct that could lead to a reckless driving conviction. But, as previously noted, there are lots of other circumstances that could result in a reckless driving citation. The hallmarks of reckless driving are dangerousness and a conscious disregard for the risk on the part of the driver.

Specific (Per Se) Reckless Driving Laws

A handful of states, in addition to a general definition, have specific definitions of conduct that is considered per se reckless driving. Per se reckless driving laws might specify conduct such as:

  • jumping a vehicle
  • fleeing from law enforcement
  • unlawfully passing a school bus
  • street racing, or
  • exceeding the speed limit by a certain amount.

With per reckless driving laws, the prosecution just needs to prove the driver's conduct comes under one of the specific definitions. It isn't necessary for the prosecution to prove that the conduct also qualifies under the general definition of reckless driving.

Reckless Driving Conviction Penalties

Reckless driving is one of the more serious traffic offenses a person can commit. In most cases, reckless driving is a misdemeanor criminal offense. However, certain aggravating factors can sometimes elevate a reckless driving charge to a felony.

Specific penalties differ by state but often include jail, fines, probation, and license suspension.

Jail or Prison Time for Reckless Driving

Reckless driving as a misdemeanor offense typically carries up to six months or a year in jail. However, as a felony, reckless driving can result in a year or more in prison. Offenses involving serious injuries or death often carry the possibility of a long prison sentence like ten years or more.

Fines for Reckless Driving

Fines are a very common penalty when a person is convicted of reckless driving. The amount of the fine can differ widely based on the state and circumstances of the crime, but they usually range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Misdemeanor offenses usually don't carry more than $1,000 or so in fines, whereas a felony conviction can often result in many thousands of dollars in fines.

License Suspension for Reckless Driving

A person convicted of reckless driving also faces the possibility of a license suspension or revocation. In some states, license suspension is mandatory, whereas other states give judges the option of whether or not to suspend the driver's license. For misdemeanor convictions, the license suspension period is usually anywhere from about 30 days to a year. Drivers convicted of a felony offense could face a suspension or revocation of a year or more.

Probation for Reckless Driving

Probation sentences are also possible with reckless driving convictions, though they are highly dependent on the circumstances of the case and the driver's driving history. If a court sentences you to probation, it will require you to comply with specific terms, such as finding a job, making regular visits to a probation officer, and not committing any crimes or other traffic violations. If you violate the terms of probation, the court may revoke it and force you to serve a jail or prison sentence instead. Probation typically lasts 12 months or more.

Speak to an Attorney

Anyone facing a reckless driving charge should always consult a local criminal defense attorney before taking any further steps in their case. A local attorney will know how local prosecutors and courts handle reckless driving charges, what the state requirements are, and will have experience dealing with reckless driving and other traffic offenses. Even if you have never been convicted of a crime and don't believe you are guilty of the charge, reckless driving is a serious offense that has significant consequences, including an impact on your ability to obtain insurance. Don't dismiss a reckless driving charge as simply another traffic ticket, and speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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