Driving is such an indelible part of modern life that every state has a complex system of laws governing how people must act when operating a vehicle. Because vehicles are potentially so dangerous, driving in a reckless or unsafe manner is a crime in itself. Anyone charged with this crime faces significant 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. Though many states list specific actions that qualify as reckless driving, drivers can be convicted of this crime whenever they drive in an unreasonably dangerous manner.
- Factors. Courts weigh a number of factors when determining what constitutes reckless driving. These include the time of day, the weather conditions present, the presence of other people or animals, the qualities of the vehicle, a driver's familiarity with the area, as well as numerous other factors.
- Beyond negligence. Reckless driving is more than simply making a mistake or being negligent while driving. A driver has to act willfully and with an active disregard for safety. However, a prosecutor does not have to necessarily show the driver's mental state at the time. It's enough for the prosecution to show that the circumstances surrounding the event either caused the driver to know, or the driver should have known, that the driving was not safe.
- Safety risk. While reckless driving necessarily involves a heightened amount of danger to other people, a prosecutor does not have to show that other people were actually placed in jeopardy. Reckless driving can occur even if no one else is on the roadway or there is no property damaged. It's enough for drivers to endanger their own lives or risk damaging their own property to qualify as reckless drivers.
- “Per Se” reckless. Some states have laws that list specific conditions that automatically qualify as reckless driving. These are known as “per se” conditions. This simply means that a driver acted recklessly if the prosecutor can show that even one of the specified conditions is present. Some common per se factors include speeding 20 mph or more above a posted speed limit, passing a school bus, passing at a railroad crossing, or participating in a street race.
Reckless driving is one of the more serious traffic offenses a person can commit. If you are convicted of reckless driving, you face significant penalties that often include jail, fines, and the revocation of your license. Though penalties differ significantly among states and depend on the circumstances of the case, reckless driving charges typically bring with them a range of penalties.
- Jail or prison. Reckless driving is often categorized as a misdemeanor offense, meaning that a person convicted of the crime faces up to one year in jail. However, a small number of states also allow the crime to be charged as a felony, meaning a conviction can bring a year or more in a state prison. Felony charges are often filed in situations where someone was injured as a result of the reckless driving.
- Fines. 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.
- Probation. 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.
- License suspension. A person convicted of reckless driving also faces the possibility of a license suspension or revocation. State laws typically include a mandatory suspension of at least 30 days whenever a person is convicted of reckless driving. If the driver has previous reckless driving convictions or other traffic violations, lengthier suspensions and even permanent license revocation is also possible.
(Find out about how reckless driving is defined and punished in your state.)
Speak to an Attorney
Anyone facing a reckless driving charge should always consult a local criminal defense attorney before taking any further steps in your 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.