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, including laws that make "reckless driving" illegal.
This article covers how state driving laws define reckless driving and the common penalties for a reckless driving conviction.
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 (by and of itself) reckless driving. (Pronounced per-say.)
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.
The hallmarks of reckless driving are dangerousness and a conscious disregard for the risk on the part of the driver. As you might imagine, countless scenarios could fall under the general definition of reckless driving. Here are just a few illustrations.
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.
Aggressive driving and maneuvers, such as peeling out or spinning donuts, can easily lead to accidents and injuries, especially on busy streets or any area where people or property are present. If this type of driving shows a substantial disregard for the safety of others, it's reckless driving.
Many states have laws against racing. Street or drag racing can be a crime of its own in some states or it could lead to reckless driving charges, particularly when there are other cars or pedestrians in the vicinity.
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:
With per se reckless driving laws, the prosecution only needs to prove the driver's conduct comes under one of the specific definitions. The prosecution doesn't need to prove that the conduct also qualifies under the general definition of reckless driving.
Unlike some other traffic laws, such as speeding violations, reckless driving is highly dependent on the circumstances of each 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 speeds are high (like on a freeway), it's reasonable to expect that drivers should be more vigilant. But, if you're 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 consider 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.
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 time is definitely a possibility in reckless driving cases. 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 10 years or more. Given a defendant's lack of regard for others' safety in a reckless driving case, a judge may use at least some jail time to drive home the seriousness of the offense.
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.
If the offense resulted in injury to persons or property, the judge will likely order the defendant to compensate any victims for their losses through restitution.
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. (And while not a decision made by the judge, a defendant's vehicle insurance rates will increase or could be canceled.)
Anyone facing a reckless driving charge should consult a local criminal defense attorney. A local attorney will know how local prosecutors and courts handle reckless driving charges. Even if you've never been convicted of a crime and don't believe you are guilty, 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. Speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.