Laws against reckless driving, or “reckless operation of a motor vehicle,” like laws against speeding or drunk driving (DUI or DWI), make such actions a crime and act to deter dangerous driving. Reckless driving differs because it involves a “willful” or “wanton” disregard for the safety of others.

Generally, reckless driving is a misdemeanor crime. This means that constitutional rules apply to prosecutions for reckless driving. The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Miranda rules apply, and police officers must inform you of your right to remain silent before you start answering questions.

Penalties for Reckless Driving

The potential consequences of and punishments for a conviction of reckless driving can be severe. A reckless driving conviction can result in:

  • A misdemeanor criminal record
  • Deportation
  • Revocation of parole
  • Automatic suspension or revocation of your driver’s license
  • A substantial fine and a jail sentence

Given the severity of penalties, it’s common for drivers to plea bargain and admit guilt to a less serious offense, such as speeding or some other minor traffic violation.

Elements of the Crime of Reckless Driving

Whether or not your driving amounts to reckless driving depends on how state or local law defines the offense in your area. If you’re not sure how the law applies in your state, think about seeking help from an experienced criminal law or defense attorney.

Legal Definitions of Reckless Driving

State laws usually define reckless driving as “driving with a willful or a wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property,” or in similar terms.

Challenges to reckless driving charges by arguing that state laws or local ordinances don’t clearly define the offense are possible. The argument is that the law is unconstitutional and void for vagueness. Most states have upheld definitions of reckless driving over such arguments. However, a few states have found reckless driving laws to be unconstitutionally vague. Depending on the language of the state law or local ordinance, it’s possible to succeed with a constitutional challenge. Remember, if you don’t raise the issue of constitutionality at trial, you probably won’t be allowed to bring it up if you later appeal.

Required Conduct

Among the specific acts or types of conduct that have been found by courts as insufficient in themselves to establish reckless driving are:

  • The commission of mere traffic violations or infractions, such as running a red light
  • The sudden application of brakes on a wet road, followed by skidding
  • Making a U-turn without using turn signals
  • Driving without headlights
  • Speeding
  • Being involved in a traffic accident
  • Inattentive driving
  • Driving after drinking alcohol

While any one of these acts, standing alone, usually won’t support a conviction for reckless driving, a combination of more than one of these acts could.


Speeding alone doesn’t ordinarily amount to reckless driving. In some states, however, speeding creates a presumption of recklessness, which the driver may rebut or defeat. Speeding can be viewed in several ways. An extremely high rate of speed might be enough to establish recklessness. On the other hand, the mere fact that a driver obeyed the posted speed limit doesn’t negate the possibility that the driver could be found guilty of reckless driving.

Speeding combined with other factors can support a reckless driving conviction. Factors considered along with speed include:

  • The roadway being traveled, including its width and surface
  • The presence or lack of vehicular traffic or pedestrians
  • Visibility factors
  • The time of day that the defendant was driving

Alcohol and Drug Use

Generally, the fact that a defendant drove while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or drugs won’t support a reckless driving conviction. Rather, courts consider alcohol and drug use as a factor in deciding whether the driver’s actions were reckless.

Nevertheless, a driver who gets behind the wheel and drives knowing that he or she is intoxicated or drunk and that his or her physical condition is impaired might be found guilty of reckless driving.

Reckless driving and DUI or DWI offenses are separate crimes. Reckless driving isn’t a lesser-included offense of DUI or DWI because each crime is separate and distinct and can be proved by different evidence. Reckless driving involves how a vehicle was being operated; it isn’t necessary to show that the driver used drugs or alcohol to prove a violation of a reckless driving law. In a prosecution for DUI or DWI, on the other hand, how the vehicle was being operated might tend to show that the driver was impaired, but it’s not a necessary ingredient of the offense.

Because reckless driving and DUI or DWI are distinct and separate offenses, a conviction or an acquittal of one offense doesn’t bar a prosecution for committing the other offense.

Traffic Offenses

Committing a traffic offense, such as running a stop sign or turning without signaling, doesn’t alone constitute reckless driving. However, combinations of traffic violations or aggravating circumstances can support a reckless driving conviction. For example, a court could find that running several stop signs at high speed when other traffic or pedestrians are around is reckless driving.

Driver’s Intent

Intent isn’t an element of reckless driving. The prosecution doesn’t need to prove that a driver intended to act recklessly. The prosecution must prove, however, that the reckless driver was aware of the risk and consciously disregarded it.

In deciding a reckless driving case, a court weighs the nature and degree of risk disregarded by the driver, the nature and purpose of his actions and the circumstances known to the driver while he was driving. The prosecution must show more than the driver’s simple, gross or criminal negligence in proving reckless driving.

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