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

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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Endangering Persons or Property

Disregard for the safety of people or property is often an element in reckless driving cases. Showing actual damage to people or property, or that pedestrians or other traffic were in the driver’s vicinity, isn’t required. Reckless driving can be found by showing that the driver only put himself at risk.

Street or Public Highway

Most states require that a defendant’s reckless driving take place on a public street or road. Some examples of what doesn’t qualify as a “public street or highway” include:

  • A metered parking lot
  • School grounds
  • A privately owned parking area of a shopping plaza that could be closed to the public

Increasingly, courts have had to address the issue of whether reckless driving laws apply to private property. If your state’s reckless driving law doesn’t include as an element of the offense, either expressly or by implication, that the violation must have occurred on a public highway, the law might apply to conduct occurring anywhere within the state, including on private property.

The trend among the states is that reckless driving laws apply to private property. Furthermore, in light of the growing practice of banks, supermarkets, amusement centers, shopping malls and other organizations to maintain large parking lots or garages for the public’s convenience, it seems likely that legislatures and courts, in the interest of public safety, will see an increasing need to make reckless driving laws applicable to private property that’s dedicated to public use.

Defenses to the Crime of Reckless Driving

Necessity

One defense that might be raised in a reckless driving case is the necessity defense. Here, the defendant must show that:

  • The offensive driving took place because the driver reasonably believed that an emergency existed
  • He didn’t create the emergency
  • The emergency presented a threat to the driver or some third party

The necessity defense doesn’t apply, however, when there was an alternative to violating the law.

Lack of Identity

Another defense that might be asserted is the lack of identity. As in speeding cases, the prosecution’s failure to establish the defendant’s identity as the driver of the vehicle is fatal to the prosecution of a reckless driving case. Direct evidence, such as an eyewitness who saw the defendant driving, isn’t required to prove identity. Circumstantial evidence may suffice, such as where it’s shown that the defendant was at the scene of an accident, alone in a car, in the driver’s seat and unconscious.

Other Defenses

There are numerous defenses that often fail in reckless driving cases, including:

  • The negligence of a person who was injured or who was the driver of a car that collided with the defendant’s vehicle
  • The fact that a driver tried to avoid an accident or collision after he or she actually caused or created the dangerous situation that gave rise to the accident or collision
  • That an accident would have occurred even without the defendant’s reckless driving
  • That no accident in fact occurred
  • That there was no property damage

However, evidence of prior accidents on the same road under substantially similar conditions may be used to show that the common cause of the accidents was the dangerous condition of the road and not the driving of the defendant.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Are reckless driving charges on the rise due to all the distractions we have in our cars? If I have an accident, am I more likely to be charged with reckless driving if I was using my cell phone, a GPS system or a DVD player?
  • Can I be charged with reckless driving if an accident happens on both public and private property, like hitting someone while backing out of my driveway or my car leaves the road and hits a house?
  • If my blood alcohol level was below the legal limit when my accident happened, could I be charged with reckless driving instead?
  • I was in an accident at an intersection that’s on the list of top accident sites in my area. Is it a valid defense to reckless driving that the intersection is inherently dangerous?