Reckless driving is defined as driving with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others, or a willful disregard of the potential consequences of one’s actions. It arises not from mere negligence but often from a conscious decision to expose others to the risk of harm. It does not require a showing that someone was actually injured as a result of the driver’s actions. The possibility of endangerment is sufficient.
While any use of a vehicle can constitute reckless driving if it is done in a willful or wanton manner, many states set forth particular behaviors that are presumed to be reckless under the laws of that state. These are sometimes called “per se” reckless driving. For instance, in many states, the following actions constitute reckless driving:
- Driving without using headlights;
- Excessive speeding;
- Drag racing or otherwise racing other vehicles;
- Improper passing of another vehicle; and
- Failing to pay attention to the road.
In a few states, even basic traffic offenses like running a red light or failing to keep a proper distance in bad weather can constitute reckless driving. It is important to check the laws of your state to determine what actions may put you at risk of a reckless driving charge.
Although speeding while driving is a dangerous activity, it is rarely held to amount to reckless driving unless the speed is excessive, which generally means driving more than 25 miles per hour above the posted limit. Speeding also may be considered excessive if it is combined with other factors indicative of recklessness, such as speeding on a dark and winding road or speeding in an area that is highly congested with pedestrians.
While driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs typically suggests a disregard for the safety of others, it is usually charged as a separate crime of driving under the influence rather than as reckless driving.
The Driver’s Mental State
Determining whether a driver engaged in willful and wanton conduct can be a complicated task. Since reckless driving requires more than mere negligence, a prosecutor must show that the defendant did more than simply make a mistake about the rules of the road. This does not, however, require a showing that the driver intended to engage in conduct that would put others at risk, or intended to cause another driver or pedestrian harm. Instead, willful and wanton conduct can be inferred from the circumstances of the violation.
Punishment for Reckless Driving
Reckless driving may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the severity of the conduct at issue. If the driver’s actions lead to actual bodily harm, a felony will often be charged. Additionally, if death results, the driver may also face a charge of vehicular homicide. Penalties for reckless driving will vary by state, but they may include criminal charges, fines and jail time, or possible revocation or suspension of a driver’s license.