Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate drivers about...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Licensed Agent for 10 Years

UPDATED: Mar 25, 2019

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The term “reckless driving” is commonly used to describe any type of driving in which the operator of the vehicle is careless and can potentially cause an accident. For example, many people would classify distracted driving (such as using a cell phone while driving) as “reckless driving.”

However, the term “reckless driving” has a rather narrow meaning under the law although each state interprets it a bit differently.

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Reckless Driving Defined

In general, statutes regarding reckless driving use terms like “willful and wanton disregard” and “substantial and unjustifiable risk” to describe the crime of reckless driving.

A general definition would read, “Reckless driving occurs when a person knowingly endangers himself or herself and others by deliberately driving in a manner which any reasonable person would know can cause an accident.”

While each state has a different wording for its statute regarding reckless driving, it is a serious offense in every state. Reckless driving is not the same as “careless” driving, where it is assumed that the operator did not intend to cause harm or was not willfully indifferent to the danger he or she posed.

This can mean that getting a conviction for reckless driving, from a law enforcement perspective, can be difficult. There is a fine line between willfully driving recklessly and simply being careless.

However, officers usually charge this crime when it is obvious that the person driving had no intention of following the law, and was operating the vehicle in such a manner that it was almost inevitable that someone would be hurt.

An example of Reckless Driving

A good example of reckless driving would be if someone were speeding down an interstate at 100 mph and passing cars on both the left and right, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic.

There is absolutely no reason why anyone would ever think this is safe practice, and the driver was obviously not distracted by outside forces. Contrast this with someone traveling at 80 mph in one lane on a freeway where the speed limit is 70 mph.

In the first case, it is almost certain the officer would charge “reckless driving,” instead of just a speeding violation, whereas in the second case it is almost certain that a simple speeding citation would be the result.

There have been court cases which challenged reckless driving statutes, but for the most part the courts have held with keeping this violation a serious offense.

Most of these court cases challenge a basic underlying principle of “mens rea,” or mental state, which may affect someone who drives recklessly. In short, some challenges have occurred to the reckless driving statutes because the driver was allegedly under undue mental strain at the time.

Most reckless driving statutes assume that a person is knowingly violating all safety regards and traffic laws when committing this crime. However, most of these cases are not successfully defended, due to the extreme danger caused by reckless drivers.

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What states have Reckless Driving Laws

Currently, ten states have specific statutes dealing with reckless driving by name. Other states cover reckless driving with their ordinary traffic statutes, especially those dealing with harm caused by unsafe operation of an automobile.

If a person causes death or injury due to reckless driving, it is very possible in most states that the driver will be charged with a felony, such as “vehicular manslaughter.”

What are the penalties for Reckless Driving?

Reckless driving convictions will almost certainly raise your auto insurance rate, and may cause outright cancellation.

Like DUI, or driving under the influence, convictions, a reckless driving charge is a very serious indicator that a driver is not operating the vehicle in a manner consistent with safety and regard for the well-being of other drivers.

Because of this, a reckless driving conviction, while often not carrying initial fines as heavy as those for DUI, can have just as great an impact on your ability to obtain affordable car insurance.

Many companies will cancel an insurance policy after a reckless driving conviction. If this is the case, the driver will have to seek other insurance, often with a “high-risk” driver label. This means that rates will be highly inflated, and not all companies will do business with the driver.

Further, reckless drivers may be required to file certain documents with the state, such as an SR-22 report. An SR-22 is a “guarantee of financial responsibility,” which shows that you have an insurance company willing to keep your coverage in place for a given amount of time.

Some auto insurance companies will not deal with SR-22 filings at all, while others charge a premium for this service.

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