Reckless Driving Traffic Violations

How “reckless driving” is defined and the penalties that result from a conviction.

By , Attorney University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 5/10/2022

Reckless driving is a criminal charge that can come into play in lots of situations. The laws in most states define reckless driving in broad and general terms. So, whether a driver's actions can be characterized as "reckless driving" really comes down to judgment calls of the citing officer and, ultimately, the judge or jury.

How Reckless Driving Is Defined

States define reckless driving in different ways. But most states have a general reckless driving definition and few states have more specific definitions.

General Reckless Driving Laws

The particulars of state laws differ. But most states define reckless driving (also called "reckless operation" and "driving to endanger") as willfully operating a vehicle in a manner that shows an indifference to the safety of persons or property. In other words, the person was aware he or she was driving in a way that put other people or property at risk.

Specific Reckless Driving Laws

In addition to having a generally defined reckless driving offense, the laws of some states include specific circumstances that are considered "per se" reckless driving. Some of the more common per se examples involve excessive speeding (for example, driving over 100 miles per hour), illegally passing a school bus, and street racing.

How Reckless Driving Differs from Speeding and Other Traffic Violations

Speeding and manner other traffic violations can lead to a reckless driving conviction. But, as for general reckless driving laws, the violation of violations must include an added element of dangerousness to qualify as reckless driving.

For example, excessive speeding in areas where there are lots of pedestrians could amount to reckless driving because doing so puts the safety of pedestrians at significant risk.

Examples of Possible Reckless Driving

As previously discussed, definitions of reckless driving are general. However, some examples of conduct that could fall in the reckless driving category could include things like:

  • excessive speeding (especially in areas with pedestrians)
  • distracted driving at high speeds or near pedestrians
  • driving a vehicle that's not in safe operating condition
  • street racing
  • peeling out, and
  • driving without headlights at night

But, again, it all depends on the specific circumstances and whether or not the conduct poses a substantial danger.

Reckless Driving and DUI Plea Bargains

When a person is charged with a DUI, it's sometimes possible to negotiate (plea bargain) for a less serious charge. Because reckless driving is defined in general terms and carries lesser penalties than a DUI conviction, it's a prime candidate for DUI plea deals. A reckless driving charge is commonly called a "wet reckless" when it's the end result of a DUI plea bargain.

Reckless Driving Penalties

The classification and penalties of a reckless driving violation depend on the circumstances and state law.

Reckless Driving as a Misdemeanor

Reckless driving is typically a misdemeanor criminal offense. In most states, a reckless driving conviction carries about $50 to $1,000 in fines and up 90 days to a year in jail. And states that have traffic violation points systems normally assess points for a reckless driving conviction.

A reckless driving conviction—whether a misdemeanor or felony—can also lead to license suspension.

Felony Reckless Driving

The laws of some states make reckless driving a felony when the violation involves certain aggravating factors like injuries or fatalities. For a felony reckless driving conviction, the defendant may be looking at a year or more in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

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