A motorist who negligently, recklessly, or unlawfully operates a vehicle and causes the death of another person will likely face criminal charges. However, state laws vary significantly in defining and penalizing driving-related killings. Most jurisdictions have vehicular homicide statutes that apply specifically to driving-related killings. In other jurisdictions, the crime is prosecuted under more general manslaughter and murder laws.
This article provides a general overview of the potential criminal charges and penalties imposed when a driver unintentionally causes the death of another person while at the wheel.
Most states recognize “vehicular homicide” (also called “vehicular manslaughter” and “homicide by vehicle”) as a separate class of homicide that applies exclusively to motorists who cause the death of another person while operating a vehicle. Depending on the jurisdiction, vehicular homicide might be defined as causing the death of another person while:
In some jurisdictions, a driver can be charged with vehicular homicide for causing a fatal accident while driving a vehicle negligently. Negligence (also called “simple negligence” or “ordinary negligence”) is generally defined as failing to exercise a degree of care that a reasonable person would under similar circumstances.
The type of conduct constituting ordinary negligence can include careless or distracted driving that isn’t necessarily unlawful. For example, a driver who fails to wear glasses or briefly takes his or her eyes off the road to adjust the radio might face vehicular homicide charges if the inattention causes a fatal accident.
Some states define vehicular homicide as causing the death of another person while operating a vehicle in a grossly negligent manner. Gross negligence (also called “criminal negligence” or “culpable negligence”) involves more egregious conduct than ordinary negligence.
Typically, a driver is grossly negligent by failing to perceive a risk that will result from engaging in certain conduct. The nature and degree of the risk must be so substantial that the driver’s failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable driver would observe in the same situation. In other words, the driver should have been—but wasn’t—aware of the risk posed by the dangerous driving.
In some states, a driver can be charged with vehicular homicide for causing the death of another person while driving recklessly. “Recklessly” is generally defined as consciously disregarding a “substantial and unjustifiable risk.” In other words, the driver was aware that the conduct posed a serious risk but engaged in that conduct anyway.
In many jurisdictions, a driver who causes the death of another person while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs commits vehicular homicide. In addition to the driver’s intoxication, some states require proof of negligent driving. In other states, establishing that the driver was intoxicated and caused a fatality is sufficient.
A few jurisdictions define vehicular homicide as causing the death of another person while committing certain traffic offenses. In these states, the qualifying traffic offense is typically a serious crime, such as DUI, hit-and-run, reckless driving, or eluding police. However, in some jurisdictions, even minor traffic infractions, like illegal passing or turning, speeding, and texting while driving can trigger a vehicular homicide charge.
In states that don’t have specific vehicular homicide laws, a motorist who unintentionally causes the death of another person may face prosecution under the state’s general homicide statutes. Depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances, a fatal car accident could result in the following charges:
Negligent homicide is generally the least serious crime associated with driving-related killings. A driver commits negligent homicide by causing the death of another person while driving in a criminally negligent manner. As discussed above, a driver who was unaware of the risk posed by the unsafe driving (but should have been) is criminally negligent.
Involuntary manslaughter (also called “second-degree manslaughter”) is a common charge resulting from a driving-related killing. Although state laws vary, involuntary manslaughter generally refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence.
When a motorist’s driving is particularly dangerous, second-degree murder charges are possible in some jurisdictions. States typically define second-degree murder as recklessly or knowingly engaging in conduct that results in the death of another person under circumstances showing “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
The potential penalties for a driving-related homicide conviction vary by jurisdiction. In many states, vehicular homicide and other driving-related homicides are always felonies. In other states, the crime can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. Generally, negligent driving that causes death results in a misdemeanor, whereas fatalities resulting from driving recklessly or intoxicated are ordinarily felonies. Misdemeanor convictions typically carry a maximum sentence of one year in jail and felonies result in a sentence of one year or more in prison.
Other consequences of a vehicular homicide conviction can include fines, restitution (if medical expenses were incurred by the family of the deceased), probation or parole, driver’s license suspension or revocation, and community service.