Anyone who drives regularly has had the experience of seeing someone speed or pass unsafely and thinking to themselves, “wow, that’s reckless”. These instances go beyond the questionable risks we see other drivers take every day and stand out as especially dangerous and liable to cause someone serious injuries.
The law, like ordinary drivers, recognizes a distinction between careless actions behind the wheel and reckless ones. In this blog post, we examine what makes some types of driving reckless, and how the law deals with reckless drivers criminally and civilly.
Distinguishing Reckless Driving from Careless Driving
Several years ago, the American Automobile Association’s research arm, the AAA Foundation, published research reporting that 87 percent of drivers have engaged in unsafe driving behaviors within the past month. That’s a pretty startling statistic. Very few perfectly safe drivers populate our roads.
Still, that does not make us a nation of reckless drivers. Saying that a driver is reckless implies something worse: that they drive in a way that exhibits an extreme and unacceptable (what laws in many states refer to as “willful and wanton”) disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others. If careless driving poses a risk of an accident, reckless driving poses a materially heightened risk not just of an accident, but of one that will cause serious injuries or fatalities.
Laws nationwide embrace this distinction. Virtually all unsafe driving behaviors are “illegal” in the sense that they constitute a violation of a given state’s motor vehicle code. Reckless driving, however, is often illegal in a more consequential way: most states criminalize it. Some locales explicitly call out reckless driving as a stand-alone criminal offense.
Others have criminal laws on the books punishing specific conduct behind the wheel that is, by its nature, reckless. One way or another, the law treats reckless driving as something worse than mere careless driving. It puts the public at risk for severe consequences and accordingly the law subjects it to harsh penalties.
Common Examples of Reckless Driving
So far, we’ve discussed reckless driving as driving that’s relatively worse than careless driving. But what, specifically, constitutes reckless driving that exposes the public to the worst consequences, and is worthy of the harshest punishment? Here are some common examples.
Almost all drivers speed sometimes, in that they drive five miles per hour over the speed limit on a highway or a street they frequently travel.
Speeding becomes reckless when it unacceptably disregards the safety of others and poses an extreme risk of causing an accident, such as in the following circumstances:
- Driving far more than (for example, two-times, or 25 miles per hour over) a posted speed limit;
- Exceeding the speed limit through a designated low-speed area, such as a school or construction zone;
- Speeding in connection with another prohibited driving activity, such as street racing;
- Driving too fast to stay in control in heavy traffic or poor weather conditions.
Most drivers know reckless speeding when they see it. It’s the car that blows past on the highway as if your car was standing still, or the driver going so fast that you just know he could not possibly stop safely on a rain-slick road.
Intentional Disregard for Traffic Rules and Controls
As part of the social and legal contract most drivers follow, we recognize that public officials post traffic signs and lights as a means of ensuring our safety and the safety of others with whom we share the road. We may not like waiting at a stoplight, and we may think the public road department made a bad decision in turning a formerly two-way street into a one-way thoroughfare, but accepting those decisions and abiding by traffic controls is something we all must do for the greater good.
Some drivers, however, refuse to play along. They know they’re supposed to stop at a red light, and that they should never take a wrong-way shortcut, but they do it anyway. They know—because we all know—that their actions are extremely dangerous. They simply put their interests above the safety of others. In a word, they’re reckless.
Using Roads for Purposes Other Than Transportation
Roads exist to facilitate the public getting from one place to another. Except in narrow circumstances when they’re closed for specific purposes (such as a running race), roads do not serve purposes unrelated to transportation.
Drivers who nevertheless decide to use the roads for purposes other than intended engage in reckless conduct. One such example is drivers who take to the road to joyride or race each other, putting the public at risk of serious accidents. Another is drivers who road rage, using the roads as a means of venting their anger toward others.
All drivers understand that driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol is illegal and dangerous. By definition, that same conduct also constitutes reckless driving. The effects of drugs and alcohol slow a driver’s reaction times, cloud the driver’s judgment, and interfere with the perception of speed and distance. Any of these effects, let alone a combination of them, stands a good chance of resulting in a deadly accident.
Holding Reckless Drivers Accountable
Laws in every state hold reckless drivers accountable for their actions and the harm they cause in at least three ways. Here is a summary of each.
As we mentioned above, many states define reckless driving as criminal conduct, and others subject drivers to criminal penalties for engaging in specific reckless driving behaviors. No matter which approach a state takes (and some take both), the consequences for reckless driving can be severe. Reckless drivers face potential prison sentences, large monetary fines, and long terms of probation. Having a criminal driving record can also impair their ability to obtain employment, particularly if that employment involves driving any sort of commercial vehicle.
Local prosecutors enforce criminal penalties for reckless driving by charging drivers with crimes and, if the defendant does not plead guilty, asking judges and juries to convict them. Victims of accidents caused by reckless drivers do not get to decide whether a prosecutor brings charges, but may participate in an eventual prosecution.
Driving a car is a privilege, not a right. The state, which issues driver’s licenses, may revoke its permission for an individual to drive upon finding that the driver has engaged in reckless conduct.
State laws differ regarding the circumstances in which a department of motor vehicles may suspend or revoke a license, and on the duration of any given suspension. Reckless drivers, however, can expect to lose their driving privileges for at least some time if they cause an accident, whether or not the state charges them with a crime.
Civil Liability to Victims for Damages
Reckless drivers who cause accidents that injure innocent victims will generally face legal liability to the people they harm for monetary damages.
This liability may include an obligation to pay compensation to victims to pay for:
- Medical expenses victims incur in connection with treating injuries they suffered in an accident, including the costs of emergency care, hospitalization, surgeries, and medication.
- Other costs victims face because of the accident or the injuries they suffered in it, such as expenses for modifying their homes to accommodate new disabilities, or of replacing damaged personal property.
- Wages and income victims lose as a result of their injuries, most commonly in cases in which victims miss work while recovering from an injury, or when victims suffer disabling injuries that prevent them from working.
- Pain, suffering, and impacts on the quality of victims’ lives resulting from the reckless driving accident and the injuries it inflicted, which may include harm to victims’ personal relationships, and mental health challenges victims face because of their injuries.
In some cases, courts may also impose punitive damages on reckless drivers, to punish them for their dangerous, willful conduct.
Other Parties May Share the Blame for Reckless Driving
Reckless drivers who cause harm aren’t the only parties who may face consequences for the drivers’ misconduct. Others may share the blame—and legal liability —for injuries and losses suffered by reckless driving victims.
- Employers of individuals who drive recklessly and cause accidents may face legal liability to victims of their employees’ misconduct, particularly if they failed to train employees in safe driving practices or knew of an employees’ dangerous tendencies.
- Bars, restaurants, and social hosts that serve alcohol to a driver who subsequently causes an accident while under the influence, especially if that driver was a minor or was visibly intoxicated before they served the driver alcohol.
- Organizers of illegal street racing or other events that encourage reckless driving that ends in an accident.
- Medical professionals who prescribe medication that causes an unexpected, unwanted change in a driver’s mental state that results in reckless behavior behind the wheel.
It isn’t always obvious who may share liability with a reckless driver for injuries the driver causes. The most reliable way to determine who may owe damages for a reckless driving accident is to speak with an experienced car accident injury attorney as soon as possible after suffering harm in a crash. An attorney can investigate the circumstances of the accident and determine who may owe compensation to accident victims under applicable law.
What to Do if a Reckless Driver Harms You
Do you know the steps to take if you get hurt in an accident caused by a reckless driver? Here are some suggestions for actions that can protect your rights.
Seek Immediate Medical Attention
Perhaps the most important step any reckless driving accident victim can take is to seek medical care immediately. Consulting with a medical professional is important even if you do not believe you suffered injuries in a crash.
Some injuries—including serious ones like brain trauma or internal organ damage—may not exhibit immediate symptoms, but can cause life-altering or life-threatening complications if not treated right away.
Obtaining prompt, appropriate medical care also ensures the creation of records that document any injuries a victim suffers in a reckless driving accident, which attorneys may use later to establish the victim’s right to compensation.
Consult an Experienced Car Accident Attorney
In the wake of suffering injuries in a reckless driving accident, few victims put hiring a lawyer at the top of their list of priorities. Seeking legal advice, however, will often constitute the smartest decision victims can make (after they have received medical care, of course).
A skilled car accident attorney acts as a crucial ally for accident victims in navigating the sometimes complicated decisions and life circumstances they often confront after getting hurt in a reckless driving accident.
An attorney can:
- Investigate the accident to determine how it happened and who, in addition to the reckless driver, may face legal liability for victims’ injuries.
- Evaluate the harm victims have suffered and calculate the appropriate amount of damages they have a right to receive under applicable laws.
- Explain victims’ rights and options, and help victims make important decisions that may affect their legal rights and financial wellbeing.
- Prepare, file, and litigate legal actions designed to secure maximum compensation for victims’ injuries and losses.
- Negotiate settlements, when possible, of victims’ claims.
- Take victims’ cases to trial in front of judges and juries, to obtain a damages award commensurate with the victims’ injuries.
- Collect monies due to reckless driving accident victims through settlements, judgments, or jury awards.
If you or a loved one suffered injuries in a reckless driving accident, chances are you have rights under your state’s laws to receive significant financial compensation for the harm you suffered. To learn more about your rights in a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation, contact an experienced local car accident attorney today.