Careless driving vs. reckless driving | What’s the difference?

careless driving and reckless driving
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By Marshall Smith  |   Last updated on January 27th, 2023 at 3:36 pm

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While the terms “careless driving” and “reckless driving” may sound similar, the violations are not synonymous. Both refer to a driver not following the rules of the road, but the intent behind each citation and the consequences are what make the difference.

If you’re cited for either careless driving or reckless driving, understanding what both violations mean will help you determine your next steps — and help you understand if you have to pay any fines or higher liability auto insurance premiums.

What is careless driving?

Careless driving is the less serious citation of the two (in the eyes of the law). It means that the driver was disregarding the rules of the road, such as running a red light or forgetting to use turn signals.

Speeding can also be cited as careless driving. If someone is driving 20 mph (or more) over the speed limit and are pulled over in a traffic stop, the charge might be carelessness. However, if the speeding results in an accident, that driver may be charged with reckless driving (more on what that means below). That’s because, while it might sound obvious, speeding poses a serious threat to drivers. Speeding has been a factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities over the past two decades. In fact, there were 9,378 speeding-related deaths in 2018 alone.

When it comes to a careless driving violation, law enforcement has ruled that the driver’s intent isn’t to cause harm. In other words, they’re still operating a car in an irresponsible and dangerous way, but their actions aren’t driven by malice.

Penalties for careless driving

Careless driving isn’t typically a criminal offense. The driver’s punishment will usually be one of the following:

  • Pay a fine
  • Receive points on their license in certain states
  • Ordered to do community service or attend driving school

An indirect consequence of receiving a careless driving citation is that it may cause your insurance rates to rise — the average insurance rate increase is 26% after being cited for careless driving. The best way to avoid this rate increase and other penalties for careless driving is to be a safe, engaged driver who understands and follows the basic rules of the road.

What is reckless driving?

Reckless driving is the more severe violation of the two. Each state defines reckless driving differently, but it basically boils down to intentionally driving in a way that puts other drivers in danger. Reckless drivers are often deemed by law enforcement to have a “willful or wanton disregard” for human life and the safety of others on the road. Some examples of reckless driving are:

  • Driving on the sidewalk
  • Drag racing
  • Driving under the influence

Distracted driving as reckless driving

Distracted driving is often classified as a form of careless driving, but it can be classified as a form of reckless driving depending on the offense and what state it’s committed in (like in Virginia). You’re especially likely to receive a reckless driving charge if the distracted behavior results in an injury or death — which sadly is all too common. According to the NHTSA, distracted driving claimed 3,142 lives in 2019.

It’s crucial to understand what distracted driving truly means before you hit the road. Many of us immediately think of texting while behind the wheel, which is one of the deadliest forms. But distracted driving can also refer to other behaviors that require drivers to take their eyes and minds off the road, like:

  • Eating and drinking
  • Changing the radio station
  • Messing with the car’s “infotainment” system.

Drowsy driving as reckless driving

Drowsy drivers could also be charged for reckless driving if it results in an accident. The NHTSA estimates that drowsy driving related crashes caused 697 deaths in 2019. They also found that drowsy driving crashes happen most often between midnight and 6 a.m., or in the late afternoon due to dips in a person’s circadian rhythm. Drowsy driving crashes also usually involve just one driver running off the road at a high speed, and they frequently happen on rural roads and highways.

Penalties for reckless driving

As for the penalties for reckless driving, it’s typically classified as a misdemeanor offense. A “misdemeanor” might sound mild, but it’s much more serious than you might think. A reckless driving misdemeanor charge can come with:

  • Hefty fines
  • Points on your license
  • Jail time

However, reckless driving isn’t always a misdemeanor charge. Again, some states consider reckless driving a felony offense depending on the violation — especially if it causes injuries or deaths.

How careless and reckless driving affect insurance

Both careless and reckless driving charges will likely cause your insurance rate to go up. However, you can expect a higher rate hike with a reckless driving charge, since it’s a more serious violation. According to The Zebra, rates can rise by an average of over $500 per six-month period after a reckless driving charge.

The Zebra Reckless Driving Insurance Rate Increases
photo credit: The Zebra

How to steer clear of careless and reckless drivers

AAA’s 2019 Traffic Safety Culture Index found that 91% of participants considered aggressive driving to be “very” or “extremely” dangerous. If you encounter an aggressive driver, try these tips to avoid becoming a victim of their bad decisions:

  • Don’t offend aggressive drivers by cutting them off, tailgating, driving slowly in the left lane, or obscene gesturing.
  • Don’t engage with the driver. Give them a lot of room, and don’t make eye contact if they’re acting angry near you. Consider calling the police if you think an aggressive driver is following you.
  • Try a different perspective. Put yourself in the other driver’s shoes and try to understand why they might be driving poorly. Realize that you shouldn’t take their behavior personally.
  • If you have a habit of aggressive driving, think about allowing yourself more time to get to your destination to reduce potential triggers. Listen to some good music, books, or podcasts on your way there.
  • If that doesn’t seem to work, ask for help. Consider taking anger management classes or check out a self-help book.

What to do if you’re charged with careless or reckless driving

If you’re ticketed for careless or reckless driving, your first step is to notify your car insurance company. It can be tempting to keep quiet about a minor speeding ticket, but your insurance will find out about it eventually. That’s why it’s always better to tell them ASAP.

If your violation caused damage to another car or driver, you’ll need to file a claim with your insurance company immediately. They’ll help you cover damages, injuries, and may even help with legal costs if you’re taken to court. If you’re an Elephant customer and need to file a claim, you can start the process here.

On the flip side, let’s say you’ve been a victim of another driver’s careless or reckless driving. You’ll need to file a third-party claim through the other driver’s liability insurance provider to cover the damage or injuries (even if you aren’t a policyholder with that company).

Stay safe with Elephant Insurance

The best way to avoid penalties and insurance rate increases for careless or reckless driving is to be a safe, engaged driver. At Elephant Insurance, we want to be there for our drivers when accidents happen. We also want to reward our safe drivers with big discounts on their premiums. Get an affordable quote with us to make sure you’re always covered.

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