What is careless driving?

There are multiple things considered to be careless driving: aggressive driving, speeding, illegal lane changes, excessive honking, conspicuously absent signal use, falling asleep at the wheel, and, of course, texting while driving. Read this guide to learn the true consequences of careless driving to reduce your risk on the road, which will lead to fewer accidents and lower fines for everyone.

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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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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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If you drive for long enough on any of America’s nearly 3 million miles of public roadways, you’ll see all sorts of examples of driver behavior on the highway that could be deemed “careless driving.” A list of unsafe driving actions can go on and on: aggressive driving, speeding, illegal lane changes, excessive honking, conspicuously absent signal use, falling asleep at the wheel, distracted driving, and, of course, drivers holding cell phones in one hand (flatly illegal in an increasing number of states) and breakfast in the other!

Most of us feel we’ve grudgingly accepted the existence of careless drivers and their unsafe behavior in their vehicles (just look at the skyrocketing popularity of voluntary “defensive driving” courses). The fact is that at some point, the average driver will do something unsafe (or to fail to do something safe). Gaining a grasp of the true consequences of our own careless behavior, including knowing when and how it may violate a traffic statute in your state, will lead to fewer motor vehicle accidents and citations and lower fines and insurance premiums for everyone, not to mention higher levels of general sanity among our 200 million drivers.

One of the first things to understand is the difference between careless driving laws and reckless driving.

What Makes Careless Driving Different than Reckless Driving?

In most dictionaries, carelessness is a part of the definition of recklessness, and, to an extent, the reverse is true as well. But the legal world does not rely solely on dictionary definitions. Most statutes define reckless driving, at least in part, as including “wanton disregard.” As you can tell from the sound of it, this is a much higher standard to place on a person than mere carelessness. Careless driving, such as lane drifting or falling asleep at the wheel, is rarely (if ever) wanton.

Some states do not separate reckless and careless driving in their statutes. In such states, careless driving behavior can fall under the reckless driving category, requiring a level of deliberate disregard of driving rules. Thus, if you are charged with reckless driving charges in one of these states, and you believe your driving behavior more closely resembled careless driving, you may have a good case. You just need to be able to show that you did not act with “wanton disregard” or “extreme indifference.”

An experienced car accident attorney in your area can determine the legal standard that governs your case, gather the proper evidence, and make the right arguments in court.

For examples of reckless driving, the consequences, and costly fines in various states, see our reckless driving FAQ.

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What are statutory examples of careless driving and the penalties?

States that have explicitly addressed the issue of careless driving tend to define it in terms of actual harm rather than the mental state of the driver. Pennsylvania provides a good example. Under Pennsylvania law, careless driving is a summary offense committed when the driving was “in careless disregard for the safety of persons or property.” If anyone is seriously injured or dies as a result of the careless driving, then the driver is subject to state fines ($500 for death, $250 for bodily injury), but, otherwise, there is no penalty.

On the other hand, reckless driving in Pennsylvania is an offense committed when driving in intentional or wanton disregard for the safety of people or property. Its penalties contrast starkly with careless driving: the minimum penalty is a $200 fine along with a 6-month license suspension and 90 days in jail. In California, a reckless driver that causes an injury results in a month in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. In Virginia, the penalties overshadow both Pennsylvania and California: $2,500 in fines, and jail time up to one year – even for a first offense. If you do regain your drivers license after this, your insurance premium may be prohibitively high if a carrier will insure you at all.

Other states have taken a different approach to careless driving statutes. In Oregon, considerable effort was put into precisely delineating the scope of careless driving offenses, violations, and their penalties. An individual is guilty of careless driving in Oregon when driving a vehicle “in a manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger any person or property.” This definition of carelessness in driving is narrower and also less circular than Pennsylvania’s, which helps make the standard clearer for drivers and courts alike. Oregon penalties are also relatively mild. Careless driving is usually a Class B traffic violation, and at worst a Class A (when injuries occur), meaning individuals may face traffic safety courses, community service, and education requirements, and a fine.

New Jersey offers perhaps the broadest statutory definition for a careless driving citation: “driving a vehicle carelessly or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property.” The breadth of this law offers New Jersey law enforcement a number of opportunities to charge a driver with careless driving. It attempts to encompass more types of dangerous driving, intentional or otherwise.

In general, state law tends toward lesser penalties for careless driving than for reckless driving, if the two concepts are defined separately. Nevertheless, a traffic infraction for careless driving can have long-lasting consequences.

More importantly for some, state law doesn’t necessarily protect you from further consequences. Especially in cases of death, the other party’s family can file a civil lawsuit to pursue a range of damages. Of course, the details vary by state. If you find yourself facing a careless driving charge, you should consider seeking the services of a qualified car accident attorney in your area to discuss the severity of penalties you may face. There may be a number of options open to you for resolving your situation. Make sure you retain the most experienced representation you can.

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