reckless and careless driving side by side

Careless Driving vs. Reckless Driving: Laws and Their Effects on Insurance.

Accidents do not take place unless you are driving carelessly or recklessly. Careless driving vs reckless driving are two distinct terms that can cause a number of life-threatening accidents. 

If you ever get pulled over and receive a citation for either careless driving or reckless driving, it's crucial to know the differences between these offenses. This knowledge will not only help you figure out what to do next but also let you know if you'll have to pay fines or face penalties, and whether your auto insurance rates might go up.

What is reckless driving?

Reckless driving is a big problem on the roads, and it's responsible for a staggering 33% of all car accident deaths, totaling over 13,000 lives lost every year. What's more, around 30% of all auto accidents can be traced back to reckless drivers pushing their speeds to the limit.

Now, when it comes to traffic violations, reckless driving is the heavyweight champ. While the exact definition varies from state to state, the core idea is pretty simple: it's when someone deliberately drives in a way that puts others at risk. Law enforcement typically describes a reckless driver as someone who shows a complete disregard for human life and the safety of fellow drivers.


Some real-life examples of reckless driving include things like:


  • Driving on the sidewalk
  • Taking part in dangerous drag races on public roads
  • Getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs

The Legal Definition

According to California Vehicle Code 23103 VC, reckless driving is described as driving "in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." This legal jargon can be a bit confusing, so let's simplify it.

A person is considered to be driving recklessly when they:

Knowingly poses a significant, unjustifiable risk of harm: This means they are aware that what they're doing on the road could cause harm.

Intentionally ignore this risk: Despite knowing the danger, they choose to drive in a hazardous manner.

So, even if someone didn't mean to harm anyone if they knowingly engage in risky driving, they can be found guilty of reckless driving.

Reckless Driving Resulting in Injury

Things get even more serious when reckless driving leads to injury. California has two related offenses for this:


  • 23104 VC – Reckless Driving Causing Injury
  • 23105 VC – Reckless Driving Causing Serious Injury

In this context, 'serious injury' includes things like concussions, brain injuries, loss of consciousness, fractures, wounds requiring extensive suturing, prolonged loss of organ function, serious disfigurement, and even paralysis.

The Criminal Aspect

Now, let's talk about the criminal side of reckless driving. In California, it's considered a misdemeanor. If you're convicted of reckless driving, you could face penalties such as:

Jail time: This can range from 5 to 90 days.

Points on your driver's license: You'll accumulate 2 points.

Fines: The fine can be anywhere from $145 to $1,000.

License suspension: Your driving privileges can be suspended for up to 6 months.

Injury-Related Penalties: If reckless driving causes injury to others, the penalties become more severe. For minor injuries, the driver could face 30 days to 1 year in jail.

Felony Charges: Reckless driving that leads to serious injury can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, with felony convictions carrying up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

However, if a reckless driver causes injury during an accident, the penalties become more severe. For minor injuries to others, they could face jail time ranging from 30 days to 1 year. 

Here's an important detail: reckless driving that leads to serious injury is what they call a 'wobbler' offense. This means that the prosecutor can choose to treat it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If it's charged as a felony, the consequences can be severe, including up to 3 years in prison, fines as high as $10,000, and the possibility of your car being impounded.

The Hazards of Drowsy Driving: A Reckless Behavior

Drowsy driving can result in reckless driving charges, especially when accidents happen. The NHTSA's data from 2019 indicates that 697 lives were lost due to drowsy driving-related crashes.

Drowsy driving accidents often occur between midnight and 6 a.m. or during the late afternoon when our energy levels dip. These accidents typically involve a single driver running off the road at high speed, often on rural roads and highways.

What is careless driving?

Careless driving is the less serious of these two traffic offenses in the eyes of the law. Essentially, it means that the driver was not following the rules of the road, like running a red light or forgetting to use their turn signals.

Sometimes, even speeding can get you a careless driving citation. For example, if you're driving 20 mph or more over the speed limit and you get pulled over, you might end up with a careless driving charge. But if your speeding leads to an accident, you could be hit with a reckless driving charge, which we'll dive into shortly. This is because speeding is a significant danger on the road, and it has been a factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities over the past two decades. 

Back on August 18, 2008, the charge known as Causing Death by Careless Driving was introduced. As of 2017, it had been applied 2,072 times, earning it the title of the most commonly used offense for cases involving causing death through driving.

When it comes to a careless driving violation, law enforcement typically believes that the driver didn't intend to cause harm. In other words, a careless driver is someone who's driving irresponsibly and dangerously, but their actions aren't motivated by malice or a blatant disregard for safety.

Careless Driving Penalties in California


Fines: The fines for careless driving can vary depending on the circumstances and location but often range from around $100 to $500.

Points on Driving Record: A conviction for careless driving can result in one point being added to the driver's record.

Traffic School: In some cases, the court may allow the driver to attend traffic school to prevent points from being added to their record.

The Stats

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has just shared its early report on traffic fatalities for 2021, and the numbers are concerning. They estimate that around 42,915 people lost their lives in car accidents last year, which is a significant 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. This projection represents the highest number of deaths since 2005 and the biggest annual percentage jump ever recorded in the history of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.


Careless Driving Vs Reckless Driving

AspectCareless DrivingReckless Driving
Legal ClassificationGenerally considered a traffic violation or misdemeanor.Typically considered a more serious criminal offense.
IntentInvolves negligent or inattentive driving without malicious intent.Involves a willful or wanton disregard for safety, often intentional or with deliberate indifference.
Severity of ConsequencesLess severe consequences, such as fines, traffic school, and potential points on the driver's license.More severe consequences, including higher fines, potential jail time, and a significant impact on one's criminal record.
Common ExamplesRunning a stop sign, failure to yield, minor at-fault accidents.Excessive speeding, street racing, driving under the influence, causing serious accidents with injuries or fatalities.
Insurance ImpactMay result in increased insurance premiums but generally less severe than reckless driving.Typically leads to substantial increases in insurance premiums due to the more serious nature of the offense.
Legal PenaltiesGenerally treated as a traffic violation or a lower-level misdemeanor, depending on the jurisdiction.Treated as a criminal offense in many jurisdictions, potentially leading to fines, probation, or even imprisonment.
Prosecution BurdenThe prosecution must demonstrate negligence or lack of attention to driving.Prosecution must prove a willful or wanton disregard for safety, often requiring more evidence.


Who's in Charge of the Rules for Reckless and Careless Driving?

You know, every state in the U.S. has its own set of traffic rules, so what happens if you drive recklessly or carelessly can be different depending on where you are.


Take North Carolina, for instance. They've got this traffic violation point system, and it's used all over the state, no matter which county you're in. 


Well, here's the deal. Every time you mess up and commit a traffic violation, you earn yourself some points on your driving record. It's like a little tally of your driving mistakes. But as those points stack up, you're headed for some not-so-fun consequences. You could end up saying goodbye to your driver's license, getting it suspended, or in some cases, losing it altogether.


Now, here's where it gets interesting: there are certain situations where you don't even need to rack up lots of points to face these penalties. 

Things like getting caught driving under the influence (that's a DWI), passing a school bus when you shouldn't, going way over the speed limit (like 75 mph or more), or getting involved in a road race can lead to an immediate loss of your driving privileges. So, it's not just about following the rules; it's about keeping your license safe and sound. Drive safe out there!

Before moving on, let’s understand the basic terms: the difference between citation and ticket


  • Think of a citation as an official notice or document issued by the authorities. It's like getting a written message from them.
  • Citations can cover various things, not just traffic issues. They might include warnings, court appearances, or documents for different legal matters.
  • When we talk about traffic violations, a citation is essentially the paper you get from a police officer when you've done something wrong while driving. People often call this a traffic ticket too.


  • Now, when we say "ticket," we're talking specifically about the piece of paper you might get for breaking traffic rules.
  • This ticket spells out what you did wrong, how much you might need to pay in fines, and what you should do next. It's like a formal notice that you've committed a traffic offense.
  • In California, when you get a traffic ticket, you might have to pay a fine, attend traffic school, or even go to court to deal with the violation.

Reckless Driving in California: Misdemeanor or Felony?

So, you find yourself in California, and you're wondering about reckless driving charges. Here's the lowdown: a regular reckless driving charge is considered a misdemeanor in the Golden State. But, if your reckless driving causes injury, things can take a more serious turn, making it a complex issue.

Now, if your reckless driving resulted in harm to another person, it has the potential to escalate to a felony charge. The law under CVC Section 23105 outlines the specific types of harm that can bump up a basic reckless driving charge to a felony. We're talking about things like:

  • Concussion
  • A broken or fractured bone
  • Unconsciousness
  • Brain injury
  • Serious body disfigurement
  • Organ dysfunction
  • Wounds that require an excessive amount of suturing
  • Paralysis

In situations like these, having a traffic violation attorney by your side is crucial. They'll be your advocate, safeguarding your rights and defending your case in court. Your future might depend on it, so don't face it alone.

Navigating Roads Safely with Aggressive Drivers

In light of AAA's 2019 Traffic Safety Culture Index revealing that 91% of respondents find aggressive driving extremely dangerous, here's a structured guide to protect yourself from the hazards posed by aggressive drivers:

Avoid Provoking Aggressive Drivers

Refrain from actions like cutting them off, tailgating, driving slowly in the left lane, or using offensive gestures.

Don't Engage

Maintain a safe distance and avoid making eye contact if an aggressive driver exhibits anger. If you feel you're being followed, consider contacting the police.

See Their Perspective

Attempt to empathize with the other driver's situation, recognizing that their poor driving may not be a personal attack. Don't take their behavior personally.

Combat Aggressive Habits

If you notice yourself succumbing to aggressive driving tendencies, allocate extra time for your journey to reduce stress. Enjoy soothing music, engaging books, or informative podcasts during your commute.

Seek Help if Needed

If managing anger on the road remains a challenge, consider enrolling in anger management classes or exploring self-help resources to enhance your driving behavior.

How does careless and reckless driving affect insurance?

Let's talk about how careless and reckless driving can impact your car insurance rates.


First off, whether you're charged with careless or reckless driving, it's pretty much guaranteed that your insurance rates will take a hit. However, if you get slapped with a reckless driving charge, the increase is likely to be steeper because it's considered a more severe violation.


To give you an idea, data from The Zebra suggests that after a reckless driving charge, your rates can shoot up by an average of over $500 for a six-month period. So, it's not just the legal consequences you have to worry about; your wallet can also take a pretty significant hit.

Staying Safe on the Road Starts with You!

As we navigate our highways and byways, remember that road safety begins with each of us. Aggressive driving is a real concern, but by following these guidelines, we can contribute to safer roads for everyone.


At e360 Insurance Company, we're committed to your safety and peace of mind. If you're looking for comprehensive auto insurance that not only protects you but also encourages responsible driving, contact us today. Let's work together to make our roads safer for all. Your safety is our priority.