Getting a traffic ticket is never a good thing. But getting a ticket for reckless driving, a more serious offense than an infraction, can be scary and stressful. What should you know about reckless driving to avoid breaking the law? And if you do get charged with reckless driving, what happens next?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about reckless driving in California.
What is Reckless Driving?
In the U.S., reckless driving is considered a major moving violation. Usually, it consists of driving a vehicle with willful disregard for the safety of people and property around you. This is more serious than just careless or improper driving, so it carries heavier potential consequences.
What is Reckless Driving in California?
In California, the definition of reckless driving is “driving in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”
“Wanton disregard for safety” means someone is aware that their behavior behind the wheel poses a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm, but they willfully ignore that risk.
Here’s the full language from the California vehicle code regarding reckless driving:
23103. (a) A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.
(b) A person who drives a vehicle in an offstreet parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500, in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.
(c) Except as otherwise provided in Section 40008, persons convicted of the offense of reckless driving shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than five days nor more than 90 days or by a fine of not less than one hundred forty-five dollars ($145) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, except as provided in Section 23104 or 23105.
In California, there are also laws about reckless driving that causes either minor or major injury to someone other than the driver.
These carry more severe potential penalties than a reckless driving charge without injuries (more on that below). Serious injury, in the context of reckless driving law in California, includes any of the following:
- Brain injury
- Loss of consciousness
- Wounds that require “extensive suturing”
- Protracted loss or impairment of function of an organ or body part
- Serious disfigurement
Here’s the full language of the California vehicle code regarding reckless driving with bodily injury:
23104 (a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), whenever reckless driving of a vehicle proximately causes bodily injury to any person other than the driver, the person driving the vehicle shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine of not less than two hundred twenty dollars ($220) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(b) Any person convicted of reckless driving which proximately causes great bodily injury, as defined in Section 12022.7 of the Penal Code, to any person other than the driver, who previously has been convicted of a violation of Section 23103, 23104, 23109, 23152, or 23153, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison, by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine of not less than two hundred twenty dollars ($220) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by both the fine and imprisonment.
It’s important to note that unlike some other moving violations, you can be charged with reckless driving when you’re not on public roads — the law applies to any public, off-street parking facilities, too.
Aggressive or Negligent vs Reckless Driving
What sets reckless driving apart from aggressive driving, or simply careless or negligent driving? Here’s what you need to know about the distinctions between them.
While many states have separate statutes for aggressive driving and reckless driving, California does not, and there is no legal distinction between them in the state. California is also unique in that it treats aggressive or reckless driving as a criminal offense.
Negligent driving, on the other hand, isn’t a specific crime with which you can be charged in California. Instead, the state considers drivers to be negligent if they are found at fault for collisions, infractions, or vehicle code violations through negligence — meaning they didn’t intend to break the law, but they still did.
Wet Reckless vs Dry Reckless
In California, there are two types of reckless driving: “wet,” which involves alcohol, or “dry,” which does not involve alcohol.
A “wet reckless” charge is a common plea bargain for someone who is originally charged with a DUI. It carries lesser penalties than a DUI, but a “wet reckless” conviction is still considered a prior DUI on your criminal record. Note that you cannot be charged with “wet reckless” driving originally — this charge only results when a DUI charge is reduced due to a plea bargain or lack of evidence.
“Dry reckless” driving is when a DUI charge is even further reduced, to reckless driving without alcohol involved. This is unlikely to happen as the result of a plea deal, but may be possible if you are arrested for a DUI with a lack of evidence to point to alcohol use being a factor. If you’re convicted of “dry reckless” driving, it will be considered a prior reckless driving arrest on your criminal record, rather than a prior DUI.
Examples of Reckless Driving
Some examples of behavior that can result in a California reckless driving charge include:
- Ignoring traffic signs or signals
- Excessive speeding
- Drag or street racing
- Driving too fast for road conditions
- Driving too fast in a school zone
- Texting while driving
- Applying makeup while driving
- Brake checking
- Blocking other drivers attempting to change lanes or pass
- Driving on the sidewalk
- Driving on the wrong side of the road
- Going the wrong way down a one-way street
- Passing illegally, including passing on a curve or grade, at a railroad crossing, or passing a stopped school bus
- Swerving across lanes
- Weaving in and out of traffic
- Intentionally driving a vehicle that is improperly equipped (for example: defective brakes or lights)
- Driving with an obstructed view
- Daredevil behaviors
Is Speeding Reckless Driving?
The answer to this question isn’t perfectly clear cut. Reckless driving can occur at any speed — you can be driving recklessly even if you’re driving under the speed limit!
But it’s a common misconception that driving a certain amount over the speed limit automatically counts as reckless driving in California. This isn’t necessarily the case, because reckless driving requires the driver to be aware that they are behaving dangerously and choose to do so anyway, without justification for their behavior.
Speeding and reckless driving are separate charges under California’s vehicle code. Speeding is almost always considered an infraction, while reckless driving is a more serious criminal offense. But speeding can be considered reckless driving — it’s up to the arresting officer and the court to examine the time, place, conditions, and circumstances of the speeding to decide whether it constitutes reckless driving.
A driver can also be charged with speeding and reckless driving at the same time. In this case, the reckless driving charge is typically (but not always) related to a behavior other than just speeding; for example, driving above the speed limit and weaving in and out of traffic could result in charges for both speeding and reckless driving.
Similarly, you can be charged with both speeding and reckless driving if you’re driving above the speed limit while road conditions are dangerous. For example, driving the speed limit on icy roads while also tailgating other drivers could result in being charged with both speeding and reckless driving.
Defenses Against Reckless Driving
The legal bar for being convicted of reckless driving is pretty high. The law states that a driver must understand that their driving behavior creates an unjustifiable risk of injury or property damage, and choose to engage in that behavior anyway. That means there must be evidence of intent to break the law in a reckless driving condition; without intent, violating traffic laws can be simply due to negligence — or even gross negligence.
With that in mind, there are three common defenses used by drivers who are charged with reckless driving:
- They were not the driver. To be convicted of reckless driving, it has to be proven that someone was actually the driver, and not, for example, a passenger. This defense can also be used if, for example, you receive a reckless driving charge due to a red light camera, but someone else was driving your car at the time.
- They were not acting recklessly. The prosecutor on a reckless driving case must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver showed a “wanton disregard for safety.” If you can prove that you were not intentionally ignoring a risk of harm while driving, that can be a defense against a reckless driving charge.
- Their reckless driving was necessary or justified. The law states that reckless driving must be “unjustifiable,” so another possible defense is that the dangerous driving behaviors were necessary because the driver had no other choice (for example, they were experiencing an emergency).
No matter which defense you choose to pursue, your case will require evidence, such as photos, video, eyewitness testimony, and expert witnesses. If you are charged with reckless driving and would like to defend yourself against the charge, you should consult with a licensed attorney to discuss the best path forward for your specific case.
Penalties for Reckless Driving
There are many potential consequences for reckless driving in California. When you are first pulled over, you can be issued a moving citation or you may be arrested. The more dangerous your behavior — like drag racing, for example — the more likely you are to be arrested.
If you are arrested for reckless driving, the police may impound your car. You will be required to pay any impound fees and other expenses to get your car back.
If you are convicted of reckless driving, penalties may include:
- 5-90 days in county jail
- $145 to $1,000 in fines
- Up to two years probation
- Two points on your driver’s license
- Driver’s license suspension
- Increased auto insurance rates
If someone other than the driver sustains a minor injury as a result of the reckless driving, penalties may include:
- 30 days to one year in jail
- $220 to $1,000 in fines
If someone other than the driver is seriously injured as a result of the reckless driving, penalties may include:
- Up to three years in state prison
- Up to $10,000 in fines
Penalties can also be increased if you have previous convictions for reckless driving. Note that driving in a way that is likely to cause injury to others can also result in charges of assault with a deadly weapon, which carries two to four years in prison.
Alcohol-related reckless driving can result in an additional one to two years of probation, as well as mandatory treatment programs.
Note that reckless driving charges do not come with any mandatory jail time. If you’re convicted of reckless driving in California, you may be able to avoid jail time by doing probation, community service, or traffic school. Note that this is all at the judge’s discretion, but you may be less likely to be sentenced to jail if your reckless driving did not result in injury or property damage. There is no automatic traffic school approval for reckless driving.
Is Reckless Driving an Infraction, Misdemeanor, or Felony?
In California, reckless driving is generally considered a misdemeanor. This means it is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony. However, there is felony reckless driving in California as well.
Reckless driving that causes serious injury to someone other than the driver is what’s called a “wobbler offense,” meaning the prosecutor can charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Can You Lose Your License for Reckless Driving?
Either the court system or the DMV may choose to suspend your driver’s license if you are convicted of reckless driving.
The court system can suspend your license for up to the following time limits based on your conviction:
- First reckless driving conviction: up to 30 days
- Second reckless driving conviction: up to 60 days
- Third reckless driving conviction: up to six months
Suspension of your driver’s license by the court is at the discretion of the judge, who will consider all the circumstances of your case before deciding whether to suspend your license, and for how long.
If the DMV decides to suspend your license, you may have to face a hearing directly with that department, separate from your trial.
Reckless Driving and the California Point System
The base penalty for reckless driving is two points on your license. Under California’s Negligent Operator Treatment Program (NOTS), accruing points on your license for violating traffic laws can come with its own penalties — namely, having your driving privileges revoked temporarily or permanently.
Your privileges may be revoked if you:
- Accrue four or more points in a period of 12 months.
- Accrue six or more points in a period of 24 months.
- Accrue eight or more points in a period of 36 months.
How long the points remain on your driving record depends on how many you are assigned. It can take up to 10 years for points for reckless driving to be removed from your driving record.
While reckless driving comes with a base penalty of two points, so you will likely see your auto insurance rates increase after a conviction, and you won’t be able to go to traffic school unless you have been specifically approved to do so by the court.