What is careless driving?

If you ride 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 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, 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 drivers feel we’ve grudgingly accepted the existence of careless drivers and their unsafe behavior (just look at the skyrocketing popularity of voluntary “defensive driving” courses), but the fact is that at some point in our driving careers, we are all prone to 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 the laws in our state, will lead to fewer accidents and lower fines for everyone, not to mention higher levels of general sanity among our 200 million drivers. One of the first keys to understanding the legal significance of careless driving is to distinguish it from reckless driving.

Careless Driving Compared to 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.

Yet 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 in one of these states, and you believe your behavior actually more closely resembled careless driving, you may have a good case as long as you can 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, its consequences, and fines in various states, see our reckless driving FAQ.

Statutory Examples of Careless Driving and 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, reckless driving 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.

Other states have taken a different approach to careless driving violations. In Oregon, considerable effort was put into precisely delineating the scope of careless driving offenses, violations, and their penalties. A person 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 of careless driving: "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.

In general, state law tends toward lesser penalties for careless driving than for reckless driving, if the two concepts are defined separately. Nevertheless, careless driving can have long-lasting consequences. Of course, the details vary by state: if you find yourself facing a careless driving or reckless driving charge, you should consider seeking the services of a qualified car accident attorney in your area. There may be a number of options open to you for resolving your situation. Make sure you retain the most experienced representation you can.