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Negligent Driving vs. Reckless Driving: What’s the Difference?

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Although the terms negligent vs reckless driving may be used synonymously by many people, it is important to understand the distinctions between them. In legal terms, they are separate acts and can result in different consequences. Both negligent and reckless driving can render an individual at fault for a crash, but reckless driving carries the added possibility of criminal charges and punitive damages.

Understanding the difference between reckless and negligent driving can be vital to your personal injury claim and your pursuit of justice for your injuries. An experienced car accident lawyer can explain what you need to know about these terms and how they can impact your personal injury lawsuit. If you or a loved one have been injured in a car crash, whether it was caused by someone else’s negligence or recklessness, you deserve to recover the compensation you are entitled to for your personal injury case. Call our law firm today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation to discuss your case.

What Is Negligent Driving?

Negligence is the failure to act in a way that another reasonable person would under the same circumstances. When you get behind the wheel of a car in Washington state, or anywhere else in the US, you have a legal duty to drive in a manner that keeps your fellow motorists safe. While most people try to drive safely, they may sometimes fail to follow traffic laws or neglect to drive with the necessary amount of care.


Negligent driving is very common and may not always lead to an accident, although it does significantly increase accident risks. It is estimated that most drivers have engaged in some form of negligent driving during the last month. Examples of negligent driving include, but are not limited to:

  • Not following posted speed limits
  • Driving too fast for current conditions
  • Forgetting to use your turn signal
  • Not leaving enough room between vehicles (tailgating)
  • Failing to yield the right-of-way at an intersection

What Are The Consequences For Driving Negligently?

While negligent driving may not be intentional, it can still pose dangers and a negligent driver can be held responsible for their actions. If a Washington law enforcement officer observes you driving negligently, they can give you a traffic citation. Although negligent driving usually isn’t a crime, you can be charged with a misdemeanor if your negligent actions endanger a person or property and you appear to be driving under the influence of a substance, including OTC and prescription drugs.

In terms of a personal injury case, negligent actions while driving violate the duty of care owed to others on the road. If those negligent actions led to motor vehicle accidents and injuries, the victim can legally seek compensation from the at-fault party.

What Is Reckless Driving?

The main difference between reckless driving and negligent driving is the intent involved. Negligent driving is generally considered unintentional. Conversely, Washington state law defines reckless driving as operating a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”

Because the person is going above and beyond the level of negligent driving and posing a grave danger to others around them, they can face criminal charges for their reckless driving.

Common examples of reckless driving include:

  • Driving a vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol
  • Engaging in harmful actions motivated by road rage
  • Weaving in and out of traffic
  • Forcing another driver or bicyclist off the road
  • Bypassing barriers set up by police or construction workers
  • Running red lights

Can Speeding Be Considered Reckless Driving?

There are certain circumstances in which excessive speeding could turn into reckless driving. As a driver’s speed increases over the posted limit so do their chances of being charged with reckless driving if caught.

If an individual is driving at speeds that are at least miles over that of the posted speed limit, they could be charged with reckless driving. Other examples include street racing or driving your vehicle at speeds that make it difficult to steer or maneuver your vehicle safely.

What Are The Criminal Penalties For Reckless Driving?

Under the law, reckless driving is a serious criminal traffic offense and considered to be a gross misdemeanor. Possible penalties include:

  • Up to one year in jail
  • Up to a $5,000 fine
  • 30-day suspension of your driver’s license

In addition, to have their license reinstated, individuals convicted of reckless driving must provide proof of SR-22 insurance which must be carried for three years.

How Long Does A Reckless Driving Conviction Stay On Someone’s Driving Record?

If an individual successfully completes the terms outlined by the court, they may be able to have their conviction vacated after a period of 24 months. However, if they have had a previous conviction for reckless driving this could affect their ability to have the charge vacated by the court.

Can I File A Lawsuit If I Was Injured By A Negligent Or Reckless Driver?

If you have sustained injuries in a car accident where the responsible party was found to have been driving negligently or recklessly, you may be entitled to file a claim against them. Determining whether an individual was operating their vehicle recklessly can be crucial to your claim, because clear evidence of intentional reckless behavior can lead the court to award punitive damages in addition to economic and non-economic damages.

One of the best measures you can take to protect your claim is to speak with a personal injury attorney who can explain your legal options. If you would like to learn more information about the differences between negligent and reckless driving, contact our law offices by calling (206) 430-6096 and ask to schedule a free consultation with an experienced car accident attorney so that we may answer questions about your personal injury case.

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