Careless and Reckless Driving: The Statutory Obligations

reckless-drivingThe legislature and the courts in Oregon have addressed the issue of reckless driving.  Reckless driving is defined as driving “a vehicle upon a highway carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others.”  As we can see from this definition, “recklessness” implies a culpable mental state.  In light of the Oregon state statutes on this subject, the courts have determined that the word “reckless” and the word “careless” amount to the same thing.  Accordingly, courts in Oregon have held that the criminal culpability standard for reckless conduct is the same for both reckless driving and fourth-degree assault.

Definition of Careless and Reckless Driving

A person who drives in a manner that endangers or would endanger any person or property commits the offense of careless driving.  Oregon law makes it clear that the word “careless” should be understood as being synonymous with the word “negligent.”  What turns a careless driving into negligent driving is a situation where the driver is consciously aware of a substantial or unjustifiable risk—to person or property—and still disregards the risk that he/she is taking.  This understanding of how the law defines negligent driving serves to return us to the issue of what a “reasonable person” would do.  As we have seen in our discussion on the topic of speed, the issue of “careless” and/or “reckless” driving comes down to a jury question.  A jury must determine what constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a “reasonable person” would observe.

Differences between “Careless” and “Reckless” Driving

The key difference between careless and reckless driving is the element of intent.  Intent raises the issue of whether or not a driver’s mental state and conduct was “willful for wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others.”  The central question to be resolved is: “Was it the intention of the driver to engage in willful an wanton conduct, with no concern about the dangers presented or the potential consequences of his/her actions behind the wheel?”   Whether a driver manifested culpable intent—and engaged in reckless driving—can be inferred from the evidence.  Such an inference will emerge from examining the “action element” of the offense.  By looking at the “action element” a jury may be able to infer a defendant’s mental state.  The jury can then determine whether a driver engaged in reckless driving if they willfully operated their vehicle in such a manner that they endangered the safety of persons or property.

Issue of Punitive Damages

Once a determination of a driver’s mental state is made by a jury, then the jury will determine whether or not a driver engaged in reckless driving.  If a driver engaged in reckless driving, then this fact opens the legal door to a consideration of punitive damages.  On this point, only reckless driving may be the basis for punitive damages.  In contrast, careless driving is synonymous with negligence.  Careless driving—unlike reckless driving—does not require a conscious indifference to the safety of others.  Therefore, a person who violated a careless-driving statute is not subject to punitive damages.

An example of reckless endangerment is when a person drives in a highway work-zone in a manner which endangers both persons and property.  Any person who removes, evades, or intentionally strikes a traffic control device in a highway work-zone commits endangerment of a highway worker.  In this case, both person and property are placed at risk by a driver who acts in such a reckless manner.