Oregon Attorney Resources

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.

Legal Responsibility of Pedestrians and Drivers

pedestrian-crossingThe Oregon Vehicle Code is the primary resources for answers to what constitutes the statutory obligations of motor vehicle operators.  In conjunction with the statutory obligations of motor vehicle operators, it is important to juxtapose a discussion of the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of pedestrians and bicyclists.  In this section, we shall address: (1) the rules that Oregon drivers should observe toward pedestrians.  We shall also address: (2) the responsibility of pedestrians for road safety.  We shall conclude with our discussion with a series of safety tips.

The Responsibility of Pedestrians:

The first rule and primary rule for both drivers and pedestrians is that—under Oregon law—every intersection constitutes a pedestrian crosswalk, whether or not it is marked or controlled by a traffic device.  In addition to this first rule, there are corresponding responsibilities of pedestrians.  They include the following:

  1. Obeying the lights at a controlled intersection.  If the pedestrian is facing a red light, they do not have any right of way.  Similarly, if they are facing a steady yellow light, they may not enter the roadway.
  2. If a pedestrian is facing a sign that says “Don’t Walk” or “Wait,” they do not have the right of way.  This may become a little tricky if the pedestrian has entered the crosswalk when the light says “Walk,” then change to “Don’t Walk” or “Wait.”  In those cases, it is the pedestrian’s duty to move to point of safety, like a traffic island or footpath, and wait until they once again have the right of way.
  3. If the pedestrian suddenly leaves the curb or footpath when a vehicle is so close it constitutes an immediate hazard, the pedestrian does NOT have the right of way.
  4. If the pedestrian is crossing the road at any point besides a marked crosswalk—or at an intersection—then they do not have the right of way and must yield to any vehicle on the roadway.

The Responsibility of Drivers:

Oregon drivers should observe the following rules:

  1. When turning at a traffic signal, drivers must stop and remain stopped for pedestrians, not only until the pedestrian has cleared the vehicles lane, but until they are at least six feet into the next lane.
  2. Drivers must stop and remain stopped for pedestrians in any crosswalk, whether marked or unmarked.
  3. Drivers must yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian using a white cane or a guide dog, and must wait until the blind pedestrian has completely crossed the road before proceeding.
  4. In all cases regarding right-of-way for either pedestrian or driver, if a member of the traffic control division is issuing instructions, they shall be followed and the right-of-way will only apply once the traffic control member has granted it.

Safety Tips:

Remember, under Oregon law there is a crosswalk at every intersection.  So, drivers should observe and employ the following safety tips:

  1. Do not pass a vehicle stopped at a crosswalk.  A stopped car may be a clue that a pedestrian is crossing.  When stopping for a crosswalk on a multi-lane highway, you should stop about 30-feet before the crosswalk so you don’t block the visibility to a driver in a second lane.
  2. When stopping at an intersection, do not block the crosswalk.  This forces pedestrians to go around your vehicle and places them in a dangerous situation.
  3. Watch pedestrians, especially children, when exiting a driveway or when backing out of parking spaces in parking lots.
  4. Pedestrians move at different speeds.  Be alert for children who may suddenly dart into the street.  Also, be patient with older adults who may take extra time to cross the street.
  5. Around taverns and bars, be alert for people with slowed reaction times or impaired judgment.
  6. Be alert for people or animals during low-light conditions, especially in areas where they are likely to cross the road, or you might not see them until it is too late to stop.

Control as a Factor in an Auto Accident Case

The duties of a motorist to drive at a reasonable rate of speed, to maintain an adequate lookout, and to keep his-her car under control are interrelated requirements under Oregon law.  These are legal duties that cannot be considered separately because they are elements which are mutually dependent on each other—the so-called “trinity.”  The reason for this interrelationship between control, speed and lookout is that each one of these factors impacts on the other factors.  Also, how they are treated by a court depends on the facts of each case rather than upon a formula.  In this section on the subject of control, we will concentrate on looking at just the element of “control.”

Am I “Out-of-Control?”

There is an important question that the law and courts are trying to resolve in an automobile accident case.  That question is: “Which driver was out-of-control?”  In order to reach a judgment on that question, the actions of both parties in the accident—as well as rest of the facts—will be examined.

Specifically, on the issue of control, unless a change takes place in the circumstances and the environment in which you are driving, a variation in the rate of “speed” has a simultaneous effect upon the duties of “control” and “lookout.”  Therefore, if any one of these elements of “the trinity” are violated and not properly handled, then an accident could easily occur.  It is for this reason that a jury will usually consider all three elements of the “trinity” (speed, control, and lookout).  A jury will look at all three elements in order to determine who is at fault and what constitutes negligence.

Putting the Pieces of the Puzzle Together

In “putting the piece of the puzzle together, a jury has to determine three important issues:

  1. the violation of a duty,
  2. assessing liability and
  3. a finding of negligence.

[We will discuss “negligence” in more detail in another part of this website].  But, for now, what is important for you to know is that these three issues will be addressed by a jury that will look at the accident through an analysis of how speed, control, and lookout relate to each other—based on the facts of the case.

It is important to understand that speed, control and lookout will always have to be considered in relationship to one another.  Why?  The answer is: “Because change in control or lookout can affect the rate of speed.”  For example, the greater the speed, the less control a person has while driving.  As a result of this kind of situation, the less control that a driver has over his-her vehicle, there is a greater necessity for them to maintain a sharp lookout.

How it All Fits Together

In making a determination of “how it all fits together,” a jury will have to look at the facts of each case, rather than use a set formula.  In looking at the facts, Oregon law and the courts expect that a jury will take the relationship of speed, control, and lookout into account.  It is the relationship between these three elements that helps a jury determine which driver violated a duty, acted in a negligent manner and is liable for the accident and any damages and/or injuries that result.

In this regard, it is important to know that as long as some evidence is introduced on any one of these elements—speed, control, and/or lookout—then all three of these elements will be considered by the jury.  And that is how it all fits together.

Your Duty to Lookout in Auto Accident Cases

Texting while drivingVehicle collisions can be matters involving life and death issues.  Therefore, the law and courts in Oregon treat them very seriously.  Due to the complexity involved in making a determination of responsibility for a vehicle collision involves three related elements.  Keeping and maintaining reasonable lookout, reasonable vehicular control, and reasonable speed are what is referred to as the “holy trinity” of motor vehicle accident litigation.  Therefore, if you are involved in a vehicle accident, it is important for you to know that all three elements of the trinity—“speed,” “control,” and lookout,” will be alleged in a court proceeding.

All three elements will be presented to see if there is evidence of negligence sufficient enough to raise a jury question.  Usually, all three elements of “the trinity” allegations of speed, lookout, and control will be considered by a jury to see if any evidence supports any of these three allegations.  In this section on “lookout,” we will concentrate on examining just the element of “lookout.”

The Duty To Lookout

The duty to look out or “duty of lookout” is a widely used term by most states.  It generally means that drivers are to keep a reasonable lookout for other drivers, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and people on bicycles.  If you look but fail to see something plainly visible to the average person, you are negligent and therefore may be held liable for an accident which occurs as a result.

So, one of the key questions is: “What is proper lookout?”  In some states, the term “proper lookout” is used.  The idea behind “proper lookout” requires a driver other drivers to see what a person exercising ordinary care and caution would see under similar circumstances, and to take those steps necessary to guard against an accident.  Simply stated, maintaining a “proper lookout” requires a driver to pay attention to the road and other drivers in an effort to avoid accidents.

For example, you cannot pay attention to the road and other drivers if you are busy “texting” on your cell phone.  That is because you will be too busy while “texting” on your cell phone and not exercising a “proper lookout.”

The Duty of Care

The duty of “proper lookout” raises another related question: “What is the duty of care?”  Failure to observe the proper lookout is legal negligence.  That is why “texting” while driving is now illegal in Oregon and most other states.  Some states make looking out a part of the “duty of care.”  To meet this standard of duty of care, drivers must do three things:

  1. Operate the vehicle at a reasonable rate of speed
  2. Keep the vehicle under proper control, and
  3. Look out for all situations that could cause an accident.

Now, we need to explain how “the trinity” of “lookout,” “speed,” and “control” fit together.  The answer is: All three of these elements fit together under one umbrella—the duty of care while driving.

Speed as a Factor in Auto Accidents

Auto Accident SpeedThe duty of speed requires that all drivers drive the speed limit or the speed which is reasonable for the conditions—whichever is less.  The speed limit is either the posted speed or depends on the classification of the roadway and/or neighborhood.  Clearly, you should not be driving at freeway speeds when driving in a residential neighborhood.  Also, if changes in the weather create conditions of snow, ice, rain, or fog, then you should act as a reasonable person would.  Therefore, the law requires that you adjust your speed in accordance with the environment and safety considerations.  These safety considerations involve the so-called “trinity” of elements: “lookout,” “speed,” and “control.”  Oregon law and courts takes all three of these elements into consideration.  In this section on “speed,” we will concentrate on looking at just the issue of “speed.”

Speed and Other Factors

Whether your speed is reasonable depends upon the relationship of speed with a number of other factors.  For example, you may need to reduce your speed in order to clearly see what is ahead.  This is what the law and courts define as your “duty of care.”  That means you may have to reduce your speed in order to maintain a “proper lookout.”

Also, your speed might have to be adjusted due to changes in the weather—so that you can take into account hazardous conditions.  In such a situation, the element of “control” factors into the safe driving equation.  That is because every driver has a duty to maintain reasonable degree of control over his-her vehicle.  So, if the speed is over the limit—or is not reasonable for the conditions—then the speed is excessive, creates dangerous conditions, and violates the duty of care.


A good example which ties together the relationship of speed with lookout and control is the rear-end collision.  In a rear-end collision case, the most common failure is lookout.  In other words, the offending driver was not looking where he-she was going because they were looking away from the road.  A bit less common is the stop in traffic, in which case it is a combination of: (1) speed, (2) lookout, and (3) control.  This situation may involve the statutory offense of following too closely.  In the non-intentional car collision cases, liability will boil down to question about what we call the “trinity” of elements: (1) speed, (2) lookout and, (3) control.  It is a very rare case which is a true “accident”—where none of the drivers are at fault.

General Rule

The general rule of the common law forbids creating an unreasonable risk of harm—which is Oregon’s formulation of negligence law.  In most auto collision cases, the elements of negligence include evaluating all three factors of the “trinity”—speed, lookout, and control.

To Look and Not See

If a driver looks but fails to see something that is plainly visible, then the Oregon rule is that the driver is still liable in negligence.  It is for that reason that a court will still submit all three elements of the “trinity” to a jury when it considers liability for negligence.  “Lookout” by its very definition is the one of three elements which is the least subject to proof from direct evidence.  Almost always, the extent of lookout must be inferred from other facts—which includes speed.  This is where the adequacy of driver’s degree of lookout must be determined in relation to “speed” and “control.”  Hence, we are returned to the need for a jury to look at the “trinity” of “speed,” “control,” and “lookout” when considering the questions surrounding a driver’s duty and possible negligence in an auto accident.