In California, the definition of reckless driving is “A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Reckless driving is a crime. A conviction for reckless driving is punishable by 5 to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of between $145 and $1,000. If reckless driving results in bodily injury, a conviction carries even stiffer penalties.
Those are California’s criminal laws relating to reckless driving. But while seeing a reckless driver get convicted brings a measure of justice to anyone the driver harmed by his actions, it does not pay those victims’ medical bills and it does not compensate them for their suffering. To truly hold a reckless driver accountable for the injuries or fatalities he inflicts on innocent Californians and their families, those victims need the help of an experienced California car accident lawyer at the Gomez Trial Attorneys to take the legal action necessary to seek damages.
In this blog post, we explore the ravages of reckless driving on California roads. We examine the behaviors that constitute reckless driving, the harms reckless driving can cause, and the remedies the law allows victims of reckless drivers to seek.
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RECKLESS DRIVING DEFINED
The statute above defines reckless driving using legal terminology. What, exactly, does a “willful or wanton disregard for the safety” of others mean? And is that definition—which appears in a criminal statute—applicable to civil actions for damages?
Let’s put it this way. Whether or not the police charge someone with a crime (legal code), we know what reckless driving looks like when we see it. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Californians see a lot of reckless driving on their roads.
EIGHT EXAMPLES OF RECKLESS DRIVING
- Speeding. Obviously, the guy driving 80 miles per hour through a school zone is engaging in reckless driving. But so is the woman who drives the speed limit on a snow-covered highway when it’s only safe to drive half that fast. Speeding becomes reckless driving whenever someone drives too fast for the road conditions. It represents just as much of a disregard for other people’s safety to drive on a slippery road at speeds that make it impossible to stop quickly as it does to fly past a school on a sunny day.
- Weaving in-and-out of traffic. We’ve all shared the road with that guy: the driver who treats heavy traffic like it’s a slalom race, zipping from lane to lane (usually at high speed) without signaling and without any regard for how he cuts other vehicles off. This is reckless driving because it is unexpected and unpredictable. It scares other drivers and increase the risk of an accident; not just an accident with the weaving driver, but between other vehicles who react to his erratic maneuvers.
- Tailgating. We learn in drivers’ ed to leave at least two car lengths between our vehicle and the one in front of us. There’s a good reason for that rule. Tailgating, or “following too close,” risks a rear end accident. And there’s just no good reason for it. By following another car by less than a car length, the driver of the trailing car deprives herself of the time she would need to stop suddenly. By this behavior, she also often makes the driver of the leading car nervous, increasing the risk of an accident. This is reckless driving.
- Racing. Your parents probably told you that a car isn’t a toy, and they were right. Racing on the open road isn’t just speeding, it’s using public streets for a selfish and dangerous purpose. If someone wants to race, they can take their ride to a sanctioned drag strip. Racing on roads where others do not expect to see it puts the public in extreme danger.
- Operating a dangerous vehicle. It is reckless to take to the road in a vehicle that is not suitably equipped to operate safely. Driving without headlights or brake lights, for example, or in a car that is literally falling apart, is reckless. It puts others on the road at risk of serious harm.
- Ignoring stop signs and signals. Not every instance of someone “running a red” or missing a stop sign constitutes reckless driving, necessarily. It’s dangerous, to be sure. But ignoring a signal to stop becomes reckless when someone does it intentionally or in a way that they know would put others in danger. Speeding up into an intersection where the right has just turned red, for example, would constitute reckless driving.
- Driving impaired. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or while excessively tired, puts everyone on the road at risk of serious harm. We all know the dangers of these behaviors. We all know they are illegal and deadly. There is simply no excuse for climbing behind the wheel while impaired by substances or fatigue.
- Road rage. The technical definition of road rage is using your automobile as a means of harming someone else. It is the signature example of what it means to drive recklessly. Any of the behaviors above could constitute elements of road rage, as could any other behavior that employs a motor vehicle as a weapon.
Wanton and willful disregard for someone’s safety means driving in a way that really, obviously puts others on the road at risk.
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THE TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES OF RECKLESS DRIVING
Reckless driving ruins lives. It leaves families devastated by the loss of a loved one. It leaves victims facing immense disabilities and unmanageable expenses. Why? Because reckless causes some of the worst of the worst types of car accidents.
Head-on collisions are rare as compared to other types of motor vehicle accidents. But when they happen, reckless driving often plays a contributing role. Most of these types of accidents happen when a driver departs his travel lane into oncoming traffic. We can think of only two (unfortunately) common scenarios when anyone would do something like that. Impaired driving is one. An aggressive attempt to pass on a two-lane road is another. These are undoubtedly reckless behaviors. And they result in cataclysmic accidents that frequently take lives or leave victims badly injured.
Reckless drivers who speed through intersections or ignore traffic signals run a high risk of colliding with the side of another vehicle, or having another vehicle slam into the side of theirs. These “t-bone” (or “angular”) collisions often cause massive injuries to the occupants of the vehicle struck on its side, who have almost no protection against the blunt force of the other vehicle in a side impact collision.
PEDESTRIAN AND BICYCLE ACCIDENTS
One of the most tragic aspects of reckless driving is that it takes a disproportionate toll on the most vulnerable people on and around California roads in a pedestrian accident or a bicycle accident. A reckless driver cannot stop for someone in a crosswalk. He fails to give a cyclist adequate berth when he passes her. The pedestrian struck down and the cyclist ran off the road by a reckless driver face an extreme danger of losing their lives. They have little chance of escaping an accident involving a motor vehicle without, at least, serious, life-altering injuries.
Reckless drivers who “tailgate” cannot stop their vehicles in time to avoid colliding with a car or truck in front of them. It is the occupants of that leading vehicle, however, who typically endure the worst of the collision. The force of a rear-end impact routinely causes severe whiplash and brain injury.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenage drivers (and in particular teen boys) represent a high risk category for reckless driving. “Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next).” They are also more likely than adults to “underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations” and to make “critical decision errors.” These behaviors can, and frequently do, result in tragic accidents that cut promising lives short.
WHO IS TO BLAME FOR RECKLESS DRIVING?
This is a loaded question, which is why we ask it. Obviously, the reckless driver him or herself takes the “blame” for making poor decisions behind the wheel that cost others their lives, health, and happiness. But we ask the question more broadly: why do we have so many reckless drivers on our roads to begin with? We think it has something to do with the following factors.
UNDERESTIMATING THE DANGERS OF SPEEDING
We all drive over the speed limit from time to time. It is so common that we build speeding into our assumptions about how long it will take to go somewhere. We assume that if we pass a police radar gun going five miles over the speed limit, we’re never going to get a ticket (and we’re right). As a society, we tolerate speeding, in part because speed limits cannot capture what is a “safe” speed in every possible road condition, and in part because we do not realize just how dangerous driving too fast for conditions can be. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, speeding not only increases the probability of an accident, it also exponentially increases the forces involved in an accident (and, as a result, the risks of serious and fatal injury). That’s something to keep in mind the next time you think it’s okay to push the speed limit by 10 miles per hour.
OUR HECTIC LIVES
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) points out that speeding, the most common form of reckless driving, results in part because we are always “running late.” As our anxieties about daily life increase, many Californians tend to vent those emotions through unsafe behaviors, including by tailgating, speeding, and passing dangerously, to name just three reckless driving behaviors we have all probably engaged in from time-to-time. Making a meaningful effort to crowd less into our days, and to leave early when we have to go somewhere, can help to reduce reckless driving accidents.
OUR WILLINGNESS TO HAND THE KEYS TO TEENAGERS
As the CDC statistics cited above illustrate, we all must come to terms with the fact that as a community, we fuel reckless driving by allowing teenagers to drive. Everyone wants to believe that their son or daughter would never drive recklessly. But the fact is, teens cannot help but make reckless decisions sometimes. Their brains are still developing. They do not appreciate and evaluate risk the same way adults do. California has recognized this hard fact by enacting strict rules for teen drivers, including implementing a graduated driver’s license program that eases teens into life behind the wheel.
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SEEKING LEGAL HELP AFTER A RECKLESS DRIVING ACCIDENT
Car accidents, particularly those caused by reckless drivers, turn accident victims’ lives inside-out. The first priority for anyone involved in a car accident should always be to seek immediate and appropriate medical care. Not all car accident injuries show symptoms immediately. Getting yourself checked out by a doctor protects your health and wellbeing, and also generates important health records that you may need later on to prove an accident caused your injuries.
After stabilizing your health situation, consult Gomez Trial Attorneys about your rights to receive compensation for your injuries. When a reckless driver inflicts harm on others, he (through his insurance, most likely) will often have legal liability for damages to his victims. Obtaining those damages is not as straightforward as filing an insurance claim for property damage, however. Insurance companies that have insured reckless drivers will try to minimize their financial exposure to you and others the driver hurt. Having an experienced attorney on your side is the most surefire way to level the playing field and to obtain the compensation you deserve, whether that means through negotiation or by taking your case to a California judge and jury.
Do not wait to seek legal help after a reckless driving car accident. The sooner you act, the better your chances of holding the reckless driver accountable for his actions, and receiving the money you need to recover from your injuries.