Reckless Driving

Reckless driving is among the most commonly charged, and most broadly defined, motor vehicle offenses. Three types of reckless driving, all Class 2 misdemeanors, are defined in G.S. 20-140. First, a person who drives a vehicle on a highway or public vehicular area carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others is guilty of reckless driving. G.S. 20-140(a). The second type of reckless driving, which is, by far, the most frequently charged, prohibits driving a vehicle upon a highway or public vehicular area without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property. G.S. 20-140(b). A person who violates both G.S. 20-140(a) and (b) in one continuous operation of a vehicle is guilty of but one offense of reckless driving. See State v. Lewis, 256 N.C. 430 (1962). The third type of reckless driving is limited to commercial motor vehicles carrying oversize or overweight loads. A person who drives such a vehicle carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others or without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property commits the offense of reckless driving as defined in G.S. 20-140(f).

Because reckless driving is defined in terms that equate to the common law concept of culpable negligence, the analysis required to determine when negligent driving rises to the level of reckless driving is the same utilized in determining when actionable negligence becomes culpable, or criminal, negligence. The state supreme court employed this parallel analysis in State v. Cope, 204 N.C. 28 (1933), ordering a new trial on manslaughter charges based on the trial court’s erroneous instruction to the jury that “‘if one violates any of the laws that were passed for the protection of the traveling public on the highways, and that violation of the law on his part causes the death of another, he will be guilty of manslaughter at least whether he intended to do so or not.’” Id. at 29. In distinguishing civil negligence based upon violation of a safety statute from the culpable negligence required to support a conviction for manslaughter, Cope noted a similar distinction in the definition of reckless driving:  “Under this definition, the simple violation of a traffic regulation, which does not involve actual danger to life, limb, or property, while importing civil liability if damage or injury ensue . . . would not perforce constitute the criminal offense of reckless driving.” Id. at 31.

Beyond the Cope principle that proof of a simple traffic violation, standing alone, is insufficient to establish reckless driving, see, e.g. State v. Dupree, 264 N.C. 463 (1965) (“mere fact that defendant’s automobile was on the left of the center line . . . . when the collision occurred, without any evidence that it was being operated at a dangerous speed or in a perilous manner” insufficient to establish reckless driving), the courts have developed no other generalities about the kind of driving that qualifies as reckless. Given the statute’s broad language, it is not surprising that efforts to define it in more concrete terms have been unsuccessful. See, e.g., State v. Teel, 180 N.C. App. 446 (2006) (“[T]o send a charge of reckless driving to the jury ‘the State must introduce sufficient evidence as to ‘whether [defendant’s] speed, or his manner of driving, endangered or was likely to endanger any person or property including himself, his passenger, his property or the person or property of others[.]’” (quoting State v. Floyd, 15 N.C. App. 438, 440 (1972)).

Thus, reckless driving may best be understood by reviewing factual scenarios in which the courts have evaluated the sufficiency of the State’s evidence. Consider the following illustrative cases:

  • State v. Davis, 163 N.C. App. 587 (2004) (evidence that defendant drove “well over the posted speed limit,” swerved into the opposing lane of traffic, and subsequently “braked his vehicle sharply and slid for approximately twenty feet near an occupied residence” sufficient to establish reckless driving)
  • State v. Smith, 178 N.C. App. 134 (2006) (sufficient evidence of reckless driving when during a high speed chase on a rainy day, defendant “came extremely close to hitting an oil tanker at speeds in excess of sixty miles per hour,” and crossed double yellow lines)
  • State v. Teel, 180 N.C. App. 446 (2006) (evidence that defendant drove a motorcycle at 90 mph in a 45 mph zone, followed an unmarked police car two to three feet from the rear end of the officer’s vehicle, attempted to pass the officer on the left across a double yellow line in a curve (crossing the double yellow line two or three times) and later to pass the officer on the shoulder of the road (touching the white line two or three times) sufficient to establish reckless driving under G.S. 20-140(b)).
  • State v. Coffey, 189 N.C. App. 382 (2008) (evidence that defendant drove while impaired and traveled 92 mph in a 45 mph zone sufficient to establish reckless driving to endanger in violation of G.S. 20-140(b))
  • State v. Jackson, ___ N.C. App. ___ (May 17, 2011) (evidence that defendant drove 82 mph in a 55 mph zone, maneuvered from one lane to another to go around slower vehicles and crossed double yellow lines sufficient to establish reckless driving)

Reckless driving also is an element of more serious traffic offenses. Certain types of reckless driving, when combined with speeding, constitute aggressive driving, a Class 1 misdemeanor. G.S. 20-141.6.  In addition, “[r]eckless driving as proscribed by G.S. 20-140” is among the factors that can elevate speeding to elude arrest to a felony offense. G.S. 20-141.5. And reckless driving can provide the culpable negligence required for the crimes of involuntary manslaughter or assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury when someone is killed or seriously injured as a result of the defendant’s reckless driving. See State v. Wade, 161 N.C. App. 686 (2003).