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Is Negligent Driving a Criminal Offense?

Colburn Law

Negligent drivers cause thousands of traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths every year. When someone gets behind the wheel without taking the driving responsibility seriously, that person can cause a preventable crash. Negligence isn’t only a civil tort, or wrongdoing, in the state of Washington, it can also be a crime. Negligent driving is a criminal offense in certain circumstances, especially if someone gets hurt. Learn the language of the law for more information about negligent driving as a crime.

What Does the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Say?

In Seattle, negligent driving isn’t always a crime. If someone drives negligently but doesn’t break a law or endanger any person or property, it isn’t technically a legal violation. Even so, it is a dangerous driving behavior that could eventually lead to legal trouble for the driver. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 46.61.5249 describes the state’s law pertaining to the criminal act of negligent driving. It states the following:

  • First-degree negligent driving is a crime. Someone is guilty of this crime when operating a vehicle in a negligent manner so that it endangers people or property, and this person exhibits the effects of drug or alcohol intoxication.
  • If someone can prove that he or she has consumed a drug based on a valid prescription, and used the drug according to the prescription’s directions, he or she can escape the criminal charge of first-degree negligent driving.
  • In Washington, negligent driving in the first degree is a misdemeanor. The legal definition of “negligent” is a failing to act with ordinary care, along with performing acts a person of reasonable care would avoid in the same circumstances.
  • A driver the courts convict of first-degree negligent driving can face fines and/or jail time as a punishment. Two negligent driving convictions within seven years will result in the mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device on the driver’s vehicle.

If a driver is guilty of negligence, such as distracted driving, but does not endanger someone else or exhibit the behaviors of someone under the influence, that driver has not committed a crime. Note, however, that a driver doesn’t have to break the law to be legally responsible for causing an accident. It is enough to prove that the driver was negligent and that this negligence caused the crash, to hold someone else liable for your damages.

Criminal vs. Civil Claims After an Auto Accident

The state’s fault laws say that anyone who causes the damage in an accident is responsible for that damage. As the victim of a car accident, it’s your responsibility to file a civil claim against the negligent, at-fault driver in Washington. Nobody else will file the claim for you. A civil personal injury claim can lead to a settlement from the at-fault driver’s insurance company, in an amount that can pay for your medical bills, lost wages, property damage, and pain and suffering. You do not need a criminal conviction against the negligent driver to file (and win) a personal injury claim.

It is the city’s responsibility to file a criminal charge against a negligent driver, if the driver’s actions fulfill the requirements of RCW 46.61.5249. The city will decide whether to press charges against the driver that caused the accident. The prosecution will then have the burden to prove that the driver is guilty of negligent driving in the first degree based on the evidence at hand, such as a police report or eyewitness statements. A crash victim may be able to use a guilty verdict against a negligent driver as evidence in his or her civil claim. Speak to an attorney for more information.