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Negligent Driving vs. Reckless Driving

Colburn Law

Driver Negligence - Man texting & Driving

Negligence and recklessness are two different types of driver behaviors. While both can cause serious auto accidents and severe injuries, they each have distinct legal definitions under Washington State law. Understanding the difference between negligent and reckless driving can help you navigate an auto accident case. It could also lead to a different result during a car accident civil lawsuit. Judges award punitive damages more often for recklessness than negligence. If you have been involved in an accident, contact a Seattle car accident lawyer.

Negligent vs. Reckless Driver Behaviors

Negligence means the driver failed to fulfill his or her duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others on the road. Examples of negligence include traffic infractions such as not using a blinker, falling asleep behind the wheel, or failing to yield the right-of-way at an intersection. Negligence can cause car accidents by ignoring the rules of the road or falling short of the accepted standards of care. Most drivers are guilty of negligence behind the wheel at least once in the last 30 days. A negligent driver, however, does not reach the level of recklessness.

A reckless driver is one that behaves with a wanton disregard for others’ safety. Reckless drivers understand the risks of their behaviors, but drive recklessly anyway. They operate vehicles in a dangerous manner that increases the risk of accidents and injuries. Reckless drivers willfully or intentionally engage in unsafe driving behaviors, rather than doing so by accident. Examples of reckless driving include drunk driving, excessive speeding, street racing, red-light running, driving at night without headlights, and texting and driving.

Intent is the main differentiating factor between negligence and recklessness. Negligence is accidental, while recklessness is intentional. In deciding whether to issue a citation for negligent or reckless driving, an officer will look at the severity of the offense, its repercussions, and whether the driver reasonably should have known his or her actions were risky. If a driver was simply careless behind the wheel, he or she may be negligent. If the driver had a willful or wanton disregard for safety, it is reckless driving.

Traffic Offense vs. Crime in Washington State

The other difference between negligent and reckless driving is that one is usually a traffic offense, while the other is a crime. Washington State Legislature Section 46.61.5249, however, makes some forms of negligent driving against criminal law. The statute says that someone is guilty of negligent driving in the first degree (a misdemeanor crime) if the driver operates a vehicle in a way that is negligent and endangers others’ safety or property, while exhibiting the effects of driving under the influence. It is negligent driving in the second degree (a traffic infraction) if the driver was negligent but not under the influence.

Under Washington law, negligence means the failure to exercise an ordinary degree of care, or doing something that a reasonable and prudent driver would not do under similar circumstances. The definition of reckless driving is operating any vehicle with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of people or property. Reckless driving is a gross misdemeanor in Washington State, punishable with up to $5,000 in fines and/or up to 364 days in prison. Reckless driving is a more serious offense, with harsher penalties than negligent driving.

Negligence vs. Recklessness in a Civil Case

During a car accident case, the distinction between negligence and recklessness is an important one. Proving that a driver’s behaviors reached the point of recklessness, not just negligence, could convince a judge to grant punitive damages in addition to compensatory. Punitive damages aim to punish the defendant for intentional or reckless acts. Achieving punitive damages during a car accident trial can mean a greater amount of compensation for the victim. Hiring a personal injury lawyer in Bellevue or Seattle is the best way to prove a driver’s recklessness during a car accident case.

What to Do If You Encounter a Reckless Driver

Encountering a reckless driver on the road can be a frightening experience, but knowing how to respond in such situations can significantly reduce the risk of an accident. If you are near a driver exhibiting reckless behavior, it’s crucial to prioritize your safety and the safety of your passengers.

Here are practical steps that you can take:

  • Maintain a Safe Distance: Increase the distance between your vehicle and the reckless driver. This gives you more time to react to any sudden movements.
  • Do Not Engage: Avoid confrontation or attempting to match their speed. Engaging with a reckless driver can escalate the situation, putting yourself and your passengers at risk.
  • Memorize Details: Try to remember specific details about the vehicle, such as make, model, color, and license plate number, without compromising your safety. This can be helpful when reporting the driver to the police.
  • Find a Safe Place: If possible, pull over to a safe location and let the reckless driver pass. Again, do not attempt to confront the driver, as this can provoke their anger.
  • Report to Authorities: Once it’s safe to do so, report the reckless driver to the authorities by calling the local police. Provide them with all the details you’ve memorized.

Your Legal Options After an Accident with a Reckless or Negligent Driver

In Washington, if you’ve been injured in a car accident due to another driver’s negligence or recklessness, the law is on your side. As a fault accident state, Washington allows injured parties to seek compensation for damages in accidents caused by other people.

You can pursue compensation through either an insurance claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance company or a personal injury lawsuit in civil court. A Washington car accident attorney can assess the specifics of your case, guiding you on the most suitable path for your situation—whether that involves negotiating with insurance companies or proceeding to trial.

Steps to Take After a Motor Vehicle Collision in Washington

The moments following a car accident are critical, both for your personal safety and any potential legal action. Whether you were injured by a driver who simply ran a red light or one who intentionally collided with your vehicle in a fit of road rage, your immediate actions can have a major impact.

Here is what you should do:

  • Call the Police: Always report the accident to the police, even if it seems minor. A police report is invaluable when filing an insurance claim or lawsuit, providing important evidence of the collision and how it occurred.
  • Seek Medical Attention: Get medical help immediately, even if you don’t think you’re injured. Some injuries may not be immediately apparent, and seeking treatment could potentially save your help.
  • Exchange Information, If It Is Safe: Swap contact and insurance details with the other driver, without discussing who was at fault or how the accident happened. However, if the driver is aggressive or angry, do not engage with them until law enforcement arrives.
  • Contact a Lawyer: After seeking medical care, consult with a Washington car accident attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer can help protect your rights and advise you on the next steps.

Speak to a Bellevue Car Accident Attorney Today

The aftermath of an accident can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate it alone. A Bellevue car accident attorney can provide clarity and direction during each stage of your claim, from dealing with insurance adjusters to advocating for your rights in court. To understand your legal options, schedule a free consultation with an attorney today.