Reckless vs. Careless Driving in New Jersey

Why did I get a Reckless/Careless Driving Ticket?

You have been in an auto accident. The damage to both cars is minimal and you believe that the other vehicle may have been at fault. The police arrive at the scene and, to your complete surprise, they issue you a ticket. Not just any ticket, but a careless driving ticket or, even worse, a reckless driving ticket. You cant believe the officer issued you a ticket but his version of who is responsible for the accident is different form yours.

At DeMichele & DeMichele, we represent individuals charged with criminal and serious traffic violations throughout New Jersey. We are often asked, “What is the difference between Reckless Driving and Careless Driving?” Well, to start, it is helpful to look at the statutory definition of both charges:

39:4-96. Reckless driving; punishment

39:4-96. A person who drives a vehicle heedlessly, in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of reckless driving and be punished by imprisonment in the county or municipal jail for a period of not more than 60 days, or by a fine of not less than $50.00 or more than $200.00, or both.

On a second or subsequent conviction he shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three months, or by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500, or both.

39:4-97. Careless driving

39:4-97. A person who drives a vehicle carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of careless driving.

Careless driving could be the most common offense heard in the New Jersey Municipal Court system. The definition of careless driving in New Jersey is very broad. Careless driving charges are often issued after a driver has been in a collision. It is not uncommon for a careless driving ticket to be issued even in a one car accident.

Careless driving is a lesser included charge of reckless driving.

Auto CrashThe most significant difference between reckless and careless driving pertains to a reckless driver “knowingly” or “purposely” endangering himself and others on the road whereas a careless driver is merely negligent without any bad intent.

In addition to the penalties listed above, a reckless driving conviction carries five (5) NJ Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) points and careless driving carries two (2) NJ Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) points. For more information on NJ MVC points, you can review our earlier discussion: The Basics of New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Points System.

It is also important to note that the mere occurrence of an accident does not mean that someone is necessarily guilty of careless driving. In State v. Lutz, the drivers car slid on wet pavement into the oncoming lane of traffic and struck another car. The defendant was convicted at the municipal court level and the conviction was affirmed at the Superior Court level. However, the Appellate Court ultimately reversed the careless driving conviction. The Court held:

Here, other than the accident itself, the State only presented defendant’s statement that his vehicle began to slide on the wet highway and continued to do so when he tapped his brakes.  Moreover, his apology was not an admission to driving carelessly, but merely a statement that his car had slid on the wet pavement.  The State presented no evidence indicating that defendant had been speeding, driving too fast for the wet road conditions, distracted or otherwise driving without due caution and circumspection.  Consequently, there was insufficient evidence to support defendant’s conviction for careless driving, and we reverse that conviction.

We know from the Lutz decision that the mere happening of an accident does not automatically give rise to a careless driving conviction. If you or someone you know is facing charges in municipal court, specifically including reckless driving or careless driving, or any other municipal court matter generally, please contact the municipal court defense lawyers at DeMichele & DeMichele today. You can also reach us by telephone at (856) 546-1350.