What Counts as Reckless Driving in California?

Feb 1, 21 by Ticket Snipers

What Counts as Reckless Driving in California?

A reckless driving charge on your record can be very costly and result in not just financial losses but also other penalties.

In this article, we’ll talk about what counts as reckless driving in California and what options you might have in case you or someone close to you gets charged for reckless driving in California.

What is Reckless Driving?

The Vehicle Code, Division 11: Rules of the Road, Chapter 12: Public Offenses, Article 1: Driving Offenses, Section Code 23103 covers reckless driving in California.

VC 23100 says that the laws in the chapter “apply to vehicles upon the highways and elsewhere throughout the State unless expressly provided otherwise.”

The law defines reckless driving as the following:

(a) A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

(b) A person who drives a vehicle in an offstreet parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500, in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

For a clear understanding of the definition, let’s define the two terms used above:

Off-street Parking Facility and Highway

A highway is any publicly maintained area that is “open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel.

On the other hand, an off-street parking facility is “a parking area open for use by the public for parking vehicles.

It includes both privately and publicly owned facilities. However, the facility must be open to the general public, otherwise “it is not covered by this statute.”

Privately owned mall parking spaces, for example, are included but privately owned employee parking lots are not.

Wanton Disregard for Safety

Under California law, a driver is said to be acting with a wanton disregard for safety when:

  • He or she is fully aware that their actions present an unjustifiable and substantial risk of harm to them or to others on the road yet they decide to ignore that risk.

Remember that it does not have to be the true intention of the driver to cause any damage to be found guilty.

The Burden of Proof

It is the prosecutor’s responsibility to meet the burden of proof. The prosecutor has to gather evidence to show that the defendant was actually behind the wheel on an off-street parking facility or highway.

In addition to this, the prosecutor must also prove that it wasn’t a mistake on the defendant’s part and he or she intentionally drove recklessly.

The word “intentionally” has to be paid special attention to. It helps distinguish between reckless driving and other kinds of dangerous driving behaviors.

Compare someone with a reckless driving charge to an individual with narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder to understand the difference the term ‘intentional’ makes.

The former deliberately paid no attention to the laws or the safety of others on the road; whereas, the latter did not make the mistake deliberately. While both might get charged, the charges will be different.

The distinction is of huge importance, especially when combined with some more serious offenses.

What are the Consequences of Reckless Driving?

Here’s what the law says:

(c) Except as otherwise provided in Section 40008, persons convicted of the offense of reckless driving shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than five days nor more than 90 days or by a fine of not less than one hundred forty-five dollars ($145) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, except as provided in Section 23104 or 23105.

Let’s understand these punishments in detail:

Monetary Fines

The culprit may have to pay a fine in almost all cases. As mentioned above, these fines are usually between $145 and $1,000 based on a number of factors including the extent of damages.

The amount in California largely differs from county to county due to a lack of uniform fines.

Jail Time

Reckless driving is counted as a misdemeanor in California, which means culprits may have to face jail time.

First time offenders can be put behind the bars for up to 90 days. Repeat offenders can be punished for up to six months.


Unlike fines, California imposes uniform penalties in the form of points that are added to your driving record. These points can stay on your record for up to three years based on the severity of your crime.

In most cases, a total of two points will get added; however, the number might be higher based on your history and the type of license you have. Those with a commercial license, for example, might get additional points.

Increased Premiums

Reckless driving can turn out to be very costly as culprits may have to pay heavier insurance premiums. The more points you have on your driving record, the more expensive it gets to get insurance as providers will consider you a risky driver.

Revocation or Suspension of Driving Privileges

You might end up losing your right to drive if you are caught driving recklessly as it might result in the revocation or suspension of your driving privileges.

Most first time offenders do not get this punishment; however, you might have to give up your license temporarily or permanently if you are a repeat offender or if your crime has caused serious losses.

While these are the five main consequences offenders have to face in California, you might have to face some other issues as well.

Offenders often find it difficult to land a job or find a house since most companies and sellers like to look at the applicant’s previous record. It is common for companies and homeowners to stay away from sellers who appear unsafe or careless.

Why Do People Drive Recklessly?

Lawmakers have been asking this question for years, yet nobody seems to have the answer.

Reckless driving is the result of poor decision making by the driver, but science says that there are some psychological reasons behind why we often drive recklessly.

Here are some of the most common causes and what you can do to control the problem:

We Don’t Always Realize It

It is surprisingly common for drivers to get aggressive without even realizing it.

Almost all of us have experienced a vehicle following us too closely. Some of us may have even blocked or tailgated others without often realizing it’s the same as bullying.

Think about it, will you do it when you’re standing in a queue and there are people in front of you? You’ll not start pushing ‘em. But, we end up doing it when we’re behind the wheel.

According to reports, young or new drivers with a high score on personality measures of impulsiveness and sensation-seeking are more likely to indulge in such behavior.

We must also mention that drivers who behave aggressively are also less likely to show sensitivity to punishment. This is why punitive measures are often not enough to deter a large percentage of drivers.

The solution is to make drivers realize that their actions can affect others.

California already has strict punishments for reckless driving. It’s believed that this is a major reason why reckless driving cases in California are lower than in some parts of the world.

We Don’t Realize the Risk

Once we’ve been on the road for a while, we stop considering it a tough task and stop looking at driving as something difficult or risky.

Some of us begin to carelessly predict the actions of others on the road, including other drivers. This is a big mistake because our predictions can’t always be right since we’re not controlling them.

It is common for people to underestimate minimal safe braking distance. To be on the safe side, don’t jump the gun and always keep an adequate distance from the car in front of you.

Remember that the right distance depends on how fast you’re going and where you’re driving.

Some experts believe that a distance of 20 feet for each 10 mph you’re traveling is right; however, the two-second rule seems to be popular among drivers especially when going under 35 mph.

The rule requires drivers to “stay at least two seconds behind any vehicle that is directly in front of his or her vehicle.

We Expect Others to be Perfect

It’s common for drivers to always blame the other party. In fact, even near misses are met with anger and often result in road rage.

Reports show that drivers often dehumanize pedestrians and other drivers. There are also reasons to believe that we act according to social status.

Research shows that aggressive behaviors such as prolonged honking and tailgating are more likely to occur if you believe that you’re more important than the other driver, i.e.: you have a higher social status or a better car.

The same report also found that drivers of luxury cars often behave in an aggressive manner toward pedestrians simply because they feel superior.

We’re Not Aware of the Law or Limits

Driving recklessly is any act of driving that results in accidents or puts others at risk. A lot of drivers are not aware of the law or limits, which results in accidents.

The solution is to be aware of what signs mean and how fast you can go. Some drivers end up making the wrong turn or changing lanes illegally. This might sound like a small mistake but it can result in dire consequences.

Remember that not being aware of the law is not an acceptable excuse. The law expects you to be fully prepared when you get out on the road. So, get educated and know what you’re taking on.

People are Distracted

Distracted driving is a major cause of reckless driving. People can get distracted due to a variety of reasons.

Some are busy daydreaming, some are having a conversation with other passengers, some start to pay attention to other things on the road, some are too busy enjoying the song, and some get on the phone.

All these actions are risky as they can cause you to lose focus and get into accidents. For your safety and the safety of others around you, make sure to never lose your focus.

Not Using Headlights

You’re supposed to use the headlights when it’s dark or raining so that you can see clearly. It is the responsibility of the driver to ensure the car is in working condition.

If your headlights are not working then get your car repaired as soon as possible.
We tend to receive more information than we can process, which makes us lose focus. This often causes a false sense of security when we are on the road.

We Believe We Are in Control of Everything

Psychologist Dan Simons has devised some tests that can help you gauge how attentive you are. While not necessary, these tests can help you understand the importance of being careful.

We Overestimate Our Abilities

Another scientific reason but one that holds a lot of weight. A large number of drivers, including new drivers, tend to be overconfident. They feel they are ready to take on any road without prior experience. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Some of us get too comfortable on the road and don’t expect surprises such as a newly built speed bump or a pothole. To be on the safe side, drive as if you are a new driver and be as careful as you can be.

There are several other causes of reckless driving. Some people drive carelessly because they’re in a hurry and don’t want to waste time. Also, it is believed that we tend to drive more aggressively when we are alone.

We do not yet know why this happens but it’s most probably because when we’re alone, we don’t feel responsible for others traveling with us.

In addition to this, people also tend to drive recklessly because they’re not scared of the law and they believe they’ll not get caught. This is nothing but a mistake because these days there are tools like red light cameras that can get you caught.

Also, remember that an empty road does not justify reckless driving. Just because there is little or no traffic on the road doesn’t mean you can drive recklessly.

Reckless driving laws in California stipulate that the culprit must understand the consequences of his or her actions.

Reckless driving has been linked with impulse-control issues and thrill-seeking behaviors. The interesting bit, however, is that a driver might be caught driving in a way that is indistinguishable from reckless driving but not get convicted of reckless driving. We’ll talk more about this aspect later in this article.

Reckless Driving Defenses: What to Do If You Get Caught

The best option is to hire the services of an experienced lawyer who can help fight your case and get you out of trouble.

Here are some of the defenses raised by reckless driving attorneys:

You Weren’t the One Driving

Since it is the duty of the prosecution to prove you were the one driving, you can raise this defense and get rid of the charge.

You’ll need a good attorney to attack any evidence the prosecution may have collected against you. In most cases, you’ll get the charges dismissed if the prosecution fails to prove that you were behind the wheel when the incident happened.

You Had a Justified Reason to Drive Recklessly

First of all, what you think is justified might not be justified in the eye of the law. In order to convince the judge that you had a necessity to break the law, you will have to show that:

  • The emergency was not created due to your actions
  • The emergency situation presented a threat to the driver or a third party
  • The driver committed the mistake with no ill intentions and it was bonafide

For example, driving recklessly to save someone else on the road can be considered a necessity.

Speeding Is Not the Same as Reckless Driving

While speeding isn’t safe or legal, it isn’t the same as reckless driving. The punishment for speeding differs largely from recklessly driving.

Just because you were speeding doesn’t mean “you drove with wanton disregard for safety.” However, the jury does pay attention to the speed but if ‘going above the speed limit’ is the only proof the prosecution has against you then you’re in good hands.

A good attorney will be able to present your case in a solid manner and get you out of trouble.

According to the law, “speeding can constitute reckless driving after considering the time, place, person, and surrounding circumstances” as seen in the Hall v. Mazzei, (1936) case.

Here’s what the law says:

(a) A person shall not engage in a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway. As used in this section, a motor vehicle speed contest includes a motor vehicle race against another vehicle, a clock, or other timing device. For purposes of this section, an event in which the time to cover a prescribed route of more than 20 miles is measured, but where the vehicle does not exceed the speed limits, is not a speed contest.

Wet Reckless: Reckless Driving and Driving Under the Influence

Drivers in California may have the option to get a DUI charge converted into a reckless driving charge, which is less serious than a reckless driving charge.

Here’s what the law says:

(a) If the prosecution agrees to a plea of guilty or nolo contendere to a charge of a violation of Section 23103 in satisfaction of, or as a substitute for, an original charge of a violation of Section 23152, the prosecution shall state for the record a factual basis for the satisfaction or substitution, including whether or not there had been consumption of an alcoholic beverage or ingestion or administration of a drug, or both, by the defendant in connection with the offense. The statement shall set forth the facts that show whether or not there was a consumption of an alcoholic beverage or the ingestion or administration of a drug by the defendant in connection with the offense.

Talk to an legal expert about all possible outcomes.

Reckless Driving: Bodily Injury

Reckless driving can result in serious injuries to the driver, passengers, other drivers and passengers on the road, and pedestrians. Such accidents are counted as a misdemeanor and can be very costly.

Here’s what the law says:

(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), whenever reckless driving of a vehicle proximately causes bodily injury to a person other than the driver, the person driving the vehicle shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine of not less than two hundred twenty dollars ($220) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.

(b) A person convicted of reckless driving that proximately causes great bodily injury, as defined in Section 12022.7 of the Penal Code, to a person other than the driver, who previously has been convicted of a violation of Section 23103, 23104, 23105, 23109, 23109.1, 23152, or 23153, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code, by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine of not less than two hundred twenty dollars ($220) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by both the fine and imprisonment.

This is a criminal offense with a fine as high as $1,000 and jail time – up to six months.

The section covers the following injuries:

  1. Brain injury including a concussion and a loss of consciousness.
  2. A bone fracture.
  3. A wound that requires extensive suturing
  4. Organ damage
  5. A temporary or permanent disfigurement.
  6. Paralysis.

Remember that this section “does not preclude or prohibit prosecution under any other provision of law.

This means the victim may have the option to file more lawsuits and get compensated for the emotional or physical loss arising due to the accident.
Under California VC Section 12810(c), reckless driving will result in two points.

Violation Point Count California Vehicle Code Section 12810

You will be considered a negligent operator if you accumulate a specific number of points.

This is very important because negligent operators run the risk of losing their driving privileges if they reach the following threshold:

  • At least 4 in a period of 12 months,
  • 6 points in a period of 24 months, or
  • 8 points in a period of 36 months.

Reckless Driving: Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about reckless driving.

Is it possible to get a reckless driving charge reduced to an infraction?

Unfortunately, it is not possible to reduce a reckless driving charge to an infraction. It is considered a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code 23103.

What if I am on private property?

You can get convicted if you are on private property for as long as the area (parking lot, for example) is open to the public.

What are some examples of reckless driving?

Here are some examples of reckless driving in California:

  • Speeding excessively, i.e.: going 20 mph or more above the speed limit
  • Running stop signs or red lights
  • Intentionally failing to provide the right-of-way to pedestrians and other vehicles on the road
  • Driving while intoxicated
  • Evading officers
  • Racing other cars
  • Using the phone while driving
  • Passing buses or trams
  • Passing on a two-lane highway over a double line

While these are some examples, they don’t necessarily always constitute reckless driving.

Do authorities have the right to pound my vehicle if I get arrested?

California VC Section 23109.2 gives police the right to impound your vehicle for up to 30 days if you get arrested for reckless driving in California. You’ll have to cover the charges assessed to the impounding of your car.

Can I lose my driving privileges if it is my first conviction?

While it’s rare, the court may choose to suspend your license if the jury thinks you’re a risky driver. In addition to this, the court might also suggest you attend traffic school.