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What is the Difference Between Careless and Reckless Driving in NJ?

June 12, 2020

Experienced Municipal Court Defense Attorney

As a municipal court prosecutor and defense attorney, I have taken countless traffic tickets to trial. Many of these were careless driving and reckless driving tickets. A common question people ask is what is the difference between these two offenses? The differences are subtle, but can have an enormous impact on your driving record.

Careless Driving Under New Jersey Law

Careless driving is governed by NJSA 39:4-97. It is best summed up as driving without due caution in a manner that may endanger other people or property. The law assumes that your careless driving is without malice. A typical case is changing lanes without knowing it.

New Jersey has one of the nation’s broadest statutory definitions of careless driving. The law charges the police officer with determining whether the offense qualifies as a careless driving or reckless driving case. The law’s broad definition means that drivers can be flagged for careless driving for a wide range of seemingly small mistakes.  The most common situation where a driver is ticketed for careless driving is following a motor vehicle accident.

An important feature of careless driving law is the need for the state to prove actual carelessness. It is not enough that you simply had an accident. This issue commonly arises in the context of single car accidents. Carelessness cannot be inferred, it must be proven by the state against you. After all, accidents can occur for a variety of reasons aside from carelessness and you are presumed innocent as with any criminal or motor vehicle offense.

Reckless Driving Under New Jersey Law  

Reckless driving is governed by NJSA 39:4-96. This charge is all about intent. It is best summed up as driving without due caution in a manner intended to endanger and cause harm to other people and property. The law assumes that the driver knows that he/she is breaking the law and endangering other people and property but disregards it.

New Jersey’s laws on reckless driving are also broad, and, again, the police officer is left to determine whether your situation qualifies as such. The law also requires that a witness be present to testify to your reckless behavior – anyone present at the scene can be eligible as a witness, including other motorists, pedestrians, and the police officer.

Any behavior that may be considered as wanton disregard for safety on the road qualifies as reckless driving. A common scenario is weaving in and out of traffic to overtake other motorists or exceeding set speed limits by considerable speeds. Another common situation is where a driver is accused of DUI. In such cases, they are almost always also given a ticket for reckless driving along with the DUI charge.

The Consequences

The difference between a careless driving and reckless driving charge is glaringly evident in the attached consequences. A careless driving ticket will add two points to your license. It may also attract an average fine ranging between $85 and $200. The fines also accrue over time, and serial offenders may attract harsher punishments such as community service and license suspension.

A reckless driving ticket adds five points to the ticket and attracts more severe punishment. A first offender may be prosecuted and jailed for up to 60 days. The alternative is a fine ranging between $50 and $200. The verdict may also include both jail time and a fine in cases whereby the driver posed a great risk to the people and public property.

The harsh consequences of reckless designing are meant to deter future offenses. To this end, a second conviction will attract harsher penalties. Offenders may be sentenced to up to three months in jail and pay fines ranging between $100 and $500. Serial offenders will also have their licenses suspended for 180 days–offenders who cause serious accidents can also have their licenses revoked permanently.

Motorists who show wanton disregard for traffic laws can also get slapped with both a careless driving and reckless driving ticket. It would add five points to your license and potentially attract combined fines and jail time. This is common than you would think–it is especially common for motorists accused of elaborate and serial reckless driving.  

One often-overlooked consequence of a reckless and careless driving ticket is its effect on your car insurance premiums. These tickets, as explained, are issued for violating traffic laws and putting motorists and property at risk.

Your insurer determines your premiums based on, among other things, your adherence to traffic laws. As such, getting ticketed is guaranteed to make your reviews go up. A careless driving ticket will see your premiums increase by up to 16%, while reckless driving will revise them up by as much as 22%.

Fighting Careless and Reckless Driving in Court

Most careless and reckless driving tickets will require your appearance at a court hearing – this is indicated at the bottom of the ticket next to a box labeled “court appearance required.” The consequences of simply pleading guilty either online or in court are often not fully understood until it is too late. Consult with an attorney experienced in municipal court before doing so.

You are obliged to appear in court if it is indicated as such on the ticket. The judge may issue a warrant of arrest against you and revoke your driving privileges if you fail to show up. Your lack of cooperation may also make the punishment worse and diminish your pleading power. 

You can obviously contest the ticket if you believe that you are innocent. This is presumed under the law and the state bears the burden of proving these charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Another option is to engage in a plea agreement. In many cases, it is possible to have tickets downgraded to lesser offenses. Sometimes even reduced to zero points.

All this is easier said than done–but you can change this by soliciting the services of a professional attorney. Your attorney will be in a better position to plead with the court to have your charges reduced or your ticket dismissed altogether.

Contact an Experienced Freehold Traffic Ticket Lawyer About Your Reckless Driving Charges in Freehold


Were you charged with careless or reckless driving in New Jersey? The Law Offices of Anthony J. Vecchio LLC have successfully represented clients in their traffic ticket cases in Freehold, Woodbridge, Princeton, Mount Laurel, Jersey City, and throughout New Jersey. Call (800) 418-8578 or fill out the online contact form to schedule a consultation with a member of our legal team. We have an office conveniently located at 4400 Route 9 South, Suite 1000, Freehold, NJ 07728 as well as offices located in Woodbridge, Princeton, Mount Laurel, and Jersey City

The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.

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