December 20, 2000
THE RECKLESS DRIVING LAW
By: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Research Analyst
You asked for an explanation of the Connecticut reckless driving statute. You also wanted to know if someone who was driving erratically due to cell phone use, eating, or some other distraction could be charged with reckless driving.
Connecticut's reckless driving law prohibits someone from driving a motor vehicle recklessly, having regard to the width, traffic and use of the highway. Certain specific actions such as driving at a speed that endangers the life of someone other than the driver or driving at more than 85 miles per hour are specifically set out as violations, but recklessness is not explicitly defined. While there is a definition of acting recklessly in the penal code, this definition does not automatically apply to the motor vehicle laws, since they are in a different title.
Commonly accepted legal concepts relating to a reckless act tend to include in its meaning creation of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm and a conscious disregard or indifference to that risk. Substantial Connecticut case law regarding reckless driving tends to follow that line of interpretation. Connecticut courts seem to feel that under the reckless driving law, there must be a conscious choice of a course of action either with knowledge of the serious danger involved for others or with knowledge of the facts that could disclose this danger to any reasonable person. But to infer recklessness in a driver's conduct, there must be more than failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others. Recklessness is considered more than negligence.
Using a cell phone, eating, or performing some other distracting behavior while driving does not automatically rise to the level of recklessness under these interpretations. These actions would have to be considered within the totality of the circumstances as indicative of a consciousness of the dangers involved for others and a disregard of the consequences. In fact, courts have found that speeding or driving under the influence of alcohol are not sufficient by themselves to constitute reckless driving, but could be taken with other circumstances in determining the existence of recklessness.
CONNECTICUT'S RECKLESS DRIVING LAW
Connecticut's law states, “No person shall operate any motor vehicle on any public highway …recklessly, having regard to the width, traffic and use of such highway.” The law specifically makes (1) driving at a speed that endangers the life of any person other than the vehicle driver, (2) driving at more than 85 miles per hour, (3) driving a vehicle with a commercial registration downgrade with the clutch or gears disengaged, and (4) knowingly operating a vehicle with a defective mechanism violations of the reckless driving law. However, it does not specifically define recklessness any further (CGS § 14-222).
Reckless driving is punishable by a fine of $100-$300, imprisonment for up to 30 days, or both, for a first offense and a fine of up to $600, imprisonment for up to one year, or both, for any subsequent offense.
In deciding whether someone should be charged under the reckless driving statute for driving erratically because of cell phone use, eating, or some other distracting behavior, it is likely that the totality of the circumstances involving the driver would be taken into consideration.
INTERPRETING SPECIFIC BEHAVIORS AS RECKLESS DRIVING
Relevant Legal Definitions
Although the reckless driving statute is found in the motor vehicle laws (Title 14) and carries criminal penalties, there is no definition of recklessness to be found in the definition sections of Title 14. For offenses included in the penal code (Title 53a), a person is considered to act recklessly with respect to a result or circumstance described as an offense when “he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and justifiable risk that such a result will occur or circumstance exist and that the risk is of the nature and degree that disregarding it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a reasonable person would observe in the situation (CGS § 53a-3(13)).
Black's Law Dictionary (Seventh Edition, 1999) defines “reckless driving” as the criminal offense of operating a vehicle in a manner that shows “conscious indifference to the safety of others.”
It describes “reckless” as behavior “characterized by the creation of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to others and by a conscious (and sometime deliberate) disregard for or indifference to that risk. This behavior could also be considered heedless or rash. Reckless conduct is “much more than mere negligence: it is a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would do.”
Finally, Black's considers “recklessness” to be conduct whereby the actor does not desire a harmful consequence but nonetheless foresees the possibility and consciously takes the risk. Recklessness involves a greater degree of fault than negligence but a lesser degree of fault than intentional wrongdoing. Recklessness is the state of mind in which a person does not care about the consequences of his or her actions.
Connecticut Case Law
In some of the earliest decisions relating to the reckless driving law, the courts found that the legislature, with unquestionable authority established “an arbitrary standard for the test of conduct in operating motor vehicles…” and that by passing the law in its current wording it had prescribed that “certain acts, plainly stated or specifically defined, shall not be done.” A violation of the statute was a violation of one's duty to respect the person or property of another and therefore “is negligence of itself and when it is the proximate cause of injury it is actionable negligence (Pietrycka v. Simolan, 98 Conn. 495, (1923)). The prohibition on driving recklessly or so as to endanger life, limb, or property establishes a sufficiently definite and certain standard of conduct and that the test of recklessness lies in all of the circumstances that “together show a reckless disregard of consequences (State v. Andrews, 108 Conn. 214, (1928)). As such, the state's burden in prosecuting under the reckless driving law is to show reckless or wanton misconduct (State v. Hemingway, 3 Conn.Cir.Ct. 293 (1965)).
Several case decisions address the point of the necessity for determining intent under the reckless driving law. These decisions maintain that it is reckless indifference to the safety of others which supplies the criminal intent necessary to warrant a conviction for reckless driving (State v. Mahalik, 22 Conn.Supp. 400, 1 Conn.Cir.Ct. 62 (1961); State v. Stevens, 37 Conn. Supp. 661 (1981); State v. Sandra O., 51 Conn.App. 463 (1999)).
Numerous other cases have dealt with the question of whether a state of mind amounting to recklessness can be inferred from someone's conduct (State v. Vertefeuille, 3 Conn.Cir.Ct. 508 (1965)). Courts have considered recklessness as a state of conscious with respect to the consequence of one's acts (Hemingway, 3 Conn.Cir.Ct. 293). In order to infer recklessness in a driver's conduct, there must be something more than the failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them (Mooney v. Wabrek, 129 Conn. 302 (1942); also Hemingway 3 Conn.Cir.Ct 291). Other courts have made similar findings (State v. Edwards, 1 Conn.Cir. 53, 22 Conn.Sup. 391 (1961); State v. Hargis, 5 Conn.Cir. 231 (1968)).
In Maloney v. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles (31 Conn.Supp. 325 (1974)), the court stated that recklessness under this law requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others that it involves, or with knowledge of the facts which could disclose such danger to any reasonable person. Recklessness is more than negligence or gross negligence.
Even serious negative driving behaviors like speeding or driving under the influence of alcohol may not necessarily constitute reckless driving by themselves. Some courts have decided that neither speed nor the influence of alcohol (Andrews, 108 Conn. 209, 214; Giddings v. Honan 114 Conn. 473, 475; State v. Licari, 132 Conn. 220; Hargis, 5 Conn.Cir.Ct. 231) would alone be sufficient to warrant a conviction for reckless driving but that when taken in conjunction with the other circumstances each could be properly considered by the court in determining whether the defendant showed reckless disregard of consequences (Mahalik, 22 Conn. Sup. 403).