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reckless driving

Laws regarding reckless driving charges vary from state to state—including the name of the offense and its definition. This offense may also be known as reckless operation of a motor vehicle or driving to endanger—but generally requires that the government (prosecution) prove the driver was willfully operating a motor vehicle in a way that showed indifference to the safety of persons or property.

And in some states certain driving behavior may be considered reckless driving per se (pronounced pur-Say)—which is reckless driving by definition or “on its face.” For example, if a driver is driving more than 30 miles per hour over the speed limit or is engaged in street racing, the driver may be charged with reckless driving per se, and the prosecutor will not be required to prove any other elements of the reckless driving offense, as such behavior is reckless driving by definition—with the definition being provided by the state legislature in the traffic code.

As with many traffic violations, the officer issuing the citation and the prosecutor have significant discretion in determining whether there was a violation of a traffic law and whether the violation constitutes a certain offense, as defined by the state legislature in the traffic code or in a municipal ordinance.

This discretion to issue a ticket or citation and prosecute the charge against the driver is balanced by the discretion of the jury or judge in determining whether the prosecution met its burden of proof sufficient to convict the driver (for a criminal offense) or find the driver responsible (for a civil infraction, violation, or offense).

In Texas, reckless driving is a criminal offense outlined under Texas Transportation Code Section 545.401. The law defines reckless driving as operating a vehicle with 'willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.' This means that the driver must be shown to have acted intentionally or with gross indifference to the consequences of their actions while driving. Texas does not explicitly define certain behaviors as reckless driving per se, but actions such as excessive speeding or street racing could be considered evidence of reckless driving. The charge is a misdemeanor and can result in penalties including fines, jail time, and driver's license suspension. Law enforcement officers have the discretion to issue citations for reckless driving, and prosecutors decide whether to pursue charges. Ultimately, a judge or jury determines the driver's guilt or innocence, assessing whether the prosecution has met the burden of proof to establish that the driver's actions constituted reckless driving under Texas law.


Texas Statutes & Rules

Federal Statutes & Rules

23 U.S.C. § 402 - Highway Safety Programs
While reckless driving laws are primarily state-based, federal statutes like 23 U.S.C. § 402 influence state traffic safety laws by providing guidelines and funding for highway safety programs.

This statute outlines the Secretary of Transportation's authority to maintain highway safety programs in cooperation with state and local governments. It requires states to have a highway safety program, approved by the Secretary, that adheres to uniform standards set forth by the Secretary. These programs often include provisions related to reckless driving behaviors. The statute also allows the Secretary to provide grants to states to improve their traffic safety programs and enforce traffic laws, which can include laws against reckless driving.

23 U.S.C. § 153 - Use of Safety Belts and Motorcycle Helmets
Although not directly about reckless driving, this statute incentivizes states to enforce laws that can reduce the consequences of reckless driving, such as mandatory use of safety belts.

This section provides grant incentives to states that implement and enforce laws requiring the use of safety belts and motorcycle helmets. By encouraging the use of safety equipment, this statute indirectly supports the goal of reducing injuries and fatalities associated with reckless driving incidents. States that comply with the requirements of this section receive additional federal funding, which can be used to support law enforcement efforts against reckless driving.

18 U.S.C. § 13 - Laws of States Adopted for Areas Within Federal Jurisdiction
This statute is relevant because it allows for state reckless driving laws to be applied on federal lands and properties, which may not have their own specific traffic regulations.

Commonly known as the Assimilative Crimes Act, this law provides that acts or omissions that are not made punishable by an enactment of Congress but would be punishable if committed within the jurisdiction of the state in which a federal enclave is located, shall be punishable within the federal enclave. This means that state reckless driving laws can be enforced on federal property, and individuals can be prosecuted under state law for reckless driving offenses committed on such property.

49 U.S.C. § 30103 - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
While not directly addressing reckless driving, this statute empowers the NHTSA to set vehicle safety standards, which can mitigate the impact of reckless driving.

This statute authorizes the NHTSA to establish Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that manufacturers of motor vehicles and equipment must meet. These standards are designed to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries resulting from traffic accidents. Therefore, while the statute does not directly regulate reckless driving, it addresses vehicle safety, which can be a factor in the severity of reckless driving incidents.