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Negligent Driving vs. Reckless Driving

When the dust settles after a car accident, you’re left dealing with injuries, expensive medical treatments, and emotional trauma. While the process of healing from your injuries may take all of your focus for days or weeks after an accident, once it’s time to think about recovering your damages, the claims process requires an investigation into how the accident occurred. Like other at-fault insurance states, in Washington, it matters who caused an accident.

Often, the results of an investigation determine negligence on the part of the driver whose actions resulted in a crash. But when does a driver’s actions cross the line from negligence to recklessness, and how does it impact your claim for damages?

Negligent Driving vs. Reckless Driving

What is Negligence in a Car Accident Case?

Proving negligence in a claim for damages after a car accident in Washington requires showing that the driver at fault in the accident failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the crash from occurring. All drivers are required to carefully follow traffic laws and avoid distractions while driving. If a prudent driver would have acted differently under the same circumstances, the injury victim has a valid claim against the driver’s insurance policy. Some examples of negligent driving include:

  • Rolling through a stop sign
  • Making an unsafe lane change
  • Failing to signal a turn
  • Driving while distracted
  • Failing to yield the right of way

When a driver’s negligence causes an accident, they are responsible for the resulting property damage and injuries. Like other states, Washington requires drivers to carry liability insurance to pay compensation for damages to others if a driver’s negligence behind the wheel results in an accident. Proving negligence requires demonstrating the following points of legal liability:

  • That the driver owed a duty of care to others on the road to take reasonable measures to prevent injury
  • That they breached this duty by acting negligently behind the wheel
  • That the negligence directly caused the victim’s injuries
  • That the injury victim suffered significant economic damages and non-economic damages like pain and suffering

Once the evidence clearly shows liability on the part of the negligent driver, the plaintiff (injury victim) can make a valid claim for damages against the negligent driver’s insurance policy.

What is Recklessness in a Car Accident Claim?

While a negligent driver may fail to take the reasonable measures that a prudent driver would in similar circumstances, such as signaling a turn or double-checking a blind spot before changing lanes, when a person behind the wheel understands that they’re driving in a way that poses a risk to others, their actions cross a line from negligence into recklessness. In legal terms, recklessness in a car accident case means the driver had a knowing disregard for the safety of others and willfully operated a vehicle in a dangerous manner. Examples of reckless driving include:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Excessive speeding
  • Running a red light
  • Street racing
  • Road rage behaviors
  • Aggressively weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds

While negligent driving is accidental, reckless driving is intentional and carries criminal penalties as well as liability.

Penalties for Reckless Driving in Washington

In some states, courts allow injury victims to seek punitive damages in a reckless driving case. Punitive damages award a sum of money to an injury victim that’s meant to punish the reckless driver and act as a deterrent for repeats of the behavior. Washington courts don’t allow accident victims to seek punitive damages but apply criminal penalties to reckless drivers in addition to their civil liability. Reckless driving is a gross misdemeanor crime in Washington and is punishable with fines and/or up to 364 days in prison.

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