Understanding Careless Driving Motor Vehicle Offenses in NJ

using phone and eating while driving

A young driver goofing around with their friends turns the steering wheel wildly left and right to make the passengers fall into each other, screaming and laughing. And yet, another young driver driving their new fast car revs their engine to challenge another car idling beside them at a light. When the light changes, both screech down the public street at incredible speeds vying to outrace the other or until one car chickens out and slows or crashes. All drivers may be guilty of driving carelessly under New Jersey law, or the racers may be guilty of reckless driving. Essentially, reckless driving and careless driving mean two different things under New Jersey law. Understanding the distinction, and what it means when you get a ticket for careless driving, is essential if you prioritize your driving record and the many pitfalls of too many points on your license.

What is Careless Driving in New Jersey?

Careless driving in New Jersey is driving unsafely. Many traffic laws govern specific unsafe acts on the road, such as illegal turns, speeding, running a red light, and driving without lights at night, to name a few. But careless driving is a catchall for unsafe driving that does not fit into a specific violation. As such, New Jersey law defines careless driving as lacking caution or due regard for the consequences of the driver’s driving dangerously, according to N.J.S.A. 39:4-97. Since the definition is broad, the police can charge a driver with careless driving for any recklessness that can potentially cause danger, even if the driver did not mean to cause risk.

How is Careless Driving Different from Reckless Driving?

Reckless driving is also unsafe driving but to a much greater degree. Someone could get hurt when someone drives carelessly. Still, the likelihood of injury to others is more significant when a driver operates a vehicle with absolute disregard whether others get hurt or die. So, the goofing around driver rattling their friends in the car could potentially hurt passengers when they hit their head on the side window or bang heads together, but the driver may not have intended anyone to get hurt. Sure, the driver could also lose control of the vehicle, but that depends on how fast the driver was going, the conditions of the road, and the vehicle’s safety. More than likely, the driver’s horsing around is a violation of the careless driving statute.

On the other hand, a driver drag racing with another car at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour risks not only their lives when a tire blows, a pedestrian steps mindlessly into the roadway, or another vehicle turns onto the road where the race occurs, but others’ lives too. N.J.S.A. 39:4-96 equates reckless with heedless or willful disregard for others’ safety or property. Those who intentionally drive recklessly without regard to others’ lives and property are guilty of reckless driving, which is a more severe charge than careless driving. Although, the penalties for careless driving are costly enough. With fines, points, court costs, surcharges, and jail time, the potential for burdensome penalties weighing a convicted driver down for years is real.

How Bad is a Careless Driving Ticket in NJ?

A driver convicted of careless driving stands to pay up to $200.00 and no less than $50.00 in fines. In addition, they get two points on their driver’s license. The number of points a driver accumulates for traffic violations over a short period of years determines how much they must pay. For six or more points acquired within three years, a driver pays a surcharge of $150.00 on top of the fines and court charges. For each point above six, the driver pays an additional $25.00. And court costs are $34. As with many traffic violations, careless driving increases a driver’s insurance premiums significantly. More importantly, a judge could decide the driver needs to spend time in jail for a careless driving conviction. They could spend up to 15 days in jail if the circumstances warrant such punishment.

Options for Handling a Careless Driving Offense when You go to Court

With the threat of jail, points on their license, and expensive fines, charges, and surcharges, a driver charged with careless driving ought to see a traffic defense attorney about what can be done to minimize or mitigate the consequences. Getting help to beat the charges is especially necessary for those with points on their record already. The savvy defense attorneys at our Middlesex County criminal law firm know the traffic laws and when a prosecutor may agree to reduce a careless driving charge to an unsafe driving charge. A driver can get a ticket for unsafe driving (N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2) when they drive a vehicle unsafely enough to endanger others’ lives and property. Although the surcharge is higher than careless driving, unsafe driving convictions do not add points to your driving record if that is your top priority.

However, regardless of the charge, a driver who drove carelessly or unsafely and caused an accident does not want to plead guilty to the traffic violation. Traffic accidents often result in civil lawsuits. Thus, a guilty plea may be incriminating to a driver involved in a civil action. For that reason, a driver involved in an accident is better off fighting the careless driving ticket an officer may have given them at the scene of the accident, rather than simply paying it. The costs of losing an auto accident liability case are far greater than a ticket. A defendant in a civil lawsuit for personal injury and property damage could pay hundreds of thousands of dollars if the accident resulted in a victim’s severe injuries and property damage, plus insurance increases that can damage them financially for years. Therefore, a driver charged with careless driving post-accident ought to do all in their power to fight the ticket.

Hiring an attorney is the first step. Our experienced traffic ticket lawyers know that accepting the prosecutor’s offer to settle the case for the reduced charge of unsafe driving may be used against you civilly if the situation involves a car accident as well. We may recommend going to trial if there is a good chance of beating the ticket. If a not guilty ruling is unlikely, we may ask for a civil reservation on your behalf. A civil reservation avoids accepting civil liability for a traffic ticket but allows a defendant to take a conviction. As such, you are more protected civilly while settling your municipal court case.

Need Help with a Careless Driving Case? Contact our Edison, NJ Law Office for a Free Consultation

Contact our criminal and DUI defense lawyers with local offices in Edison in Middlesex County, NJ to discuss your careless driving ticket and any other tickets you may have received. When seeking our firm’s help, you find attorneys who regularly deal with traffic violation cases, especially careless driving violations, reckless driving chargesleaving the scene of an accident cases, eluding charges, and DWI/DUI offenses. We know how much our defense approach matters in the outcome of your case and our commitment to helping clients like you in New Brunswick, East Brunswick, South Brunswick, Plainsboro, Carteret, Metuchen, North Brunswick, and other towns is unparalleled. Call (732) 659-9600 to speak with one of our attorneys free of charge. You can also send us a message to get started.

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.