Driving at excessive speeds is a dangerous behavior that puts the driver and others at risk. In Tennessee, the state has laws defining what constitutes reckless driving based on speeding. Understanding these laws can help drivers make safer choices and avoid legal penalties.
Tennessee’s Reckless Driving Law
Under Tennessee law, reckless driving is defined as operating a motor vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” This includes driving in a way that shows “a willful disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Speeding can be considered reckless driving depending on how much the driver is exceeding the posted speed limit.
Speeds Considered Reckless Driving
In Tennessee, a driver can be charged with reckless driving for exceeding the speed limit by the following amounts:
- 15 mph or more on roads with a speed limit of 55 mph or less
- 20 mph or more on roads with a speed limit of 70 mph or less
So for example, driving 70 mph in a 55 mph zone could lead to a reckless driving charge. The same is true for going 90 mph in a 70 mph zone. These speed thresholds apply regardless of the type of road, whether it is a city street, county highway, interstate, etc.
Penalties for Reckless Driving
A reckless driving conviction is a misdemeanor criminal offense in Tennessee. Penalties include:
- Up to 6 months in jail
- Fines up to $500
- Driver’s license suspension for up to 6 months
In addition to the criminal penalties, a reckless driving conviction will go on your permanent driving record and can significantly increase insurance rates. The offense stays on your record for 5 years.
Other Speeding Violations
While reckless driving requires exceeding the speed limit by 15+ or 20+ mph depending on the road, a driver can still face penalties for lower amounts of speeding:
1-14 mph Over
Going 1-14 mph over the speed limit is a civil traffic violation punishable by a fine up to $50. No jail time or license suspension occurs.
15-19 mph Over (Under Reckless Threshold)
Exceeding the limit by 15-19 mph on roads with over 55 mph speed limits (or 20-29 mph over on roads 70 mph or under) leads to an increased fine up to $200. Like with lower speeding, no jail or license suspension applies.
20 mph or More Over Limit
Going 20 mph or more over the posted speed limit is a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee. Penalties include up to 30 days in jail, fines up to $500, and a possible driver’s license suspension.
So while 20+ mph over the limit reaches reckless driving on some roads, on faster highways it is a separate criminal speeding offense.
Factors That Determine Reckless Driving
While specific speed thresholds define reckless driving in Tennessee, law enforcement still has discretion in making charges. An officer can consider other factors to determine if a speeding driver showed willful disregard for safety, such as:
- Traffic conditions – Speeding in heavy traffic can show greater disregard for safety than speeding on an empty road.
- Road conditions – Driving recklessly fast on slick roads indicates greater disregard than dry road driving.
- Driver distractions – Speeding while texting or otherwise distracted makes a stronger case for reckless disregard.
- Weaving – Weaving between lanes while speeding makes the driving more reckless.
So while the speed thresholds provide guidance, an officer can still make a reckless driving arrest even if you were driving below those absolute speed numbers.
Defenses Against Reckless Driving
Tennessee law allows some legal defenses against a reckless driving charge, including:
No Willful Disregard for Safety
If there is evidence showing the driver did not consciously ignore safety, such as hazardous road conditions beyond the driver’s control, the reckless charge may be dismissed or reduced to speeding.
Speeding for an emergency purpose, such as rushing an injured person to the hospital, may constitute a legal defense against reckless driving.
Evidence that a faulty speedometer resulted in inaccurate speed reading can rebut a reckless driving charge.
Radar Detector Issues
Problems with the police radar equipment that clocked your speed may invalidate the speed reading used to charge reckless driving.
An experienced traffic ticket lawyer can assess whether any defenses apply in your case when fighting a reckless driving allegation.
Exceeding posted speed limits by 15+ or 20+ mph, depending on the road, reaches Tennessee’s definition of reckless driving. This criminal offense carries potential jail time, fines, and license suspension as penalties. While specific speed thresholds apply, law enforcement still considers road, traffic, and driver factors when determining if speeding should rise to the level of reckless disregard for safety. An attorney may be able to raise defenses against a reckless driving charge under the right circumstances.