What Is Careless Driving?

Many years ago, a friend and I were driving back from York University. We were stopped at a traffic light when he let his foot off of the brake just long enough to bump to the car in front of him. The police arrived and offered my friend two choices: take a ticket for careless driving (for being too close to the driver in front of him) or for dangerous driving. There was barely a dent on either car.

Careless driving’s definition hasn’t changed, but we have. There are many distractions for drivers — cellphones, navigation systems, entertainment systems — that we didn’t have not that long ago. Our driving environment has changed: There are more vehicles on a finite stretch of road. So let’s take a refresher on how a driver could find him or herself in serious trouble for not paying enough attention behind the wheel and pay for it in car insurance premiums for years.

Under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act section 130 (1), careless driving is defined as, “Every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway.”

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Careless or dangerous driving: what’s the difference?

The officer's judgment determines if your driving behaviour is a traffic violation or a criminal offence. Either charge carries significant penalties if you are convicted:

  • Careless driving is driving without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway. A careless driving conviction in Ontario includes six demerit points on your licence, a fine between $400 and $2,000, possible imprisonment for up to six months, and a suspended licence for up to two years.
  • Dangerous driving consists of driving a vehicle in a way that is “dangerous to the public”, taking into account the circumstances of the incident, including traffic, weather conditions, and “the use of the place that can be reasonably expected.” In Ontario, this offence carries a minimum year-long driving ban, a criminal record, and a $1,000 fine for a first offence.

Depending on the circumstances, a police officer can construe any of these actions as careless or dangerous driving:

  • Failing to check your mirror before reversing or entering traffic.
  • Failing to maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.
  • Excessive speeding, racing, or stunt driving.
  • Incidents involving cyclists or pedestrians.
  • Distraction because of use of mobile devices.
  • Running a red light or stop sign — which can include the so-called “rolling stop,” in which a driver doesn’t come to a complete stop.
  • Any event that reflects a lack of adequate care.

There’s a lot of judgment involved in such incidents — on behalf of the driver, the police, and prosecutors that deal with them. And the difference between the two charges can be, in financial terms, huge for insurance premiums, the criminal nature of the charge aside. At a minimum, a careless driving conviction will increase your car insurance premium significantly for up to three years.