Difference Between DUI & Reckless Driving in Tennessee


People often believe that DUI and reckless driving go hand-in-hand, but this could not be further from the truth. While reckless driving is a dangerous and risky behavior, and the consequences can be quite harsh, it is nothing compared to a DUI conviction. A cursory review of the DUI and reckless driving laws in the state of Tennessee reveal that a conviction for DUI will bring serious punishment; reckless driving doesn't carry the same penalties.

DUI Elements

  • Tennessee Criminal Code section 55-10-401 defines driving under the influence as driving or being in physical control of any motor vehicle on any street or other area frequented by the public at large, while under the influence of any intoxicant or drug affecting the central nervous system, or while having a blood or breath alcohol concentration of .08 or higher.

    Under Tennessee law, DUI does not require any sort of negative driving pattern. It is enough to just be under the influence while you are driving. Bad driving patterns help the state prove its case, but bad driving is not a requirement of the law.

Reckless Driving Elements

  • Tennessee Criminal Code section 55-10-205(a) defines reckless driving as driving any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property commits reckless driving. There are some additional clause pertaining to performing wheelies on motorcycles and ignoring flood barriers, but 205(a) is the important section for most people.

    Unlike DUI, reckless driving requires a bad driving pattern. The state must be able to prove you were driving in such a way that you were ignoring the safety of others. The statute does not define what willful and wanton disregard for safety is, but excessive speed, aggressive lane changes and tailgating can all constitute evidence of reckless driving. Whether your driving was egregious enough to be reckless is ultimately a determination for the judge or a jury.

Charge Levels

  • Under Tennessee law, a conviction for reckless driving is a Class B misdemeanor. There is no provision for enhancement, so no matter how many reckless driving convictions you have, you will always be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

    DUI convictions works a little differently. Your first three convictions are essentially misdemeanors. Upon your fourth arrest however, you will be charged with a Class E felony. Also, no matter how many convictions you have had, if you are driving while impaired with someone in the car younger than 18, and that person suffers a serious bodily injury you are automatically charged with a Class D felony.


  • Tennessee has a formal sentencing structure for DUI convictions. For a first offense you will be required pay a fine of up to $1,500, serve two days in jail, enter alcohol counseling and have your driving privilege suspended for a year. For subsequent convictions the fines and the jail increase until you reach the felony level, at which point you are looking at a fine of up $15,000 and a prison sentence of up six years.

    Reckless driving carries the standard Class B misdemeanor punishment of a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to six months. Unlike DUI convictions though, the jail term in reckless driving is not mandatory and most offenders will never serve jail time.

Long-term Consequencies

  • A conviction for DUI, whether in Tennessee or any other state, carries serious long-term consequences. A criminal conviction stays on your record indefinitely, so any background checks conducted on you will reveal your conviction. This can drastically affect you employment, schooling or housing. Further, you car insurance rates will increase drastically, and you may even find yourself uninsurable.

    Reckless driving carries much less severe long-term consequences. You insurance rates will increase for around three years, and you will not be getting any delivery jobs in the near future. Other than that though, it is unlikely any significant harm to your lifestyle will be felt after you have paid off your fine. All told, reckless driving is a much less serious conviction than DUI.


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