Jail term possible for exercising your right of way in traffic

There are many ways to get a traffic ticket for reckless driving in Virginia. But section 46.2-852 of the Code of Virginia gets a lot of attention because it is the most general. This law says, “. . . any person who drives a vehicle on any highway recklessly or at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person shall be guilty of reckless driving.”

In 2006, an appeals court in Virginia upheld a driver’s 46.2-852 reckless driving conviction for obstructing a red Mustang that needed to merge into his lane. The convicted driver argued that he had the right of way because his lane did not end, but the Mustang’s did, and in any event he eventually slowed to allow the Mustang to merge into his lane ahead of him. But the court pointed to evidence that:

  • at the beginning of the incident, the two vehicles were stopped at a traffic light next to each other, with each vehicle the first in its own lane;
  • the Mustang’s lane narrowed less than 500 feet ahead of both drivers to a merge point;
  • when the light turned green, the convicted driver accelerated and continued to speed up even though he saw the Mustang accelerating to merge into his lane ahead of him;
  • the convicted driver accelerated faster than he would have if the Mustang were not beside him, and he did so in attempt to get to the merge point before the Mustang; and
  • the convicted driver slowed only after he realized he would not be able to beat the Mustang to the merge point due to a deficit in his vehicle’s horsepower.

Considering all of the above, the court found that the act of reckless driving was complete at the start of these events and before the driver began to slow down. The court stated that the driver’s “familiarity with the road and his awareness that drivers in the left lane often cut off drivers in the right lane at the merge further support the finding that appellant was fully aware of the potential danger and, for the relevant period of time, disregarded it.” The evidence proved reckless driving beyond a reasonable doubt to the court; it did not matter that the driver eventually slowed to let the red Mustang merge in front of him.  (The other driver went off the road after the merge and the crash resulted in two fatalities.  The speed at impact was estimated at 76 miles per hour.) The case is Robinson v. Commonwealth, 48 Va. App. 623 (2006).

A driver can be convicted of reckless driving under 46.2-852 even if driving well under the posted speed limit. And section 46.2-868 makes any reckless driving conviction in Virginia a class 1 misdemeanor; therefore, a 46.2-852 conviction is punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 and/or up to one year in jail (under section 18.2-11).