California has several laws banning the use of cell phones (wireless telephones). The first two laws prohibit all drivers from using handheld wireless phones or cell phones and prohibit drivers under 18 from using hands-free cell phones. A third law bans texting while driving.
(For more on the interpretation of these laws, see California Court Okays Surfing the Net While Driving.)
California's restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving is part of a nationwide trend. Many other states also prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving and place restrictions on novice drivers. These new laws have been spurred on by safety concerns. Some evidence suggests that drivers using cell phones are more distracted, increasing the risk of accidents. (To learn more about other states' cell phone laws, the debate over safety, and tips for driving safely while using cell phones, see the Nolo article Cell Phones, Texting, and Driving: State Laws.)
Ban on Handheld Cell Phones
The first law bans all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. The law does not affect passengers -- they are free to use cell phones while traveling in an automobile. The law applies to anyone driving in California, whether the driver lives in California or not.
Exceptions. There are a few exceptions to the general ban. Handheld cell phones may be used:
- to make an emergency call to a law enforcement agency, medical provider, fire department, or other emergency service agency
- by those operating authorized emergency vehicles, and
- by those operating vehicles on private property.
Fines and "points." The fine for a first offense, including penalty assessments, is $76. A second offense is $190. However, although a violation of the handheld cell phone ban is a reportable offense and will appear on your driving record, it will not count as a point. (California uses a "point system" for moving violations. If you accumulate too many points, your insurance rates increase and you may lose your privilege to drive.)
Enforcement. The police have primary enforcement authority for a violation of this law. That means that an officer can pull you over just for this infraction.
The Hands-free Cell Phone Law
The second law governs the use of hands-free cell phones while driving. The rules are different, depending on the age of the driver.
Drivers 18 and Older
For the most part, drivers older than 18 will be allowed to use hands-free phones while driving. These drivers can use Bluetooth or other earpieces, but cannot cover both ears. The new law also allows drivers over 18 to use the speaker phone function of a wireless phone.
Dialing. Drivers are allowed to dial a wireless telephone while driving, but are strongly urged not to do so.
Drivers Younger Than 18
The law on hands-free devices makes a big change for drivers under the age of 18. Those drivers cannot use a wireless telephone, pager, laptop, or any other electronic communication device (whether handheld or hands-free) to either speak or text while driving, period. There are no exceptions for emancipated minors, no exceptions if adults or parents are driving with the youth, and no exceptions for devices built into the car (such as Bluetooth).
The only exception. Drivers under age 18 may use a wireless device in an emergency situation to call the police, fire, or medical authorities.
Fines. The fine for a first offense, including penalty assessments, is $76. A second offense is $190.
Enforcement. The ban on hands-free devices for drivers under 18 is a secondary violation. This means that an officer cannot pull you over just for this infraction, but an officer can cite you for a violation if he or she pulls you over for another reason. However, the prohibition on using a handheld cell phone while driving is still a primary violation. Officers can pull over drivers under age 18 just for this infraction.
Ban on Texting While Driving
A separate law prohibits texting while driving. Under this law, you may not write, send, or read text based communications while driving -- this includes text messages, instant messages, and email. The base fine for violating this law is $20 for the first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. However, additional penalty assessments can make the fine more than double the base amount.
For everything you need to know about fighting a traffic ticket and handling your own case in traffic court, get Fight Your Ticket and Win in California, by David Brown (Nolo).