Cell Phones and Driving in California

It is illegal to use a handheld cellphone or to text while driving in California.

California has several laws banning the use of cellphones (wireless telephones) while behind the wheel. The first two laws prohibit all drivers from using handheld wireless phones or cellphones and drivers under 18 years old from using hands-free cellphones. A third law bans texting and other wireless device use while driving.

California's restrictions on cellphone use while driving are part of a nationwide trend. Many states also prohibit the use of handheld cellphones while driving and place restrictions on novice drivers. These new laws have been spurred by safety concerns. Some evidence suggests that drivers using cellphones 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

California’s law banning all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving doesn’t affect passengers—they are free to use cellphones while traveling in an automobile. The law applies to anyone driving in California, whether the driver lives in California or not.

Exceptions

A few exceptions apply to the general ban. Handheld cellphones 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 base fine for a first offense is $20. For second and subsequent offenses, the fine is $50. But remember—the actual amount you’ll pay once assessments are added will be significantly more than the base fine. The total for a first violation will likely exceed $150, and a second or subsequent offense can cost over $250.

A violation of the handheld cellphone ban will not count as a point on your driving record. (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 the cellphone law—meaning, an officer can pull you over just for this infraction.

The Hands-free Cell Phone Law

The rules for hands-free cellphones use while driving depend on the age of the driver.

Drivers 18 and Older

For the most part, drivers who are at least 18 years old are allowed to use hands-free phones while driving. These drivers can use a Bluetooth or other earpieces, but cannot cover both ears. The law also allows drivers 18 years or older to use the speaker phone function of a wireless phone.

Drivers Younger Than 18

The law is more restrictive for drivers who are under the age of 18. These underage 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. The only exception is for using a wireless device in an emergency situation to call the police, fire, or medical personnel.

Fines

The fines and assessments for a hands-free cellphone violation are the same as those for a handheld cellphone violation. (See above.)

Enforcement

The ban on hands-free devices for drivers under 18 is a secondary violation. So, an officer cannot pull you over just for this infraction. An officer can, however, cite you for a violation if he or she pulls you over for another reason.

Ban on Texting While Driving

A separate law prohibits texting or any other use of a wireless device while driving. However, the law contains exceptions for:

  • emergency services professionals while operating an authorized emergency vehicle
  • turning on or off a mounted GPS, so long as only one tap or swipe is required to do so (read more about the law as it applies to GPS), or
  • using a manufacturer-installed system that’s embedded in the vehicle.

The base fines for violating this law are $20 for the first offense and $50 for a second or subsequent offense. Again, 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).

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