Cell Phones and Texting While Driving in California

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

By , Attorney · Northwestern University School of Law

California has several laws banning the use of cell phones and other wireless devices while behind the wheel. The first two laws prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones and drivers under 18 years old from using cell phones altogether. A third law bans texting and other wireless device use while driving.

This article covers the specifics of California's distracted driving laws and the penalties a driver will face for a cell phone or texting ticket.

Talking on the Phone While Driving

California law prohibits all drivers from using a handheld cell phone while operating a vehicle. However, the restrictions vary depending on the driver's age.

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 Bluetooth or other earpieces, but cannot cover both ears. The law also allows drivers 18 years or older to use the speakerphone 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.

Exceptions to the Handheld Cell Phone Ban

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,
  • by those operating a school or transit bus and using the phone for work-related or emergency purposes, and
  • by those operating vehicles on private property.

Although these exceptions are written into the law, they don't come up very often.

Fines and Points for Cell Phone Tickets

The base fine for a first cell phone violation 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 cell phone ticket will add one demerit point to your record if within 36 months of a prior distracted driving offense.

Can Police Pull You Over for a Cell Phone Violation?

Handheld violations. The police have primary enforcement authority for a violation of the handheld cellphone law—meaning, an officer can pull you over just for this infraction.

Under 18 Hands-free violations. However, 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.

Texting Ban Exceptions

California's texting 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.

Fines and Points for Texting Tickets

The base fines for violating the texting prohibition 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.

Violations that occur within 36 months of a prior will result in one demerit point.

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