California Cell Phone Law - What is It?
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California Cell Phone Law - What is It?

By Autolist Staff | June 28, 2019

The California cell phone law includes more than one law designed to reduce cell phone use behind the wheel. One of the rules bans all drivers from using cell phones where the device must be touched. Another law prohibits motorists under 18 from even using hands-free cellphones. The third law forbids the use of texting or any other function on a wireless device. California isn't alone on the restriction of cell phones, as many other states have similar laws and especially for novice drivers. The laws have come into place as new statistics and evidence show that cell phone use is just as dangerous as driving under the influence.

Handheld Cell Phone Ban

One thing to understand about California's ban on handheld cell phones is that it only applies to the driver, not passengers. It also applies to anyone operating a motor vehicle in California, even if they're not a resident of the state. There are a few exceptions to this law, however. One is that a handheld cellphone may be used if the driver needs to make an emergency call, such as to the police, fire department or medical provider. Exceptions allow drivers operating an authorized emergency vehicle and for drivers on private property.

Fines for Violating the Handheld Cell Phone Ban

The standard fine for a first-time offender is $20. For the second offense and any subsequent offense, the penalty is $50. However, these base fines are unlikely to be your final total. Once various assessments are added, the total amount is likely to be over $150 for a first-time offense and over $250 for a second offense. Violating this ban does not count as points on your record, however. California operates on a point system for traffic violations. Too many points cause insurance rates to increase and may eventually result in you losing your driving privileges. This law is also a primary enforcement law, which means that the police can pull you over solely for using your cell phone. It is different from secondary enforcement where the law enforcement officer pulls you over for something else and then add the cell phone violation to the ticket.

Hands-Free Cell Phone Ban

Using a hands-free cell phone and the legality therein depends on the driver's age. In general, any drivers 18 and over can use these devices while driving. That means they can use a Bluetooth device or some other earpiece as long as it doesn't cover both ears. It also means that they can use the cell phone's speaker function. On the other hand, if you're under 18, then you're banned from using any wireless or electronic device while driving. That includes cell phones, pagers, laptops, tablets, or anything considered an electronic communication device. Again, there are exceptions for emergencies and emergency personnel. First offense and second offense fines for violating the hands-free cell phone ban are the same as the handheld ban. However, this ban is a secondary enforcement offense, which means that the police cannot pull you over just for using your hands-free device, but they can ticket you for it if they pull you over for something else.

Texting and Driving

Another California law covers the use of texting or using any other wireless device with the fingers while driving. Again, there are exceptions, including for emergency personnel, cell phone or mounted GPS and manufacturer-installed GPS systems. The base fines for violation are the same as the first cell phone law, but additional assessed penalties can raise it far more than the base amount.

California Cell Phone Law and GPS

As previously mentioned, there are some exceptions for using GPS functions on cell phones or on an integrated system, but a law explicitly addressing GPS became effective as of January 2017. Since the distracted driving law bans the use of cell phones or devices that you have to hold to operate, it would seem that GPS might fall under that. However, if you operate your navigation system through voice commands, you won't have to worry about that. There's also an exception for turning a mounted GPS off or on as long as it only requires one swipe or tap. The GPS also needs to be mounted on the center console or dash. If you have a manufacturer-installed navigation system, then the wireless device law doesn't apply. That generally includes any other embedded car system, such as climate controls or a radio.

Summary of California Distracted Driving Law

  • Drivers cannot use cell phones for calling, texting or reading messages while operating a motor vehicle on a public road

  • Drivers can use cell phones to text or call if they can operate it hands-free, i.e., with voice or Bluetooth

  • All drivers under 18 are banned from using cell phones while driving even if the devices are hands-free

  • Exceptions include GPS systems, driving on private property or for emergency calls

  • Emergency personnel operating emergency vehicles are also exceptions

What Does California Consider a Hands-Free System?

According to California law, a hands-free system is a wireless telephone that is mounted on the dashboard or windshield that doesn't block the driver's view of the road. Further, the driver must be able to activate or deactivate the system with only one swipe or tap. Increasingly, new cars feature standard Bluetooth functions for phone and systems such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto satisfy this requirement.

The Success of the Cell Phone Ban

Even though the new cell phone law began to roll out in 2017, a survey in 2018 said that more drivers than before were using their cell phones. A study conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety and the California State University of Fresno found that about 4.5% of drivers were touching and using their cell phones in 2018 vs. 3.5% in 2017. Despite the results of this survey, 2018 use of cell phones has gone down when you compare it to the 7.6% of users in 2016.

Some of the other findings include the following:

  • Use of cell phones while driving was eight times higher when drivers were alone in the motor vehicle

  • Cell phone use increased on local roads vs. freeways or highways

  • The most common cell phone task was using a phone function such as GPS, email, texting, apps and social media

  • Under 2% of California drivers used their cell phone when they had a child passenger

The Future of California Cell Phone Laws

Even though the current laws seem relatively comprehensive, there are those who would like to see all cell phone use while driving be banned. An event in early 2019 had advocates calling for a full ban on all electronic devices by drivers, including hands-free devices. If such a ban were passed, California would be the first state to do so. Advocates compared banning all cell phone use to the first introduction of seat belt laws in the 1980s. Drivers initially complained about these new laws as well, but eventually, it became the norm to wear seat belts for safety. As of 2016, nearly 100 percent of California drivers comply with the law. Proponents argue that banning cell phone use is a similar safety precaution that needs to go into effect to reduce distracted driving.