CA Cell phone driving lawsAs of January 1, 2009, it is unlawful for a driver to use a cell phone while driving in California.  There are actually three laws banning drivers from using cell phones.  The first two laws prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving and prohibit drivers under 18 from using hands-free cell phones while driving.  A third law bans texting while driving.  There is a fourth law made by a court decision which makes even using your phone for a GPS device illegal.

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.

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. Interestingly, this law was passed after the cell phone law even though most would agree that texting while driving is far more dangerous than talking on the phone while driving.

The Use of a Cell Phone for GPS

A California court has extended the ban on using cell phones while driving.  Now you're barred from using your GPS apps as well.  Specifically, the ruling says you cannot have your hands on a cell phone while driving because: “The distraction would be present whether the wireless telephone was being used as a telephone, a GPS navigator a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails.”

Side Notes

Some studies have indicated that the real problem with talking on a cell phone while driving is the  tendency to lose focus on driving, whether you are talking on a hand-held device or a hands-free device.  However, no law has been passed which prohibits driving while using a hands-free device so long as you are 18 years old or over.  Unless you need to talk right away, it’s best to play it safe and Arwait until you are not driving to make that call.

As far as using your phone as a GPS device, it is best to simply input the destination info before you start your car.If you are caught holding the phone though, you will probably be pulled over and fined.

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