Criminal Law

Using a Cellphone or Wireless Device While Driving in California

By John McCurley, Attorney
California’s distracted driving laws and the penalties for a violation.

In the past, California’s distracted driving laws prohibited motorists from talking on a cellphone or text messaging while driving, except when a phone or device was used in hands-free mode. But with a change in the law that went into effect on January 1, 2017, California has further restricted cellphone and wireless device use for drivers: California now bans not just talking and texting, but also all other hand-held wireless device use while at the wheel.

Here are the specifics of California’s distracted driving laws, the exceptions, and the consequences of a violation.

Phone calls

California motorists are prohibited from using a wireless telephone while driving, except when used in hands-free mode. Exceptions built into the law allow cellphone use:

  • while driving on private property, and
  • to call for emergency purposes

The law also permits emergency service professionals to makes cellphone calls while operating an authorized emergency vehicle. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23123 (2017).)

Using Wireless Devices for Texting and Other Purposes

California’s prior distracted driving law banned using a wireless device to “write, send, or read a text-based communication,” except when operating the device in voice-operated, hands-free mode. So basically, the law just covered text messaging and emailing. The new law goes further: Instead of prohibiting only text-based communications, it bans all wireless devices usage where the driver is “holding and operating” the device. Presumably, the restriction includes common smartphone and tablet apps like GPS, web browsers, social media, and cameras.

California’s new distracted driving law includes a few exceptions. The law doesn’t apply when a driver uses:

  • a hand to activate or deactivate a mounted GPS, as long as it takes only one swipe or tap to do so, or
  • an embedded manufacturer-installed system.

Emergency services personnel are also exempt from the wireless device use restriction while operating an authorized emergency vehicle. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23123.5 (2017).)

Special Rules for Underage Drivers

For drivers who are under the age of 18, wireless device use while driving is completely off limits. It doesn’t matter if the device is in a hands-free, voice-operating setting. The only exception is for emergency calls. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23124 (2017).)

Penalties

Unlawful use of a cellphone or wireless device while driving is an infraction in California. The “base fine” for a first offense is $20. For a second or subsequent violation, the base fine is $50. The bright side is that cellphone and wireless device offenses are zero-point traffic violations—meaning, a conviction shouldn’t increase a person’s insurance rates or lead to license suspension. (Read about California’s traffic violation point system.)

(Cal. Veh. Code §§ 12810.3, 23123, 23123.5, 23124 (2017).)

Questions for an Attorney

  • What are my chances of beating a cellphone ticket?
  • Do California’s cellphone laws apply to school bus and transit drivers?
  • Can an officer pull me over for a suspected cellphone violation?
  • What’s the minimum amount I’ll pay for a cellphone or wireless device ticket?

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