California Cell Phone Law

Michael Kwan
California Cell Phone Law

You may have heard about the California cell phone law that went into place on July 1, 2008. Are you fully aware of what the new law entails? Should you care if you don't live in California?

Rationale for New Law

A significant number of motor vehicle accidents occur because drivers are distracted. Oftentimes, the distraction comes from talking on a mobile phone. If you are using one hand to hold the cell phone up to your ear, this means that you will only have one hand with which to steer. This can severely impair your ability to avoid accidents when something unexpected happens.

With this in mind, the state of California passed two new laws that deal with the use of wireless telephones. They went into effect on July 1, 2008. Hopefully with these new laws in place, the accident rate can decrease and the roads can be a little safer.

California Cell Phone Law: The Basics

In a nutshell, the California cell phone law prohibits the use of a handheld mobile phone while operating a motor vehicle. That said, you are allowed to use a hands-free device.

This means that while you cannot hold the phone up to your ear, you are allowed to have phone conversations by way of a hands-free cell phone headset, whether it be wired or Bluetooth. You can also use the speakerphone function found in many contemporary phones, as well as the Bluetooth speaker system that is pre-installed in certain vehicles.

It should be noted that while you may not use a handheld phone, you are still allowed to use the phone handset to dial while driving. You just have to use a hands-free device while actually in the conversation. It is also illegal to text message while driving. Driving safety should always come first.

If you do not have a hands-free device, you can still make phone emergency calls to "a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department or other emergency services agency." The entirety of this law only applies to the driver of the motor vehicle and not any of the passengers.

Fines and Violation Points

The first offense is $20 and subsequent offenses are $50. No violation points will be added to your record, but fines can be more than triple the base amount with the addition of penalty assessments.

Rules for Young Drivers

The laws on talking on cell phones while driving for drivers under the age of 18 are stricter. The second California cell phone law completely prohibits the use of a mobile phone altogether for drivers under the age of 18. They may not use a wireless telephone whatsoever, even if they have a hands-free device.

This outright cell phone ban cannot be waived, even if the driver has a suitable supervisor in the vehicle. The exception to this would be the "emergency call" stipulation described above.

The provision for young drivers will not appear on their provisional drivers licenses, but it still applies. Note that it is considered a secondary violation for a young driver to operate a motor vehicle while using a hands-free device for mobile phones. This means that while a police officer cannot pull you over for using a phone, the officer can serve you a violation ticket for it if you are pulled over for another violation. It is a primary offense to use a handheld wireless device, however.

Update in 2010: California Senate Bill 1475

In 2010, a new senate bill was introduced that would increase the fines and expand the scope of the existing cell phone restrictions in California. Senate Bill 1475, put forth by State Senator Joe Simitian, would increase the initial fine from $20 to $50. Subsequent offences would then be fined at $100 rather the current $50. The fine for text messaging while driving would increase to $100. The law would also be expanded to include bicyclists.

Not a Cell Phone Ban

Even if you are not a resident of the Golden State, it is important to be aware of the California cell phone law. All visitors to the state are still subject to its laws.

By and large, these new laws are not an outright cell phone ban, because you are allowed to use a hands-free device. I'd imagine that sales of headsets have increased substantially since the introduction of these cell phone laws.

Contact the California Department of Motor Vehicles for more information.

California Cell Phone Law