What are California's New Distracted Driving Laws?

The simple act of checking or sending a text can take your eyes off the road for several seconds. Those seconds could be life-changing in a very negative way. That’s why the State of California has a cell phone law in place. Today’s laws were updated with State Assembly Bill 1785, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, in 2016.

According to Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a supporter of the law, the bill addresses “the deadliest cause of distracted driving related crashes: the use of an electronic device while driving.” The state’s Office of Traffic Safety’s “Put Your Phone Down. Just Drive” campaign also supports the law. It keeps the message out there about driving safely without distractions.

Whether you are studying to get your California driver’s license or a seasoned driver, here’s what you should know about California’s distracted driving law.

What California's Distracted Driving Laws Cover

First and foremost, in California, it’s illegal to hold a cell phone in your hand when you drive. You can only use your device hands-free, and it must be mounted in a very specific way. It can be:

  • Mounted on your dashboard

  • Mounted on the lower right side of your windshield in a 7-inch square area

  • Mounted on the lower left corner of your windshield in a 5-inch square section

  • Mounted in the center console

If the phone is mounted, you can swipe or tap the screen once to activate or deactivate a feature. You cannot swipe several times and input information like words for a text or email. Be careful where you mount the phone, too. It cannot hinder the driver’s view of the road.

The law applies to stop signs and stop lights, too. These are not suitable stops for programming your phone. You must pull over to a safe place to program your phone and be at a complete stop. If you are under 18, you are prohibited from using the phone in the car, even hands-free. These laws are covered more in our state-approved driver’s education program for teens.

Fines and Points for Distracted Driving in California

If you are pulled over and issued a citation, you may pay more than you think. For the first offense, the base fine is $20. For subsequent offenses, it’s $50 for the base fine.

However, there are other state-mandated fees and assessments involved, depending on where you receive the ticket. The state law gives counties the right to impose additional fees to fund courthouse and jail construction. There have been reports of some people receiving as much as a $150 fine on their first violation.

But those fees are about to change. The state passed Assembly Bill 47 in 2019, which raised fines for first offenses. Starting July 1, 2021, minimum fines will increase to $162 for the first offense. You may also have other assessments and fees added to the bill, depending on the city and county where it was issued.

Starting July 1, the California DMV will also assess a point on your driving record if you received a citation in the past 36 months. With points on your record, you could see increases in your insurance rates. You may need to attend a California state-approved traffic school to remove the point.

Distracted Driving Exceptions in California

There are some exceptions to the law. You can use communication systems built into the vehicle, but the same rules about taps and swipes to the screen apply as well.

You can use a handheld device in an emergency to call law enforcement or another emergency service provider. And police, fire, emergency medical units, and tow truck drivers may use their cell phones when they are on duty.

As a California driver, your best assurance against being cited for breaking a distracted driving law is to not use your phone at all when driving. If you have to use your phone, it’s a good idea to brush up on the rules first.

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