California Cellphone Use & Texting While Driving Laws

Read about California’s distracted driving laws and the penalties for a violation.

Generally, handheld cellphone use, including text messaging, is banned for all California drivers. And for school bus drivers and motorists under the age of 18, all cellphone use (with certain exceptions) is prohibited, regardless of whether hands-free technology is used.

Talking on a Cellphone

California law prohibits all motorists from using a cellphone while driving, except when used in hands-free mode.

Penalties. Unlawful use of a cellphone while driving is an infraction in California. A first offense results in a $20 base fine, and for a second or subsequent offense, the base fine is $50. But be mindful that the actual amount you’ll pay once assessments are added will be significantly more than the base fine. The total for a first violation will likely exceed $150, and a second or subsequent offense can cost over $250. However, unlawful cellphone use is a zero-point traffic violation, so a conviction shouldn't affect a motorist's insurance rates. (Read about California’s traffic violation point system.)

Exceptions. California’s vehicle cellphone ban doesn’t apply when a motorist uses a cellphone while driving on private property or places a call for emergency purposes (such as calling for an ambulance or other emergency services). Emergency service professionals are also exempt from the cellphone ban while operating an authorized emergency vehicle.

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

Texting and Other Uses of Wireless Devices

California’s distracted driving law prohibits all use of a handheld wireless device while driving, unless the motorist operates a device in voice-operated, hands-free mode. A previous incarnation of the law restricted only “text-based” communications, but the current version covers all wireless device functions. So the law bans not only text messaging but also using other features of cellphones and tablets such as web browsers and GPS while at the wheel.

Penalties. A violation of California’s distracted driving law is an infraction. Convicted motorists face a $20 base fine on a first violation and a $50 base fine for a second or subsequent offense. Distracted driving is a zero-point offense, so a conviction shouldn't affect a motorist’s insurance rates.

Exceptions. California’s distracted driving law has several exceptions. The law doesn’t apply to:

  • emergency services professionals while operating an authorized emergency vehicle
  • any driver who uses a hand to turn on or off a mounted GPS, so long as only one tap or swipe is required to do so (read more about the law as it applies to GPS), or
  • any driver who uses a manufacturer-installed system that’s embedded in the vehicle.

Read more about California’s text messaging ban.

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

Underage Drivers

Special rules apply to drivers who are under 18 years old. These underage motorists are entirely prohibited from using wireless devices while driving, even if the device is in hands-free mode. The only exception to this restriction is for calls placed for emergency purposes. The penalties for a violation are the same as those that apply to drivers who are 18 years old or over. (See above.)

Find out more about California’s teen driving laws.

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

Bus Drivers

California law prohibits school bus and transit drivers from using a “wireless telephone” while driving. However, the restriction doesn’t prohibit such a driver from using a cellphone for work-related or emergency purposes.

Bus and transit drivers who violate the cellphone law are guilty of an infraction. The offense counts as one point on the driver’s record and is punishable by a maximum $250 based fine. However, a cellphone violation isn’t considered a “serious traffic violation” for commercial driver’s license purposes.  

(Cal. Penal Code § 19.8 (2017); Cal. Veh. Code § 23125 (2017).)

How Police Enforce Cellphone Use and Texting Laws

For the most part, California’s cellphone and distracted driving laws are considered “primary” offenses—meaning a police officer can pull you over for a violation. But California’s ban on hands-free device use for underage drivers is a “secondary” offense. So, an officer can’t stop a driver based solely on a suspected violation of the underage hands-free law. However, if an officer detains an underage motorist for some other legitimate reasons (like speeding) and discovers unlawful use of a hands-free device, the officer can cite the motorist for the violation. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23124 (2017).)

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