California's Text Messaging and Wireless Device Use While Driving Ban

California’s ban on cellphone and wireless device use while driving—it goes beyond text messaging.

In the past, California’s distracted driving law prohibited motorists from using a wireless device to “write, send, or read a text-based communication” while driving, except when used in voice-operated, hands-free mode. While the law clearly covered text messaging, it said nothing about other cellphone and tablet functions. In other words, texting was prohibited, but police couldn’t cite a motorist for browsing the internet or using GPS while driving.

With an amendment that took effect on January 1, 2017, the California Legislature expanded the law to include all uses of wireless devices. The new version of the distracted driving law doesn’t address texting specifically. Instead, the law prohibits motorists from “holding and operating” any wireless device while at the wheel. This more generally wording presumably covers text messaging and all other wireless device functions. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23123.5 (2017).)

Exceptions

Several exceptions are written into California’s distracted driving law. The law permits drivers to:

  • use a wireless device in hands-free, voice-operated mode
  • use a manufacturer-installed system that’s embedded in the vehicle, and
  • turn on or off a mounted GPS, as long as it only takes one tap or swipe to do so (read more about how the law applies to GPS).

Emergency services personnel are also exempt from the law’s restrictions while operating an authorized emergency vehicle. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23123.5 (2017).)

Underage Drivers

For drivers who are under the age of 18, California law prohibits using a wireless device, even when used in a hands-free manner. The only exception is for emergency calls. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23124 (2017).)

(Read more about California’s teen driving laws.)

Penalties

Motorists who violate California’s distracted driving law are guilty of an infraction. The penalty for a first offense is a $20 base fine. For a second or subsequent offense, the base fine is upped to $50. But remember, the base fine is only the beginning of what you'll pay. Once the various assessments are added in, the total for a first violation will likely exceed $150, and a second or subsequent offense can cost over $250. Distracted driving is generally a zero-point offense—meaning, the violation generally won’t affect a person’s insurance rates.

(Find out more about California’s cellphone and wireless device use while driving laws.)

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