Generally, handheld cell phone 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.
California has several laws that deal with distracted driving. However, the distracted driving rules can generally be broken down into cell phone and electronic device use restrictions (which include texting while driving).
California law prohibits all motorists from using a cell phone while driving, except when used in hands-free mode.
California's vehicle cell phone ban doesn't apply when a motorist uses a cell phone 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 cell phone ban while operating an authorized emergency vehicle.
California's distracted driving law prohibits all use of a handheld wireless device while driving unless the motorist operates their 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 cell phones and tablets such as web browsers and GPS while at the wheel.
California's distracted driving law has several exceptions. The law doesn't apply to:
Emergency services personnel are also exempt from the law's restrictions while operating an authorized emergency vehicle.
The penalties for cell phone and texting tickets are the same.
Cell phone and texting tickets are infractions 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.
The DMV will assess one point for cell phone violations that occur within 36 months of a prior conviction.
In California, 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 older. (See above.)
California law prohibits school bus and transit drivers from using a "wireless telephone" while driving. However, the restriction doesn't prohibit these drivers from using a cell phone for work-related or emergency purposes.
Bus and transit drivers who violate the cell phone law can be convicted of an infraction. The offense counts as one point on the driver's record and is punishable by a maximum $250 base fine.
A cell phone violation isn't considered a "serious traffic violation" for commercial driver's license purposes.
For the most part, California's cell phone 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 reason (like speeding) and discovers unlawful use of a hands-free device, the officer can cite the motorist for the violation.