California Texting Laws

California Distracted Driving Laws

  1. Handheld ban for all drivers (Primary Law).
  2. Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for bus drivers (Primary Law).
  3. Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers (Secondary Law).
  4. Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law).

California’s Texting While Driving Stand

Several years ago California passed a distracted driving law making it illegal to use or employ hand-held electronic communication devices while driving. The California Highway Patrol has actively enforced the law and California State Senator Joe Simitian has, for the second time, filed a proposed law to strengthen the ban on cell phone talking and texting.

California provisions currently state that adult drivers can only use cell phones if they are a hands-free device. Drivers are not allowed to use a cell phone or other device to write send or read a text-based communication. Minors under the age of 18 are prohibited from using cell phones while driving, even if a minor has a hands free device. Transit and school bus drivers are prohibited from using cell phones while driving.

Concerning texting, the current California law prohibits texting in any form by the driver of a vehicle. The current version of the hands-free cell phone legislation was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on August 21, 2008, and went into effect on January 1, 2009.

The fines for using a cell phone or texting while driving are $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent tickets of the same offense. With court costs, the total cost to a driver is $76 for the first offense and $190 for subsequent cell phone tickets, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Bills proposed by State Senator Simitian would increase the cell phone fines to $50 and $100 plus add one license point for each ticket after the first. The bill would expand the cell phone and texting usage ban to bike riders with the $20 and $50 fine structure. Additional clauses in the bill would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to include test questions concerning cell phone usage in license tests and allow the use of hands-free texting technology. The current prohibition on law enforcement prohibiting officers from stopping suspected distracted drivers to check for cell phone use would be lifted. A proposed law with nearly identical features was passed by the California House and Senate in 2011 but vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Gov. Brown stated he believes the current penalty rates are a sufficient deterrent and high fine rates would be an unnecessary hardship on drivers convicted of driving and talking or texting.

According to a 2011 traffic safety survey performed by the state, California residents believe cell phone usage is the number one hazard on California roads. Texting was a close second place. In 2010 the top concern of California drivers was speeding and aggressive driving. The higher awareness of the dangers of cell phones and texting while driving comes as the state is cracking down on usage since the law was passed. The state DMV reports 301,833 tickets were written in 2009, the first year the law was in effect. In 2010, the number of cell phone use tickets increased by 52 percent to 361,260. For 2011, law enforcement continued to focus on cell phone users and the number of tickets went up by 22 percent to 460,487. The California Highway Patrol writes approximately two-thirds of the distracted driver/cell phone use tickets. CHP officers write 12,000 to 14,000 tickets a month.

The California Highway Patrol – CHP – is in the middle of a year-long campaign titled “Adult Distracted Driving II” aimed at enforcing the cell phone and texting ban in all parts of the state. The campaign was funded with grant money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A recent study found that the new law reduced the number of deaths attributed to cell phone use by 47 percent, while injuries from accidents due to phone use declined by a similar amount. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, fatalities associated with the use of hands-free cell phones have also decreased.

To promote awareness of the cell phone law and reduce the number of traffic accidents from cell phone and texting use, the state and numerous local official agencies have made special efforts to raise awareness and enforce the law. Some examples of this include:

  • April 2011 was the first California “Distracted Driver Awareness Month”. 100 CHP offices and over 250 police departments established zero-tolerance policies for cell phone and texting use. Reported traffic fatalities in the month were 7 percent lower than for April 2010.
  • The San Francisco airport has put up advisory signs to make drivers aware of the cell phone ban law. The signs are located at the car rental desks, garage exit ramps and the exit road from the airport. This effort was reported by Bay City News.
  • In February 2012, the San Diego police department teamed up with CHP to perform distracted driving sweeps. From the effort 414 tickets were written, however, only 3 tickets went to teenage drivers.
  • A cell phone use crackdown on January 27 in Southern California produced 118 tickets and 4 arrests.
  • In September, the California Central Valley was subjected to a two-day targeted crackdown on phone use. Almost 2,100 drivers received tickets for using cell phones and 76 tickets were handed out for texting.

In a 2010 survey concerning the biggest driving dangers in California, cell phone use ranked number two. Using cell phones and texting was viewed as a bigger danger by the residents of Southern California than by those living in Northern California. The California Office of Traffic Safety survey is released in November of every year. The survey is conducted by interviewing approximately 1,600 California drivers at gas stations in all parts of the state. As previously noted in the 2011 survey, cell phone usage moved to the top of the list detailing driving dangers; texting while driving was rated as the number two hazard.

State Sen. Simitian is considered to be the original force behind the current cell phone ban legislation. He said that the law has resulted in “at least 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year.” He also notes the CHP data showed an immediate 40 to 50 percent drop in accidents attributed to cell phone use. The senator continues to put forward legislation to strengthen the cell phone law and increase the level of fines. He believes the current fine amounts are too low to be an effective deterrent.

One unintended consequence of the ban on cell phone talking while driving is an increased amount of texting while driving. The Southern California Auto Club has stated the amount of texting while driving has doubled in Southern California since the cell phone ban went into effect. The Auto Club also reports (based on observational data) that the amount of hand-held cell phone use remains at about the same level as before the law went into effect at the start of 2009. These reports seem to be counter-evidence that a law prohibiting drivers from talking on cell phones or texting has had a large effect on the actual habits of drivers.

In June 2010, the California Highway Patrol reported that cell phone use was the leading factor in inattentive driver crashes in the state. The report stated, “There have been more than 1,200 collisions throughout the state where a contributing factor was inattention by the driver due to cell phone usage. Those same collisions resulted in 16 fatalities and more than 850 victims injured.” Eliminating the use of handheld cell phones and texting devices while driving will remain as a high safety priority in the state of California.