California Distracted Driving

(It's more than just not texting.)

distracted driving in california

There were over 485,866 car accidents last year in California. And most of these were simple distracted driving mistakes that were completely preventable.

That’s why arguably THE most important thing you can do behind the wheel is keep your hands at 10 and 2 and your eyes on the road. Always.

What Is Distracted Driving?

The state of California defines it as “anything that takes your eyes or mind off the road, or hands off the steering wheel – especially when texting or using your phone.” California's state laws are primarily focused on reducing accidents caused by the distractions from cell phones.

Not all distracted driving acts are illegal. You can legally scan for better radio stations or munch on French fries while driving. However, if you're in an accident or commit a moving violation while distracted, you can have a “reckless driving” or “speed too fast for conditions” violation added to your citation.


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Distracted Driving Statistics in California

You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in California:

  • In a recent California Traffic Safety Survey, 59.6% of respondents reported that they had been hit or nearly hit by a driver who was talking or texting at the time.
  • In 2015, a CA observational survey of cell phone and texting use by drivers found that 5.4% of drivers were observed using electronics while drivin.g
  • That same survey, conducted in 2016, saw an increase to 7.6% of drivers distracted by electronics.
  • Citations for handheld cell phone use are significantly above the state average in San Bernardino, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin Counties.

Does California Have Laws against Distracted Driving?


Currently, the state of California prohibits:

  • All drivers from reading, sending, or receiving text messages or communications
  • All drivers from using handheld cell phones and devices
  • Drivers under 18 from using  any cell phones, even hands-free
  • School bus operators and transit bus drivers from using cell phones while driving

California compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions

States that have laws against texting and driving

Every state in the US has a law that prohibits some sort of cell phone usage except Montana and Arizona. But in 2021, newly enacted cell phone restriction laws will go into effect in Arizona.

Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in California?


In California, the following exceptions to the state’s distracted driving laws apply:

  • Text messaging is permitted if done using hands-free voice-to-text technology.
  • Using a cell phone while driving is permitted in emergency situations (such as to call an ambulance or the police).
  • Emergency service professionals are exempt from the cell phone ban while operating an authorized emergency vehicle.
  • California’s distracted driving laws do not apply when you are driving on private property.

California Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance

            Yes             No
Is texting while driving legal?
Can you send/receive texts at a red light?                                                 X
Is handheld device use permitted?                                 X
Any special restriction for young drivers?                 X                 
Is headphone/headset use permitted?

Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger while Driving in California?

Yes and No.

Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on a cell phone. Basically, anything that takes your attention away from the primary task of driving presents a potential hazard. 

So, what happens if a police officer in California spots you eating a cheeseburger while driving down the highway? That depends on the officer and on how you're driving. 

California’s distracted driving laws are written so that if the officer believes you are being distracted by eating (or another other distracting behavior), you can be pulled over.

You are way more likely to be pulled over if you're driving erratically while eating. If this happens, the officer can cite you for “reckless driving” or “driving too fast for conditions” due to the distraction the cheeseburger presented.

Unless you're really in a hurry, you’re better off skipping the drive-thru or eating your cheeseburger in the parking lot.

What Is the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?

Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.  

Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.

California uses both primary and secondary enforcement.

In most cases, the distracted driving laws are subject to primary enforcement, meaning even if you feel you are in total control of your vehicle, you can be pulled over if a police officer spots you sending a text or using a handheld device.

The one exception to the rule applies to drivers under the age of 18. Though it is illegal for drivers under 18 to use a cell phone in any way in California, an officer can only cite someone for violating this law if they have pulled them over for another reason, like running a stop sign or driving erratically.

What Is the Fine for Distracted Driving in California?

The “true cost” fine for violating California’s distracted driving laws is as follows:

  • For a first offense: $162
  • For any following offenses: $285

Points will be added to the driver’s record only if the driver had received another citation for distracted driving within the previous year and a half.

California's fines for distracted driving compared to surrounding states

 The fine for distracted driving in California compared to surrounding states

A distracted driving citation in California can set you back a significant amount of money. Is that text message really important enough to risk getting a ticket? If so, consider pulling over before you pull out your cell phone.

Does Distracted Driving in California Increase Insurance Rates?

Whether your car insurance rates will go up after a distracted driving citation depends on a few factors, like which insurance company you're using, your driving history, and the type of citation you were given.

Points are only added to your driving record if you received a citation in the previous year and a half. These points will have a negative impact on your car insurance rates.

Also, because you can be cited for “reckless driving” or “driving at a speed too fast for conditions” if you are pulled over for engaging in a distracted driving act such as eating or arguing with another passenger, you may find that this violation raises your insurance rates.

What If I Drive into a State with Different Laws?

You may be wondering about how the law affects you if you drive across the border into another state where distracted driving laws may be different.

Nevada doesn't place special restrictions on young drivers the way that California does. Does this mean your teen driver can engage in hands-free calling after they drive over the border? 

Simply put, yes they can. But just because you can legally do something doesn't mean you should. Safety should always come first.

As a driver, you're required to follow the laws of the state you're driving in. State laws are constantly being updated to reduce the number of distracted driving accidents, so be sure to review and familiarize yourself with the laws of the states you will be driving through prior to taking a road trip.

What Is California Doing To Prevent Distracted Driving?

In addition to passing laws against cell phone use while driving in this state, California is also taking measures to reduce the number of distracted driving incidents on its roadways.

The California Office of Traffic Safety started a public awareness and educational campaign called “Put Your Phone Down. Just Drive.”  This campaign is geared mainly toward younger drivers and seeks to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving while providing useful tips for staying safe.


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So What Can You Do?

Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it, let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting for our time at home.

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