Last updated: September 5, 2015
Distracted driving news: The annual observational study of California drivers showed almost 10 percent were using cell phones in 2015. California’s Office of Traffic Safety and the California Highway Patrol released a study July 14 suggesting a 39 percent increase in the percentage of drivers using the wireless devices compared with 2014. Not all of the use was illegal, as the figure included drivers using hands-free devices. Overall, 5.4% of observed drivers displayed some sort of distracted driving due to device use, compared with 3.8% in 2014. Read the cell phone driving study.
The Senate and Assembly approved a 2014 plan to more than double fines for drivers using handheld electronic devices, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has a history of rejecting increases in California’s distracted driving fines. (Brown did OK an expansion of cell phone laws affecting novice drivers in 2013.) Assemblyman Jim Frazier, now chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, did not refile the legislation for 2015.
California drivers may use their smart phones to check maps and similar functions, an appeals court has ruled. The closely watched court case was brought by a driver ticketed for checking his cell phone’s GPS. He argued, and the court agreed, that the California handheld cell phone law applied only to drivers engaged in a call due to its wording. Read about the Fifth District Court of Appeal distracted driving ruling.
- Adult drivers (18 and older) banned from using cell phones unless they employ hands-free devices.
- Text messaging banned for all drivers. The law prohibits use of electronic devices to “write, send, or read a text-based communication.” Hands-free and voice-controlled texting allowed.
- Drivers under age 18 are prohibited from using wireless phones while driving — with or without hands-free accessories.
- School bus operators and transit bus drivers prohibited from using cell phones while driving.
View the California text messaging law | cell phone law | teen wireless device law
Cell phone and text-messaging fines: The true cost of a distracted driving ticket is $162 for the first offense and $285 for subsequent offenses (source: OTS)
Distracted driving notes (2015):
A San Diego woman received a six-year prison term for killing a young woman on a freeway while driving distracted. The state said Jorene Ypano Nicolas sent more than a dozen text messages and was talking on her phone before she slammed into a stopped vehicle, killing Deanna Mauer. Nicolas was found guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter Aug. 13 and sentenced Sept. 4.
During April’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month, about 250 law-enforcement agencies across California ticketed more than 46,000 drivers using a cell phone while driving — roughly double the number of tickets issued during the average month.
Distracted driving legislation (2013-14):
Assembly Bill 1646: Seeks to hike fine for electronic distracted driving to $50 (first offense) and $100 for subsequent offenses. Adds a demerit point for subsequent offenses. Would add questions related to distracted driving to driver’s license tests. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 13-1 vote of April 28, 2014. Approved by Appropriations in a 16-1 vote on May 7. Approved by the full Assembly in a 68-9 vote of May 15. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a unanimous vote of June 17. Approved by the Senate in a 32-3 vote of Aug. 21. Approved by the Assembly in a 66-13 vote of Aug. 25. Vetoed by the governor Sept. 30, 2014. (Frazier)
Senate Bill 194: For drivers under age 18, would add use of “an electronic communications device” to current ban on all cell phone use. Targets use of voice-operated, hands-free texting technology by drivers under age 18. Approved by the Transportation Committee in an 11-0 vote taken April 2, 2013; public hearing April 15. Approved by the full Senate on April 22 in a 35-3 vote. OK’d by the Assembly’s Transportation Committee in a unanimous vote of June 17. Approved by Assembly Appropriations in a 16-1 vote July 3. Approved by the full Assembly in a 70-4 vote of Sept. 3. Signed into law by the governor Oct. 11, 2013. (Galgiani)
AB 313: Would remove from California texting law the exemptions for voice-operated and hands-free operation. Also seeks to remove exemption for activating or deactivating a feature on a wireless communications device. Rejected by the Transportation Committee in an 8-3 vote of April 8, but reconsidered April 15. Latest legislative action: Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 9-5 vote of April 16. Failed passage in Appropriations on May 1 but reconsideration granted. Hearing of late May “canceled at the request of the author.” Dead. (Frazier)
AB 840: Would add to California driver’s license application an acknowledgement of the dangers of distracted driving. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 10-2 vote of April 16. Approved by Appropriations in a 12-5 vote of May 24. Approved by the full Assembly in a 56-19 vote of May 31. Stalled in Senate Transportation Committee as of late June. Dead as of November 2014. (Ammiano)
2014 distracted driving notes:
Gov. Jerry Brown continued his streak of vetoing any increases to fines for distracted driving. The new penalties under Assembly Bill 1646 — approved by the Assembly and Senate in August — would have been $50 and then $100, with drivers assessed a point vs. their license for serial offenses.
The Office of Traffic Safety says the percentage of drivers actively using cell phones at any one time across the state dropped to its lowest point since counting began in 2011. That’s based on an observational study conducted in March by the UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center.
Law officers in California issued 425,041 tickets last year for cell phone infractions. Texting & driving citations numbered just over 21,0000 in 2012, the California Office of Traffic Safety said.
2013 distracted driving notes:
Caltrans says distracted driving is a clear and present danger for workers in its “cone zones.” Safety officials went public with their concerns after a series of crashes in September. “People feel they can still drive at maximum speeds. They are distracted. They are not getting ready for a change of conditions ahead,” an Office of Traffic Safety spokesman told the Sacramento Bee. Illegal cell phone use is a major concern, OTS said.
The OTS, meanwhile, said its observational study showed a 33 percent drop in the number of drivers holding cell phones to their ears. The percentage of drivers using a cell phone dropped from 10.8 percent in 2012 to 7.4 percent in 2013, which signaled a return to 2011 levels, the OTS reported.
“We are very encouraged to see the usage figures decline, especially after the increase last year,” OTS Director Christopher Murphy said. “But any number is too high.”
The governor has approved legislation that bans all forms of texting for teen drivers. The new law, which addresses an apparent loophole created in 2012, was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 11. It had been easily approved by the Assembly in early September, following up the Senate’s OK of April 2013.
Specifically, the law created by Senate Bill 194 clarifies that the use of voice-operated, hands-free texting technology is prohibited for drivers under age 18. A broadly worded 2012 law backed by the auto industry permitted the hands-free texting and did not exclude younger drivers.
SB 194 comes from freshman Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton. The bill sailed through the full Senate with a vote of 35-3 on April 22 and then the Assembly with a 70-4 vote Sept. 3.
More than 57,000 tickets were handed out for use of handheld wireless devices during the statewide crackdown that coincided with Distracted Driving Awareness Month, officials said.
The California Highway Patrol and about 250 other law enforcement agencies participated in the April sweep. The number of citations was about the same as in 2012, the Office of Traffic Safety said in late May.
Assembly Bill 313 would remove from the texting & driving law the exemptions for voice-operated and hands-free text messaging. The bill from new Assemblyman Jim Frazier was rejected by the Transportation Committee in early April, but reconsidered and approved by the panel April 16. It appears to be dead for the year, however.
The Assembly Transportation Committee quickly rejected a plan to make hands-free texting illegal again, but reconsidered in mid-April. The exemptions for voice-operated and hands-free text messaging were added in 2012 with the so-called Commuter Freedom Bill, and approved by the governor. AB 313 was among the first bills filed by freshman Assembly member Jim Frazier (D-Oakley).
Frazier’s office released a statement from traffic safety expert Richard Harkness saying that the 2012 hands-free texting exemption was “one of the most dangerous traffic laws I have seen in my lifetime.”
April’s statewide crackdown on texting & talking while driving comes under the “It’s Not Worth It!” promo banner. “In a few short years, distracted driving has grown to be a nationwide traffic safety concern,” said Office of Traffic Safety chief Christopher Murphy. “We all need to put forth the effort necessary to put an end to it.”
Joe Simitian, the father of California’s distracted driving laws, has left the state Senate. Simitian, a Democrat, had to step down because of term limits. He is now a Santa Clara County supervisor. Simitian’s win streak with the state’s groundbreaking cell phone and text messaging laws ended as the governor vetoed two of the senator’s attempts to increase fines for electronic distracted driving.
The latest Sacramento-area sweep in the federally funded “Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other” program ran Feb. 25-March 10. In phase 1, high winds and rain probably kept down the number of citations for texting and cell phone use, the California Office of Traffic Safety said. Still, there were 2,923 tickets handed out between Nov. 30 and Dec. 9, 2012. The pilot program is set for another “maximum enforcement period” in the Sacramento region during 2013.
“Drivers should expect to see officers enforcing cell phone driving laws time and time again,” said OTS director Christopher Murphy. OTS was awarded $600,000 in federal transportation funding under the test program, which began in Hartford, Ct., and Syracuse, N.Y., in 2011.
Officers wrote about 3,000 tickets in the region Nov. 30-Dec. 9. Delaware, which also received the federal funding, reported that 1,830 distracted drivers were ticketed statewide in phase 1.
Distracted driving legislation (filed in 2012):
Assembly Bill 1536: Rewrites current law to allow drivers to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication via voice-operated and hands-free enabled devices. Approved by the Assembly in a 69-3 vote taken May 7. Approved by the Senate in a 36-0 vote of June 28. Sent to the governor July 5. Signed into law July 14. (Miller)
Senate Bill 1310: Would increase fines for using handheld cell phones or text messaging while driving in California to $30 (first offense) and then $60. (Current fines are $20/$50.) Would mandate a drivers license point for each offense following the first. Bicyclists included, but fines would be $20/$50 with no additional fees and no points against license. (The Assembly version of the bill deleted the bicyclist provision Aug. 16.) Also would order DMV to test license applicants on knowledge of dangers associated with handheld electronic devices. Would exempt voice-operated texting. Would delete current prohibition on police pulling over suspected distracted driving offenders to determine if a violation has occurred. (Bill originally called for fine increases to $50 (first offense) and then $100.) Approved by the Transportation and Housing Committee on March 27, following the amendment to lower the fine increases. Amended and approved by the Appropriations Committee in a 5-1 vote April 30. The amendment removed exemption for hands-free texting. Approved by the Senate in a 24-9 vote on May 14. To the Assembly. Approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee in a 9-3 vote taken June 12. Amended (to exempt bicyclists) and approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in a 12-5 vote taken Aug. 16. Latest legislative action: Amendments approved by the Senate in 28-9 vote of Aug. 28. Vetoed by the governor Sept. 28, 2012. (Simitian)
2012 distracted driving notes:
Gov. Jerry Brown again vetoed a plan to increase distracted driving fines in California. The Sept. 28, 2012, rejection means two vetoes for distracted driving fine hikes in two straight years.
“Upping the (distracted driving) fines may satisfy the punitive instincts of some, but I severely doubt that it will further reduce violations,” Brown said in his SB 1310 veto message (PDF).
Brown did approve a guarantee that Californians will be allowed to use hands-free technology to text message while driving. The measure was signed into law July 14. Automakers, smartphone makers and creators of various dictation devices are lobbying nationwide for changes in laws and legislation that would allow hands-free and voice-controlled operation of electronic systems.
The Senate’s 28-9 vote of Aug. 28 sent Senate Bill 1310 to Brown, who used every day of the month he was allowed to decide on a veto. Last year Brown vetoed Simitian’s plan to double the fines for driving while texting or using handheld cell phones. The governor cited a burden on “people of ordinary means.”
Electronic distracted driving fines under the vetoed Senate Bill 1310 would have been $30 (first offense) then $60. In the real world, that translated to as much as $251 (depending on county) or $372 out of pocket.
“I believe the current fines and penalties … for cell phone and texting while driving are a powerful deterrent,” Brown wrote in his veto message of Sept. 28 “I have found even a $50 ticket unpleasant enough.”
The increased fine revenue under SB 1310 was intended to establish and fund a distracted driving education program in the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Sponsor state Sen. Joe Simitian said Aug. 28: “This bill (SB 1310) would toughen penalties, add the deterrent of a point on the driving record, and help fund a program to spread the word among those drivers that no text or phone call is worth the cost of a life.” The extra $10 per violation would have gone directly to distracted driving education.
The measure would have extended the restrictions to bicyclists, but an Assembly amendment removed that wording.
Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, pushed through AB 1536, which allows for hands-free texting: “I can relate to the frustration of many Californians who were unable to communicate with friends, family and business partners while driving because it is currently against the law to operate text-based functions while driving,” he said.
Miller called the hands-free texting measure’s passage “a huge victory for commuters.” Read the HandsFreeInfo report: “Hands-free texting OK’d in California.”
April’s distracted driving sweep by law agencies across California resulted in 57,000 electronic distracted driving tickets. Another 3,800 were written for general distracted driving, the Office of Traffic Safety reported May 16. The CHP and 265 local law enforcement agencies conducted the crackdown as part of Distracted Driving Month. The number of tickets is up slightly from 2011’s April numbers.
Fatalities linked to handheld cell phone use fell by 47 percent in the two years after California banned their use by drivers, a new study indicates. Similar reductions occurred in the number of injuries. Deaths associated with hands-free cell phone use also decreased, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety. (Read about the cell phone death reductions.)
State Sen. Joe Simitian, father of the state’s distracted driving laws, “hopes to find common ground with the governor this year” on a plan to toughen penalties for driving while texting or using handheld cell phones. Simitian, D-Palo Alto, saw Gov. Jerry Brown veto his SB 28 in 2011.
Simitian said of the Office of Traffic Safety-funded report showing dramatic reductions in cell phone-related deaths: “It’s clear that most California drivers get it. … But we also know that there are still too many drivers texting and talking on hand-held cell phones. For drivers who still haven’t gotten the message, studies like this help underscore the fact that no phone call or text is worth the cost of a life.” Simitian is a Democrat from Palo Alto.
The DMV reports 460,487 handheld cell phone convictions for 2011, an increase of 22 percent compared with 2010 (361,260) and up 52 percent from 2009 (301,833).
California law enforcement agencies geared up for April’s second National Distracted Driving Awareness Month campaign, “It’s Not Worth It!” More than 200 local law enforcement agencies and 103 CHP offices will be participating. The sweep coincides with California Teen Safe Driving Week, which is the first week of April. The state is using a George Romero-like PSA campaign against “zombie-like behavior” linked to distracted driving. Last year’s April crackdown brought more than 52,664 citations statewide.
A mid-February distracted driving sweep in San Diego yielded 414 tickets. The Highway Patrol and Sheriff’s department partnered on the crackdown. Only three of the tickets went to teen drivers.
The Southern California crackdown on teen distracted drivers of Jan. 27 resulted in 118 citations and four arrests.
The California Highway Patrol’s New Year’s “zero tolerance” sweep of distracted drivers yielded 115 tickets. The Dec. 30-31 crackdown snared 111 drivers for handheld cell phone use, and four for text messaging. Sixteen warnings were handed out. A CHP spokesman said distracted driving violators had become “pretty blatant” in 2011.
2011 distracted driving notes:
California drivers consider cell phone use the No. 1 menace on the roads, followed closely by text messaging. A state traffic safety office survey about roadway perils found that cell phoning and texting by drivers both overtook 2010’s No. 1 worry, “speeding and aggressive driving.” (Read the California traffic safety survey.)
The state Senate and House approved Sen. Joe Simitian’s SB 28, a reprise of his 2010 plan to more than double fines for distracted driving violations. That wasn’t enough: The 2011 bill was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Aug. 15, and he vetoed it Sept. 7.
“I certainly support discouraging cell phone use while driving a car, but not ratcheting up the penalties as prescribed by this bill,” Brown wrote in his veto message.
“For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent.”
Under the Simitian plan, fines for using handheld cell phones or text messaging while driving would have increased to $50 (first offense) and $100. In addition, a point would have been charged against the driver’s license on second and subsequent offenses. A first offense would have cost violators about $310 after court costs. Repeat offenses would have hit $528, plus the point.
San Francisco’s airport (SFO) wants visitors to know the state cell phone and texting laws for drivers. New advisory signs have gone up at auto rental counters as well as at entrances to fleet garages. San Francisco International also will post traffic signs on the garages’ exit ramps and on the exit road, Bay City News reported.
Use of push-to-talk cell phones are no longer legal for use by truck drivers as of July 1, 2011 — in state-speak, that’s “a digital two-way radio that utilizes a wireless telephone that operates by depressing a push-to-talk feature.” Truck and tractor-trailer operators will have to get hands-free accessories to be in compliance, just like the rest of us.
Traffic deaths in the Golden State were down 12 percent in 2010, from 3,081 deaths in 2009 to 2,715 in 2010. California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow said: “Through the behavioral changes of the motoring public, like buckling up, designating a non-drinking driver and eliminating distractions, progress is made daily, resulting in lives saved.” The Office of Traffic Safety announced July 20 that $76 million from federal funding has been awarded, which will be spent on law enforcement crackdowns and education, such as the new peer-to-peer project, Teens in the Driver’s Seat.
California’s monthlong spring crackdown on distracted driving yielded more than 52,664 citations. The sweep came in conjunction with Distracted Driving Month (April). Statewide fatalities were down 7 percent from April 2010, but the Office of Traffic Safety said it wasn’t clear this had anything to do with the cell phone and texting crackdown.
April was the first Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which inspired the California Highway Patrol to run a long-term sweep against violators of the state’s distracted driving laws. More than 100 California Highway Patrol units and 225 police departments established zero-tolerance days for cell phone and texting violations.
The CHP’s yearlong “Adult Distracted Driving II” campaign ran through Sept. 30, 2012. By the time that grant money runs out, 50 distracted driving enforcement operations will have been conducted statewide. Funding originated with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
2011-2012 cell phone, texting legislation:
Senate Bill 28: Seeks to hike fines for using handheld cell phones or text messaging while driving to $50 (first offense) and $100. (Current fines are $20/$50.) Would mandate a drivers license point for each offense following the first. Bicyclists included, but fines would be $20/$50 with no additional fees and no points against license. Similar to Simitian’s SB 1475 from the 2010 session, with these two changes: Point against license assessed only after second violation; texting permitted with “voice-operated, hands-free devices.” The measure provides $10 of each fine to education programs about the dangers of distracted driving.
SB 28 legislative history: Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 6-3 vote on March 29; amended and approved by the Appropriations Committee in a 5-1 vote on April 11. Approved by the Senate in a 24-12 vote on April 25. Latest legislative action: Approved by the Assembly Transportation Committee in a 13-1 vote on June 14. Cleared Appropriations in a 10-5 vote on July 6. Approved by the full House on July 14 and returned to the Senate for its approval of the House’s amendments. Sent to the governor for his approval on Aug. 15. Vetoed by the governor Sept. 7. (Simitian)
2010 distracted driving notes:
Cell phone use by drivers ranked No. 2 in a survey about the biggest safety problems on California’s highways. In Southern California, texting and driving was seen as more of a danger than in the northern part of the state. About 45 percent of respondents said they’d made a mistake while using a cell phone while driving. The state Office of Traffic Safety survey, released in mid-November, was based on interviews with 1,671 drivers at gas stations throughout California. (Speeding and aggressive driving ranked No. 1 on the list of dangers.) Update: In 2011, both cell phone use and texting were seen as more significant dangers than speeding/aggressive driving, which came in third.
The California Highway Patrol’s Coastal Division conducted a two-day sweep on cell phone violations, on Nov. 23 and 24. In the region between Santa Cruz and Ventura, 368 tickets for cell phone use were handed out by the CHP and local law officers. One driver was cited for text messaging.
The California Highway Patrol ran two day-long crackdowns on distracted driving during October 2010. The days were Oct. 5 and Oct. 26. Southern California law officers have been focusing on distracted driving all month.
State Sen. Joe Simitian said he “was at a loss” to explain his SB 1475’s death in committee. “The problem hasn’t gone away and we’ll take a look at it at some point in the future,” he told the Napa Valley Register.
As the 2010 session began, Simitian said he’d “heard repeatedly that the current fines are too modest. They wouldn’t be anymore” under his SB 1475. The senator did back down a bit on the new fines for bicyclists due to protests from riders groups.
Simitian’s law banning drivers’ use of handheld cell phones has resulted in “at least 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year.” He said Feb. 17 that California Highway Patrol data show “an immediate drop” of 40 percent to 50 percent in accidents linked to cell phone use.
“We’ve been able to reduce the number of deaths and crashes even as we’ve seen more drivers and more cell phones out on the highway,” said Simitian.
The percentage of people texting and driving has doubled in Southern California despite the statewide ban on the distracted driving practice, the area’s Auto Club says. Handheld cell phone use remains about the same, the organization reported, based on its “observational” studies in Orange County. Read the story: Auto Club: Texting & driving soaring
The California Highway Patrol says it has issued about 283,000 tickets for use of handheld cell phones (as of mid-September 2010). The CHP also reports a total of 3,742 text messaging tickets. The California cell phone law went into effect July 1, 2008, and enforcement of the texting ban began Jan. 1, 2009.
The CHP reported June 30, 2010: “Cell phones are the leading, identifiable, contributing factor to inattentive driver crashes in California. … “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.”
The CHP writes about two-thirds of the distracted driving tickets issued statewide, at a rate of 12,000 to 14,000 a month.
California’s Central Valley was targeted for a 48-hour distracted driving crackdown in late-September 2010. Almost 2,100 drivers were ticketed for use of handheld cell phones. Texting resulted in 67 tickets.
Bay Area law enforcement agencies and the California Highway Patrol ran a zero-tolerance sweep on distracted drivers during August. Drivers talking talking on their cell phones or text messaging were targeted. The crackdown began Aug. 10, with CHP issuing 348 cell phone violations and two for texting. On Aug. 18, the numbers were 703 and 55.
The Assembly Committee on Appropriations estimates increased distracted driving fines under Senate Bill 1475 would bring in another $32 million annually.
2010 cell phone, texting legislation:
Senate Bill 1475: Would have increased fines for using handheld cell phones or text messaging while driving to $50 (first offense) and $100. (Current fines are $20/$50.) Would mandate a drivers license point for each offense following the first. Bicyclists would be included in the cell phone and texting prohibitions, but fines would be $20/$50 with no points (per amendment of April 6). Allows police to pull over teen drivers suspected of using cell phones. The measure provides $10 of each fine to education programs about the dangers of distracted driving.
SB 1475 legislative history: Amended and approved by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee (April 6, 5-1 vote). Cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee (May 10, 6-3 vote). The full Senate approved the bill on June 3 in a 21-16 vote. Cleared the Assembly Committee on Transportation June 22 in 8-6 vote. Failed to advance in the Appropriations Committee.
Latest action on SB 1475: Dead for the year. (Simitian)
Previous cell phone legislation notes:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 33, the hands-free cell phone bill, into law in September 2006.
State Sen. Joe Simitian had been trying to pass the bill for six years. He was resisted by all of the major cell phone providers except Verizon, although in the end only Sprint protested the action. After SB 33 passed, the senator later succeeded with SB 1613, which places the cell phone and texting limits on teen drivers.
Then Simitian added the ban on text-messaging while driving to the state’s lawbooks in late September 2008, when Schwarzenegger signed the legislation. SB 28 was approved and sent to the governor on Aug. 21, 2008. It took effect Jan. 1, 2009.