Guide to The Law for Drivers in California
Here are the California traffic laws that you need to know. The following rules generally only apply to public streets, not necessarily private property.1The code usually makes reference to the “highway” which is defined as essentially any public street, Vehicle Code Section 360 They also generally apply to all vehicles, including motorcycles, bicycles, motorized scooters aka “mopeds,” and more (see below for details).
Car burglaries are an increasing problem in many cities in California. But it’s difficult to prosecute offenders, because you need to prove that the car was locked. Lawmakers are looking to change that.
What could happen if you drive without a license or with a suspended/revoked license?
Police can arrest you immediately and take your car away.2CA Veh Code Sec 14602.6
Can I drive my car if I applied for but haven’t received my new registration card and sticker?
Yes, there is a grace period for receiving mailed stickers, license plates, and registration.3California Vehicle Code Section 4606
Do I need a license plate on the front and the back of the car?
Yes, California requires two license plates for each car, one on the front, and one on the back.4California Vehicle Code Section 5200
What is the requirement for having car insurance?
You must have liability insurance, which covers the damage you cause to others (you’re not required to have collision or other types, which would cover damage to you or others that isn’t your fault). You also must carry proof of this insurance in your car and show it to a police officer upon request.5Cal Veh Code Sec 16020; 16028
If you fail to do so, you may receive a fine of up to $200+ additional fees, plus your car could be “impounded” (temporarily taken from you).6Cal Vehicle Code Sec 16029
What is the rule on passing cyclists?
You must give cyclists at least 3 feet of space at all times.7CA Veh. Code Sec. 21760 See more on rules for cyclists.
What are the rules on seatbelts?
Most people know that it is illegal to drive without a seatbelt; but you may not know that it is also illegal to drive unless all passengers 16 years of age or over are “properly restrained by a safety belt.” (Note: does NOT apply to taxis)8CA Veh Code Sec. 27315 See here for seatbelt/safety seat rules regarding driving your children.
Am I required to stop for a sobriety checkpoint?
Drivers are required to stop and submit to sobriety checkpoints. If police find you have higher than legal blood-alcohol content, they can impound your car for 30 days. However, they can’t do this if your only offense is failing to hold a valid driver license.9CA Vehicle Code Sec 2814.2
What are the rules on honking?
The only circumstance in which you are allowed to honk is to give a warning “when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation.” In fact, it is REQUIRED in this situation.10CA Vehicle Code Sec. 27001
2. Car accidents & related issues
What do I do if I get into an accident?
See our Steps to Take After a Car Accident.
What is the requirement for reporting accidents?
See our Guide to the Law for Car Accidents.
What is the pedestrian right of way?
Pedestrians11which includes human powered vehicle (other than bikes), such as skateboards, See CVC 467 do NOT always have the right of way (though practically speaking, it’s usually a good idea to let them go first). They have the right of way only at crosswalks (marked or unmarked) and intersections.1221950 and 21952
3. Alcohol, drugs, and smoking while driving
What are the laws on DUIs?
See our Alcohol page.
Is it illegal to smoke pot or be high on marijuana or other drugs while driving?
Yes, see our Drugs page for details.
Is it illegal to smoke cigarettes while driving?
You may not smoke in a car when anyone younger than 18 years old is inside (aka child, minor, etc).13CA Health & Safety Code Sec 118948 See Guide to Smoking Laws for more.
What are open container laws?
It is illegal for both drivers and passengers to:
- drink alcohol in a car14Vehicle Code Sec 23221 or use marijuana in a car15Vehicle Code Sec 23221
- possess an open container of alcohol in a car,16Sec 23222, 23223 meaning any container that has been opened, or where the seal has been broken, or when any alcohol has been removed in any way, even if the container is now closed; or possess any cannabis or marijuana in an unsealed container (except if you have a license for medical marijuana)17Sec 23222
- store or keep an open container in a car, except for the trunk18Sec 23225, 23226
EXCEPT that you may do any of these things as a passenger in a private bus, taxi, limo, or pedicab. (Note: this may or may not apply to Uber/Lyft, etc; it hasn’t yet been determined)19Sec 23229 A few more laws apply to drivers or passengers under 21.20Sec 23224, 23229.1
4. Distracted Driving; Reckless driving; Driving and cell phones
Is it illegal to do “donuts” or other stunts with your car?
If it endangers anyone nearby, then yes, this would be considered reckless driving, and it is illegal.
It is also illegal to create a “sideshow,” which is defined as “an event in which two or more persons block or impede traffic on a highway, for the purpose of performing motor vehicle stunts, motor vehicle speed contests, motor vehicle exhibitions of speed, or reckless driving, for spectators.”21AB3
Is “driving while distracted” actually illegal?
While there is no general “distracted driving” law in California, police often cite people for things like applying makeup or changing clothes while driving based on a law prohibiting unsafe speed for the conditions.22Cal Veh Code Sec 22350; LA Times article on distracted driving So even if you are driving below the speed limit, you can be cited for distracted driving because it is unsafe to drive at any speed while you are doing these things. The more specific distraction of using your cell phone while driving is covered under its own law (see below).
What exactly are the laws regarding using my phone while driving, such as texting or making calls?
If you are over 18 years old: While driving in California, you may not touch a cell phone, tablet, or other communications device for any reason, except to make a quick swipe or tap, but only when mounted on the dashboard or windshield. The only exception is in an emergency.
If you are under 18, you may NOT use either handheld OR hands free device while driving. The only exception is in an emergency.23CA Vehicle Code Sec. 23123, 23123.5, 23124
Penalty: Although the base penalty for a first violation of driving while using your phone is $20, when administrative fees are added in, it comes to a minimum of $159.24Contra Costa Times on administrative fees
For distracted driving or driving while using a cell phone, is it OK to do these things while stopped at a red light?
No. The law prohibits “operating” a vehicle while doing these things, which includes being stopped at a red light.25People v Nelson, CA Court of Appeal (2011)
Is it illegal to drive recklessly?
Yes, reckless driving is when you drive without regard to the safety of people or property. The punishment is up to 90 days in jail and/or fine of up to $1,000.26Vehicle Code Sec 23103
5. More rules for drivers under 18
For the first 12 months, a driver under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a licensed parent or guardian, an instructor or another licensed driver who is at least 25 years old, during the following situations:
- Carrying passengers who are 20 years old or younger
- Driving between 11 pm – 5 am
But there are some exceptions. For more, see this KPCC article.
6. Rules for driving with young children
Check out our Guide to Laws for Parents for more on this.
7. Parking rules
See our Parking page.
8. Red Light Cameras
Are red light cameras still being used and enforced against people who run red lights?
In some cities, the cameras are still in use, including the cities of Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, and some parts of LA County, particularly at Metro stops. But the city of Los Angeles ended its red light photo enforcement program.
However, even for the cities that continue to use red light cameras, you may be able to ignore the tickets without much consequences.
9. Licenses & permits
What is the minimum age to get a drivers license?
16, but for the first year after you get your license, it is considered a “provisional license,” with certain restrictions (see KPCC article)
If I am from another state or country, can I drive in California?
If you are a visitor to California from a foreign state or country, you may drive in California without a California license as long as you have a currently valid driver’s license from your home state or country. Once you become a resident, you will need to get a California driver license within 10 days. See more here.
Can an undocumented immigrant get a drivers license in California?
Yes, if they meet certain qualifications.27CA Veh. Code Sec 12801.9
Do I need a special license to drive for my job or business?
Not necessarily. You will need a “commercial license” only if you are driving a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV), which is a vehicle used or maintained to transport people for hire, such as a taxi or bus; or a vehicle designed, used, or maintained primarily to transport items, such as a truck or pickup.28Veh Code Sec 260 See more here.
Do I need any license to operate a tractor?
10. Other modes of transportation
Do laws for driving vehicles apply to riding horses?
Yep, even DUIs (and someone recently found that out the hard way). If you ride your horse (or other animal) on a public street, all the same laws apply as driving a car (except those that can’t possibly apply to an animal).30Vehicle Code 21050
Do driving laws apply to riding a bike or operating a pedicab?
Yes.31Vehicle Code 21200 See more at our Guide to Laws for Cyclists.
Do driving laws apply to other types of vehicles?
Yes, they generally apply to motorized scooters aka “motor scooters” or “mopeds,”32CVC 21220 which you can find out more about at our Guide to Laws about Scooters.
Yes, they apply to motorcycles,33defined as a motor vehicle in Vehicle Code Section 400 motorized bicycles, and motor-driven cycles, which have additional rules here. They also apply to “low speed vehicles” aka “neighborhood electric vehicles,”34CVC 21251 which have additional rules here.
They do not apply to hoverboards aka “electrically motorized boards,” (not the same thing as motorized skateboards, which are illegal on public roads). You can find hoverboard rules here. They also do not apply to electric wheelchairs (aka motorized wheelchairs or power wheelchairs), and you can find motorized wheelchair rules here.
And off-road vehicles like racing motorcycles, trail bikes, mini bikes, dune buggies, all–terrain vehicles, jeeps, and snowmobiles, if operated only off public roads, do NOT have to follow most of the Vehicle Code. But they most likely most be registered.
Can I ride a bike or motorcycle while being towed by a car?
No. You can’t ride any of the following while being towed by a car: motorcycle, motorized bicycle, bicycle, coaster, roller skates, sled, or toy vehicle.35CVC 21203
Do I need to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle?
Yes, both the driver and passenger must wear a helmet on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle.36CVC 27803
Are motorcycles legally allowed to do “lane-splitting”?
Yes, as long as it is done safely.37CVC 21658.1
Can police search my car?
The police can only search your car if you have been lawfully arrested, or if they have a warrant. See our Guide to Police Conduct for more.
12. Uber and Lyft
What are the laws regarding Uber and Lyft?
See our Guide to Laws for Uber and Lyft.
Laws about Alcohol in California
Laws for Cyclists in California
See all Legal Guides