Safety Laws in California

Child Car Seat

As of January 1, 2012, all children must ride in car seat or booster seat until they are at least 8 years old or at least 4 feet 9 inches tall. In addition, all kids younger than 8 years old, must be secured in the back seat.

Read our How to Buy a Child Safety Seat and How to Install a Child Safety Seat for more details, including information on how the seats differ.

When a Child May Ride in Front

Children may ride in the front seat of a vehicle, but only when:

  • There is no rear seat or the rear seats are either side-facing jump seats or rear-facing seats.
  • The child passenger restraint system cannot be installed properly in the rear seat.
  • All rear seats are already occupied by children under the age of 8 years old
  • A medical reason requires the child to ride in the front seat.

Some vehicles, usually those with no backseats, come with an airbag-off switch for this purpose.

General Seat Belt Laws

With a few exceptions, everyone riding in a car must be contained by an approved safety-restraint system (seat belts and/or safety seats). Some passengers may be exempted from this requirement due to medical issues if they have a letter from their doctor excusing them from the seat-belt law.

Passengers who are at least 16 years old can be cited for failing to comply with the law. Drivers are responsible for their own conduct along with their passenger's behavior, and can be cited for any seat-belt violation that occurs within their vehicle.


  • First offense―$20
  • Subsequent offenses―$50

Helmet Laws

A person under the age of 18 years old must wear a helmet whenever they do anything on wheels. This includes roller or inline skates, non-motorized scooters, skateboards, as well as bicycles.

It cannot be just any old helmet, either. It must be fastened and securely fitted, and meet The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards. This also applies to children in a restraining seat that is attached to a bicycle or in a trailer that is towed by a bicycle. If your child doesn't wear a helmet, you can be fined up to $25.

Motorcycle drivers and passengers of any age must wear an approved safety helmet when riding on a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, motorized bicycle, or motorized scooter.

Headlight Laws

Use your headlights as follows to increase the safety of your driving:

  • When it is cloudy, raining, snowing, or foggy. If weather conditions require you to use your windshield wipers, you must turn on your headlights.
  • On frosty mornings when other drivers' windows may be icy or "fogged."
  • When you have trouble seeing other cars, chances are that other drivers are having trouble seeing you, too.
  • On narrow country or mountain roads, using your headlights helps other drivers see you and may help you avoid a head-on crash.
  • When necessary to get another driver's attention.

Cell Phone Laws

Drivers are required to use hands-free equipment while talking on their cellular telephones. You can stay in compliance by purchasing hands-free kit equipment.

If you are caught violating this law, you will be charged the following fees plus additional penalty assessments:

  • First Offense: $20
  • Any Subsequent Conviction: $50

However, additional fees and additional penalty assessments can end up tripling or more the total fee amount.

The conviction will appear on your driving record, but points will not be added. Also keep in mind, the law still applies if you are visiting the state of California and get caught talking on your phone while operating a vehicle.

Texting while driving also falls under this law.

Text Messaging

As of January 1, 2009 a law against driving while reading, writing or sending a text message went into effect. This applies to all forms of text-based communication, including e-mail and instant messaging.

This law pertains to all drivers, regardless of age or state of residence.

If caught, you will be charged:

  • $20 for first offense.
  • $50 for each subsequent offense.

Be aware that after penalty assessments are weighed in, fines could actually more than triple. According to the Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule, with the addition of penalty assessments, a first offense is $76 and a second offense is $190.

GPS and Other Map Apps

As of February 2014, the court overturned a previous decision and now has ruled that using a cell phone's GPS or other map feature while driving is legal, with or without  a hands-free device while operating a motor vehicle.

Layman's terms? You cannot be ticketed for using your cell phone's GPS or mapping service regardless if you have a hands-free device or not.

Drivers Younger Than 18

It is no secret that teen drivers are significantly more likely to be involved in car accidents. The statistics do not lie. Teen drivers have less driving experience and are easily distracted by passengers, food, talking or texting on their phones― all of which increase the likelihood of causing a serious crash.

While keeping these facts in mind, the state has modified the laws to make sure all drivers younger than 18 years old do not use a wireless telephone, pager, laptop or any other electronic mobile device to speak or text while driving; this applies even if they intend on using a hands-free headset. The only exception to this new rule is in emergency situations to call police, fire or medical authorities.

Drivers age 18 and over

Drivers age 18 years old and over may use the speaker phone function on their cellular telephone, and use a Bluetooth or other earpiece, but both ears cannot be covered.

NOTE: If you are 18 years old or younger, you cannot text-message while driving with any cellphone OR hands-free device.

You are still allowed to use a wireless telephone to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department, or other emergency service agencies. Just be sure to exercise care and use your best judgment. The following best practices will help you drive more safely while using your cell phone:

  • Always drive to the side of the road to use your cell phone.
  • Let it ring. Don't feel compelled to answer.
  • Don't use the telephone during hazardous conditions.
  • Pay attention to the road.
  • Be sensible about dialing.
  • Don't engage in distracting conversations. Rush hour traffic is not the time to hash out marital problems.
  • Use your phone to call for help.

Reporting Unsafe or Drunk Drivers

If you notice someone driving in an unsafe manner, call 911. Report what you saw. Identify the vehicle color, make, model, and license plate number whenever possible.

If you believe a driver is no longer capable of driving safely because of mental or physical impairments, you can file a Request for Driver Reexamination (Form DS 699) to have the CA DMV set up a retesting session.

Leaving Children or Pets Unattended in a Car

It is illegal to leave a child 6 years old or younger unattended in a motor vehicle without the supervision of someone at least 12 years old when:

  • There are conditions that present a significant risk to the child's health or safety. Example: Leaving a child in a closed car on a very hot day.
  • The vehicle's engine is running, the keys are in the ignition, or both. Children can start or move the car causing injuries and/or deaths to themselves or others. An opportunist may (and many have) seize the moment to jump in and drive your car away, child still strapped in.

Violators may be fined and required to attend a community education program. If the child is injured, requires emergency medical services, or dies, then the penalties become more severe.
Also remember that pets also deserve the same care and should not be left unattended in a vehicle on a hot day.

If you see an endangered child or pet, call 911 and stay by the vehicle.

Smoking in a Vehicle with a Minor

As of 2008, it is an infraction punishable by a fine not exceeding $100 for a person to smoke a pipe, cigar, or cigarette in a vehicle when a minor is present. However, you can't be pulled over just for smoking; there has to be another reason. But it will add money to whatever ticket you get.


DS 699

Submit this form to report a potentially unsafe driver.

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