Laws Concerning Cell Phones Far Too Vague (CA Vehicle Code 23123 and 23123.5)

In a recent article by SFGate staff writer Jaxon Van Derbeken, ‘the ins and outs of the laws governing cell phone use while behind the wheel of a car,’ is meant to be further clarified.  However, Van Derbeken doesn’t seem able to pinpoint the actual legalities involved, even after what seems like several interviews with Mike Harris of the California Highway Patrol.

What Van Derbeken’s article does serve to show is that it seems to be up to the subjective opinion of the particular law enforcement officer to determine whether or not you have broken the law.  Van Derbeken’s sources seem to believe that it is against the law to drive in a manner that is distracted and this is partially true.  A February 2014 California appeals court decision makes exceptions for consulting a map app while driving (as long as you aren’t holding the phone in your hand while taking a look at it) and Bay Area citizens are already well aware that they could receive a fine if they are caught talking and driving without using a hands-free device.

So, let’s clarify a bit.  California Vehicle Code 23123 (part of the state’s laws on distraction while operating a motorized vehicle) is the law that makes it illegal to drive while using a cell phone, with the exception of using a hands-free device.  Penalties for a violation of this code include a $20 first offense fine and a $50 fine for each subsequent violation.  It does not apply to emergency calls, nor does it apply to driving on private property.  CA Vehicle Code 23123.5 covers texting while driving (writing, reading, and sending are all illegal) and the same penalties and exceptions apply.

The above is the actual letter of the law, but Van Derbeken’s source reminds us that doing anything that a law enforcement officials might deem evidence of distraction while driving could get you into trouble.  However, perhaps these laws should be made more specific in order to accommodate newer technologies and the times.  Also, police officers should be more careful when determining what constitutes distracted driving, it is after all, often dependent upon their personal opinion.  But that doesn’t mean that they will win the day in traffic court.