California State Laws: Driving and Car Insurance
Before you motor down the Pacific Coast Highway, check out these laws to make sure you comply.
California is an at-fault state, which partially explains its relatively low car insurance rates. In at-fault states, the at-fault driver is responsible for all of the injuries and property damages, which is why liability coverage is a requirement.
In terms of negligence laws, California is a pure comparative negligence state, which means that the victim can recover money for their injuries even if they were negligent on any level.
Drivers Without Insurance
Although uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage isn’t a requirement in California, companies are required to offer it. That makes sense, as 17 percent of California drivers are uninsured, the Insurance Research Council estimated in 2019. That means about 4.5 million drivers in California lack car insurance, making the state 10th in the nation when it comes to the proportion of uninsured drivers.4
Unfortunately, even if you have multiple cars on a policy with uninsured motorist coverage, California isn’t a stacking state, so the limits will remain the same regardless of the number of cars.
California has strict DUI laws. DUIs will stay on your record for 10 years, with a four-month license suspension for the first offense.
DUI interlocks are mandatory for DUI convictions in the counties of Los Angeles, Tulare, Sacramento, and Alameda, though they’re discretionary everywhere else. You must have a DUI interlock installed for a maximum of three years. Overall, penalties are worse if your blood alcohol concentration is 0.15 percent or above.
Seat Belt Laws
Everyone ages 16 and older is required to wear a seat belt in California, no matter what seat they’re in. This law is under primary enforcement, so police officers can stop you for not wearing a seat belt alone.
Distracted Driving Laws
No one is allowed to use handheld devices while driving in California, which covers texting and driving as well as any form of distracted driving. There are fines for texting and driving in California.
- First offense: $20
- Subsequent offenses: $50
You’ll also get one point per violation, with primary enforcement for drivers 18 and older and secondary enforcement for minors (drivers younger than 18).5
Teen Driver Laws
Speaking of minors, the laws look different if you have a provisional license. For the first year, minors with provisional licenses can’t drive between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. They also can’t transport people under age 20 unless they’re accompanied by one of these parties:
- A licensed parent or guardian
- A California driver at least 25 years old
- A certified driving instructor
Statute of Limitations for Claims
In California, you have three years after an accident to file a claim for property damage, or two years for personal injuries. Beyond those time windows, you won’t get coverage for claims.
Cancellation and Non-Renewal Policies
Every state has laws surrounding the cancellation and non-renewal of car insurance policies. In California, insurance companies must notify you of a midterm cancellation or non-renewal at least 20 days before the policy’s expiration date. However, if the company is canceling your policy because you haven’t paid your premiums, that window shortens to 10 days.
Self-insurance is an option in California in these cases:
- You give $35,000 in cash to the state’s DMV.
- You make a $35,000 surety bond with a company licensed to do business in California.
Most people will prefer the standard personal car insurance route (unless you’ve got $35,000 to spare).
Smog Inspection Requirements
California is known for its smog, which is why your car has to pass a smog inspection when you register a new vehicle or renew your registration. There are some exceptions, however:
- Diesel-powered vehicles 1997 and older or with a gross vehicle weight over 14,000 pounds
- Electric vehicles
- Gas-powered vehicles less than 8 years old
- Gas-powered vehicles 1975 and older
- Vehicles that are powered by natural gas or weigh over 14,000 pounds
Although every driver in California needs insurance, if you were convicted of certain crimes or had your license suspended, you may need to carry an SR-22, a form that proves your minimum coverage, for three years. Here are some instances in which you’d be required to have an SR-22:
- You’re reinstating your driving privileges after a DUI or a wet-reckless suspension or revocation.
- You were in an accident and uninsured.
- You’re reinstating your driving privileges after the DMV suspended or revoked your license because it declared you a negligent operator, meaning you had too many points on your driving record within a certain period.6