Everything you need to know about driving in the Golden State
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Because of states’ rights, driving laws and car insurance look very different depending on what state you’re in. In California, for example, auto insurance companies can’t discriminate based on credit scores or gender when it comes to premiums, a rarity in the U.S. That’s good news for California’s 27.2 million licensed drivers, who pay less than 1 percent more for car insurance premiums than the rest of the country on average.
California only requires liability insurance, which includes bodily injury coverage and property damage coverage. Here are the minimum liability limits, otherwise known as the minimum car insurance in California:
Minimum auto insurance coverage isn’t enough. You should also get comprehensive and collision coverage, uninsured motorist coverage, and medical payments coverage for your injuries and damages, plus any accidents with an uninsured or underinsured driver.
|Type of coverage||Whose losses does it cover?||What does it cover?||Minimum limit we recommend||Deductible?|
|Bodily injury coverage||Other party’s||Medical costs (injury or death)||$500,000||No|
|Collision coverage||Yours||Damages from collisions||Actual market value of car||Yes|
|Comprehensive coverage||Yours||Damages from incidents other than collisions (weather, theft, vandalism, etc.)||Actual market value of car||Yes|
|Medical payments coverage||Yours||Medical costs (injury or death)||$500,000||No|
|Property damage coverage||Other party’s||Property damages||$500,000||No|
|Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage||Yours||Property damages and medical costs||$500,000||No|
On average, the cost of living in California is 33 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S. across categories such as groceries, healthcare, housing, and even transportation.
|Category||California’s cost-of-living index||Percentage difference from the national average|
While many people think car insurance in California is expensive, car insurance costs in California are actually less than 1 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S., with annual average rates of $1,050. This breaks down into these average insurance costs:
While $1,047 stands as the annual average, we’ve seen rates range from $360 all the way up to $2,105 a year for young drivers. Many factors affect the cost of insurance, from your driving record to your ZIP code (although not your credit score or gender, as we’ll see later).
Here are the car insurance companies you can choose from in California:
To find the cheapest car insurance in California:
You may not need insurance on a car that doesn’t run, especially if you’re not planning on driving it again. For the time being, you could drop collision insurance and property damage coverage, but keep comprehensive coverage to cover incidents such as auto theft and vandalism.
When you’re driving in California, you’ll need proof of insurance, be it a physical ID card or a digital ID in an app. You could face penalties if you’re caught driving without insurance, which are based on whether it’s your first offense.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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:
Most people will prefer the standard personal car insurance route (unless you’ve got $35,000 to spare).
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:
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:
A wet-reckless charge is any alcohol-related charge. It applies even if you’re under the legal limit, there was no accident, and/or you had no prior DUIs, accidents, or tickets.7
Some car insurance providers offer discounts for taking a defensive driving course. You can find one here: https://www.dgs.ca.gov/ORIM/Services/Page-Content/Office-of-Risk-and-Insurance-Management-Services-List-Folder/Enroll-in-Defensive-Driver-Training.
The courses are free, only take about two hours, and could get you lower insurance rates.
In California, there’s no monetary or serious injury threshold to sue for noneconomic damages. In other words, no matter how much money you lost or how light your injuries were, you still have the right to file a civil suit following a car accident.
California does have accident reporting requirements, however. If an accident results in property damage, death, or injuries worth over $1,000, you must report it within 10 days. If you don’t, you risk spending 90 days to four years in prison and paying fines of $1,000 to $10,000.
California is one of the few states where it’s illegal for car insurance companies to base pricing on credit scores or gender. No matter how bad your credit is, it won’t affect your car insurance rates, and neither will being a male or female.
In California, a car is declared a total loss if the salvage value is less than the cost of the repair. In that case, if you have collision or comprehensive coverage, you’ll be reimbursed for your car’s actual market value so you can replace it.
Whether you need to register your car in California, get a duplicate title, or ask other questions, we’ve collected all of the information you need below.
You can register your car or renew its registration either in person at your local DMV or online. You can find the nearest DMV here: https://www.dmv.ca.gov/wasapp/vrir/start.do?localeName=en.
However, you won’t be able to renew your registration online if:
Before you register your vehicle or renew its registration, you’ll need proof of car insurance. If you don’t have it, your registration will be suspended, meaning you can’t drive or operate your vehicle on California’s roadways until you submit proof.
There are multiple ways to contact California’s DMV.
Follow these steps to get a duplicate car title:
If you’re disputing a claim, you may need to contact California’s insurance department. Use the information below to get in contact.
Despite its relatively low car insurance costs, California’s car repair costs are 7 percent higher than the national average at $414.24 for parts and labor. On average, that breaks down into $266.86 for parts and $147.38 for labor.
Unfortunately, California ranks higher than average in car theft and traffic fatalities.
As a state, California had 428 car thefts per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, making car theft 42 percent more common here than in the rest of the nation. The rate is even higher than that in many California cities, particularly Bakersfield. This city has the highest car theft rates of anywhere in the country, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
|City in California||Number of auto thefts per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020|
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara||551|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim||482|
Sadly, California had 2,606 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2019, a traffic fatality rate that sits 80 percent above the national average. When it comes to the rates of traffic fatalities, California is second in the nation (after Texas).
If California is just a pit stop on your road trip, read our state driving guide, which has statistics on DUIs, tickets, car accidents, and more. And be careful on those roads, as California is known for its car culture and high traffic.
Learn even more about driving in California in these answers to common questions.
Car insurance costs an average of $87 per month in California, according to the most recent (2020) data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. That’s less than 1 percent higher than the national average.
The basic car insurance coverage in California is $15,000/$30,000/$5,000, meaning $15,000 of bodily injury liability per person, $30,000 of bodily injury liability per accident, and $5,000 of property damage liability.
Car insurance is not high in California. In fact, it costs less than 1 percent more than the national average, according to 2020 data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. On average, Californians spend only $1,050 on car insurance annually.
California does not require full-coverage car insurance, which includes not only liability coverage but also collision, comprehensive, and medical payments coverage. California requires liability only, which includes bodily injury and property damage coverage.
INSURANCE REQUIREMENTS. California Department of Motor Vehicles. (2022).
Cost of Living Data Series. Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. (2021).
2019/2020 Auto Insurance Database Report. National Association of Insurance Commissioners. (2023, Jan).
One in Eight Drivers Uninsured. Insurance Research Council. (2021, Mar 22).
ARTICLE 1. Driving Offenses [23100 – 23135]. California Legislative Information. (2018).
SR22 California – What is it? When do I need it? How do I get one? Shouse California Law Group. (2022). https://www.shouselaw.com/ca/dui/laws/sr22/
wet reckless. Cornell Law School. (2022).
NICB ‘Hot Spots’: Auto Thefts Up Significantly Across the Country. National Insurance Crime Bureau. (2021, Aug 31).