Crime & Justice

FAQ: Driving with a smartphone: What's legal, what's not when behind the wheel in California

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than nine people are killed and more than 1,153 are injured every day due to
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than nine people are killed and more than 1,153 are injured every day due to "distracted driving" or driving while doing another activity.
Lord Jim/Flickr Creative Commons

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials have said that they're looking into reports that cell phone use was a factor in the fatal car crash involving Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star Bruce Jenner on Saturday.

In the aftermath of that accident and many others like it, we decided to look into what drivers can and can't do on their  smartphones by California law.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than nine people are killed and more than 1,153 are injured every day due to "distracted driving," defined as driving while doing another activity. Those activities include using a cell phone and navigation system while behind the wheel. 

It's not yet certain whether cell phone use was a factor in Saturday's fatal four-car collision. And for many, the rules around using a cell phone while driving aren't always clear.

With that in mind, we offer a few answers to your questions on cell phone use in the car. Let us know if you have more in the comments!

When can I use voice activation while driving? 

Voice activation is allowed to call or text as long as your mobile device is hands free

"As long as you're not holding a wireless device, then that's fine," CHP spokesman Kevin Tao said, adding that hands-free use can still be a distraction, even though it's legal.

Can I use my cell phone for an emergency if I do not have a hands-free device?


The law allows calls to be made with a wireless phone to any medical provider, enforcement agency, a fire department or other emergency services agency in the case of an emergency, according to AAA.

Can I text/ use my phone at a red light? 


"If you're the operator of the vehicle you're not supposed to text or use your cell phone anytime you're behind the driver's seat," Tao said.

Can I use voice commands to send a text while driving? 

Yes. So long as your hands are not involved in using the device.

Sending and receiving texts is allowed as long as your phone is an "electronic wireless communications device [that] is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication," according to a California bill passed in 2012. 

Tao added that voice activation commands must be done via a handsfree device. You cannot hold your device to activate voice command. 

Can I change stations or songs using my smartphone while driving? 


"If it requires you to hold the smartphone or any wireless device, then no. You cannot," Tao said.

Am I allowed to type directions into a directions/map app on my phone?

Possibly. (It's complicated.)

CHP officer Mike Harris said this question is more complicated than a simple yes or a no. Especially after a court case was filed in 2013 stating that a driver is not allowed to hold a phone only if they are communicating on it, leaving out holding a phone for GPS purposes. 

"[The court case is] saying that you can in fact look at a navigation-based app on your phone, but where it comes into an issue is you can't do anything in your car if it's making you drive distracted," Harris said. "If you're looking at your navigation on your phone, but yet you are unable to maintain your lane or unable to drive in a safe matter, you're gonna be stopped for that and cited."

What about drivers under the age of 18?

A driver under the age of 18 may only to use a cell phone in case of an emergency, even if they use a handsfree device, Tao said.

"Anyone under the age of 18 is not supposed to have any wireless device turned on in the vehicle," Tao said. "They can have it in the car, but it cannot be on."

If I'm on a my cell phone, and I'm involved in a crash that otherwise would not be my fault (i.e. another driver crashes into me, or the crash was in other ways unavoidable), do I become partly liable? 


Even if you're talking on the phone/texting, as long as the accident is not your fault, you will not be considered liable, Tao said.

"It [using a cell phone] is not what we call a primary collision factor," Tao said. "A primary collision factor would be something like unsafe speed... However, it will be documented on the report."

This story has been updated.