California 2019 Traffic Laws

Heavy traffic in downtown San Francisco, California; cars stopped at a traffic light
••• Andrei Stanescu/iStock/GettyImages

If you’re planning to travel or move across state lines, make sure you stay aware of the laws that change from state to state. Since some laws in the United States are created by the federal government and others are set by the states, stay aware of changes in local laws to keep safe. While most of the rules and regulations are self-explanatory and easy to understand, some variations exist from state to state that can catch you unaware, which could lead to a ticket or even an accident.

Federal Traffic Laws

In the United States, traffic laws are set at both the federal and state levels. Federal laws cover all transportation, including any driving that crosses state lines. These include many of the basic traffic expectations we take for granted, including:

  • Speed Limits: Federal law sets a maximum speed limit for roads sorted by type: 25 mph for residential, 55 mph for rural highways, and 70 mph for interstate highways. While states or cities may choose to set speed limits even lower for safety reasons, they cannot set them higher.
  • Pedestrian and Bicycle Laws: Federal law establishes the basic rights for pedestrians and bicycles, including who has the right-of-way and who must yield at crosswalks and intersections.
  • Stoplights and Stop Signs: Federal laws determine the basic rules for signage and signal issues, such as turning right on red, making U-turns at a stoplight, and the like.

The most common driving infractions in the United States include:

  • Driving over the speed limit.
  • Running a red light or stop sign.
  • Illegal U-turn at an intersection.
  • Failure to stop for a pedestrian or a school bus.
  • Failure to yield the right-of-way.
  • Illegally passing another vehicle.

The next steps up are, of course, more serious infractions, such as reckless driving, driving while intoxicated, driving while on a suspended license, and vehicular homicide. The federal traffic laws are in place to protect public safety, but it’s down to the states to determine the penalties within the state and whether the laws need to be more specific.

California Traffic Laws 2019

These laws are interpreted differently from state to state, so for drivers who will be hitting the road in California, a basic outline of California’s specific traffic expectations follows. Keep in mind these are not the only traffic laws. Instead, this is is a highlighted selection of issues that often differ from state to state and how to stay safe while driving in California specifically.

Stop Lights and Signage:

  • You may turn right on red after a full stop and when it is safe to turn unless prohibited by signage.
  • U-turns at stoplights may be taken when safe, unless prohibited by signage.

Pedestrians and Cyclists:

  • Even with a green light, you must yield the right-of-way to any vehicle, bicycle or pedestrian in the intersection. 
  • Pedestrians have the right-of-way even in unmarked crosswalks.
  • Bicycle lanes are clearly marked and should not be used by cars except when crossing into a driveway or a turn. 


  • Headlights should be on in darkness, when windshield wipers are on, and when visibility is poor. 
  • Helmets are required for motorcyclists.


  • It is illegal to block an intersection, whether it is marked or not.
  • Passing on the left and on the right are both allowed, as long as conditions are safe and the road has lanes available.
  • It is illegal to talk on a mobile phone while driving unless the call is hands-free, such as a headset or Bluetooth.

The California Driver Handbook is available online, and it provides extensive information about California driving laws and expectations.

California Traffic Laws 2019

A number of small changes were made to traffic laws in 2019, and both residents and visitors should be aware of the new expectations.

  • Dealer Plates: A license plate law states there must be identifying plates on the front and back of every car. Whereas dealer plates were previously acceptable until official plates were obtained, now temporary plates must be placed on the vehicle before it leaves the dealer’s lot.
  • Smog Checks: Cars don’t require smog checks until they are at least 8 years old.
  • Loud Mufflers: If a vehicle or motorcycle has a muffler that has been modified to produce more noise than normal, the driver will be issued a standard fine and expected to resolve the problem. The so-called “fix-it ticket,” which was a ticket issued previously that would allow the driver to avoid the fine once the problem was fixed, is no longer an option.
  • Cyclist Hit-and-Run: The standard hit-and-run laws have been extended to apply to cyclists as well. This means if a cyclist hits a vehicle and leaves the scene, they could be charged with a felony, just like drivers.
  • Driver’s Test Questions: When issuing the written test for earning a driving permit, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) must have one question involving driving with unsecured loads or loose items.
  • Scooters: The helmet requirements for drivers of scooters have been removed as long as the driver is over 18. Scooters are prohibited from highways with a speed limit over 25mph, as well as any road on which the posted speed limit is over 35 mph with no bike lane. 

CA Penalties for Traffic Violations

California traffic tickets may seem complicated because of the number of things they need to capture. For example, the ticket itself has a fine associated with it ‒ assuming it’s a misdemeanor rather than a felony. However, California charges extra fees on top of that, which means that tickets can be extremely costly.

In addition, drivers who live in California are subject to a points system on their driving records. Depending on the offense, the driver can have points added to their record, which not only increases their insurance costs, but can also eventually cause their license to be revoked.

California adds a 20 percent surcharge to the cost of every ticket ‒ meaning a fine of $100 will cost $120. A number of fees also can be applied, depending on the offense. Penalties from the county, state, emergency medical services and other bodies may apply. This means a seemingly simple ticket of $20 can end up costing over $150, which means a base fine of $100 can cost over $500 once penalties and fees have been assessed.

Read More: List of Major Traffic Violations

Traffic Violations in California

In general, traffic violations follow simple rules. A first traffic offense is punishable by a fine up to $100; the second offense within a year can cost up to $200; and a third within a year can cost up to $250. Specific offenses have more severe penalties, and if the violation is a misdemeanor rather than an infraction, the penalty can include jail time and loss of license. Some violations will also carry points that are added to the driver’s record and remain there for a set period of time.

Since tickets can end up more costly than expected, it’s best to stay aware of the current driving laws and any recent changes. This will help you stay safe during your travels. See the California DMV website for additional details.

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