We could all use a refresher course in California's driving laws and vehicle codes.
Despite increasingly strict rules for teen drivers, the number of hoops you need to jump through to get behind the wheel of a two-ton road weapon in this state is pretty low compared to countries like Germany and Finland, the latter of which includes a driving-on-wet-streets test. There, righting an out-of-control car is taught to the newest of drivers.
Back in the comparatively dry Golden State, we're lucky if even veteran motorists know the law. We talked to the DMV, the California Highway Patrol, the state Office of Traffic Safety, and traffic lawyer Mark Gallagher to give you a refresher course in some of our relatively obscure or well-abused rules:
10. The DMV's window stickers do not protect you from police. You're late with your registration. You go to your friendly neighborhood DMV, write a check, and hope the license plate registration sticker will soon be in the mail. In the meantime, the lady at the counter gives you a red-and-white piece of paper to stick to your window. This will do for now, she says.
Not really, says attorney Mark Gallagher. Sure, it may keep you from getting a ticket for registration expiration. But unfortunately, thanks to court precedent, those window registration documents are actually an invitation for cops to pull you over and sniff around. He says police can stop you just for having the sticker in your window.
“Courts have ruled it's enough probable cause to pull you over,” he says. “It's a flashing red light for cops.”
9. Exiting the carpool lane when you see a cop is dumb. One of the biggest mistakes Gallagher sees among his clients is the quick lane switch out of the carpool lane when they're driving solo and think they've been spotted by an officer. Why? They probably just crossed a double yellow line, which turns what was going to be a fine into a fine plus a moving-violation ticket.
8. Teen drivers can't use cellphones. Period. A new-for-2014 law says teen drivers 18 and younger cannot use cellphones or other portable electronic communications devices (e.g., iPads) for anything – not even if they're using them hands-free.
7. Messing with your plates and registration stickers is a no-no. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but either people don't know or they're flouting the law.
First, you cannot decorate, paint or in any way cover your license plates, even with a clear coat of acrylic. Second, no matter how cool your ride looks without one, the law requires you to display a plate on the front of your vehicle as well as on the back.
Finally, it's better just to wait until you're able to pay for your plate's registration sticker than to steal one or even use your partner's. Gallagher explains that being stopped for an out-of-date registration sticker will likely get you a so-called “fix-it” ticket, which is comparatively easy to deal with. Using a stolen or borrowed sticker, however, is a whole notha' level of pain-in-the-ass. It's a misdemeanor that can earn you a court appearance.
6. You can't even look at alcohol if you're younger than 21. Everyone seems to know that California's blood alcohol limit for driving under the influence is .08 (and even then, you can get slapped concurrently with being intoxicated behind the wheel, regardless of that reading). But for drivers younger than 21, the limit is zero, as in zero tolerance for any blood alcohol content reading. Measures start at .01, which will put you in cuffs if you're the right age, says a DMV spokesman.
Up next, what you may or may not know about earbuds…
5. Two earbuds? Nope. California's hands-free driving law means that if you're yapping, you'd better be talking to yourself, using Bluetooth, having a conversation with Siri or using a microphone-equipped earpiece. Some, however, mistake that last bit of advice to mean they have legal approval for using both of the earbuds (left and right) that came with your smartphone. Nope: You can only use one earpiece at a time.
4. Brushing by bicyclists is illegal. Used to be you could just slide right by your favorite bike rider. Starting in September, this is no longer the case. The “Three Feet for Safety Act” means you have to give your two-wheeled neighbors three feet of room or face a ticket from the po-po.
3. Legal tint? There's pretty much no such thing. We were surprised to learn from Gallagher that there's practically no such thing as legal after-market tint in California. A CHP spokesman said the same thing. Despite assurances from all those tint shops, the state allows only tints with “minimum visible light transmittance of 88 percent.”
What that means? The factory tint on your windshield and (driver and passenger) side windows are about as dark as you can go if you already have a late-model car. Oh, and if you do get after-market tint on the front windows, the state wants to see a certificate signed by the installer saying that the tint is legal. Gallagher says good luck finding an installer who will give you one (and that's about all you need to know about the legality of front-window tinting).
The same law that covers tint, by the way, says that you can't have a navigation device like a Garmin in your front window unless it's in the very lower left-hand or right-hand corner. Also banned from center placement? Everything from disabled placards to those silly air fresheners that dangle from your rearview mirror. We see violations of this one all day, every day.
2. Grooming, eating and looking at a map (on your phone or otherwise) is not technically outlawed! But it's illegal. We also were surprised to learn that no specific law actually covers the wide range of distracted driving behaviors. But Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety told us cops will still get you:
Grooming, eating, reading a book, looking at a paper map, taking photos, etc. – in other words, all those dangerous distractions other than talking or texting on a cellphone – aren't covered individually by vehicle codes but will still get you a ticket. Usually it will be for speed unsafe for conditions, since the only safe speed to pluck your eyebrows, eat a pizza or take a selfie is 0. If you are swerving or other doing something else at the same time, that could be an additional violation.
And the No. 1 obscure rule of the road you should know about (and we're looking at you, L.A. hipsters) is …
1. Bicycling while under the influence is illegal. After observing certain bicycle organizations peddle through Koreatown, Hollywood and Echo Park, often under the watchful eye of a tolerant LAPD, one might be surprised to learn that bicycling under the influence of alcohol or drugs is fully illegal in the state of California.
We always thought clouds of dank-smelling smoke were a natural part of nighttime bike rides in the city. But it could get you a ticket, a $250 fine and, if you're younger than 21, a one-year suspension or delay of driving privileges.
Toking and driving don't mix, even if your ride is a fixie.