Teen drivers FAQ: What are the rules in California?

File photo from Travelling_Artist/flickr Creative Commons

When news broke over the weekend that a teen driver was behind the wheel of a car that crashed in Irvine, killing five passengers, it raised anew questions about what the state of California allows teens to do and what it doesn't.

The teen driver in this case may not have been licensed; investigators said they hoped to determine the exact cause of the accident, how the teen came to be behind the wheel of the BMW and whether he had permission to use it.

California in 2006 enacted laws that substantially restrict the ability of teen drivers — those below the age of 18 — to do certain things when behind the wheel.

That's because, while statistics show the number of teenage drivers who die each year in traffic accidents has decreased since the 1970s, their share of overall crash fatalities remains disproportionately high.

The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is roughly three times the rate for drivers aged 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

California law now requires teens be subject to so-called provisional license restrictions. The following FAQ is meant to help clarify the provisional licensing rules for teen drivers and to point parents and teens toward resources that can help guide them in discussions about driver safety. (The following is taken from the California Department of Motor Vehicles official website.)

What are the restrictions of a provisional license and who's required to have one?

Any licensed driver under the age of 18 is subject to provisional restrictions.

For the first 12 months, a driver must be accompanied by a licensed parent or guardian, an instructor or another licensed driver who is at least 25 years old, during the following situations:

  • Carrying passengers who are 20 years old or younger
  • Driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Additionally, drivers younger than 18 cannot use electronic communication devices while driving — in particular, that means no cell phone to text or talk, even in "hands-free" mode.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes, certain exceptions are allowed, but a signed note must be kept in the teen's possession that explains the need and the date that need will end. The exceptions are as follows:

  • For medical-related transportation when reasonable alternatives are not sufficient — signed note from doctor required
  • For school or a school activity — signed note from school principal or other official
  • For a job when operating a vehicle is part of employment — signed note from employer
  • For your own need or that of an immediate family member — signed note from parent or guardian
  • No documentation required for emancipated minors, if already declared as such to the DMV with Proof of Financial Responsibility

What about exceptions for emergency situations?

The law says nothing on emergencies, leaving it up to officers to determine whether to issue a citation. However, teens can use a cell phone in the event of an emergency to contact police, fire or medical authorities.

What are the penalties for violating the terms of a provisional license?

A 30-day restriction will be placed on the teen's license if he or she receives two or more points for violations in one year. Three or more points nets a teen a six-month suspension and a one-year probation. If the teen violates probation, the suspension can extend beyond his or her 18th birthday. Additionally, community service hours or fines will be imposed for violating certain provisions.

How can you tell if the license is provisional?

A provisional license will include the date that restrictions began near the bottom, just to the left of the photo. Certain restrictions are removed one year from that date (see above).

How does the provisional license apply to motorcycles?

Teens provisionally licensed to ride mopeds or motorcycles cannot carry passengers; they can only ride during daylight hours; and they cannot ride on any freeway.

Who is liable if a provisionally licensed teen gets in an accident?

The short answer: parents. A parent or guardian must sign for a minor to get a license, and when they do so, they are accepting financial responsibility. Under California law, that means carrying the following minimum monetary limits:

  • $15,000 for injury or death of 1 person per accident
  • $30,000 for injury or death of 2 or more persons per accident
  • $5,000 for any property damage per accident

Do the rules apply to out-of-state licenses?

Technically, the rules apply to minors who surrender an out-of-state license for one issued by the state of California.

How do I talk to my teen about driver responsibility and safety?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles offers a parent-teen training guide to help navigate the tricky conversation of driver safety and responsibility. 

Part of that guide is a parent-teen driver contract, which acts as a sort of template for defining roles and responsibilities. The contract includes a checklist of assignable roles, including who should pay for vehicle damage, basic maintenance and fuel, tickets and other fees. It also includes pledges where both parent and teen can sign their initials. Some examples of parent pledges:

  • "I will provide respectful feedback when accompanying my teen driver in a vehicle." 
  • "I will serve as a good role model when operating a vehicle."

Examples of teen pledges:

  • "I will never drink alcohol and/or use drugs and drive."
  • "I will not drive aggressively, such as speeding, tailgating, or cutting others off."

Other helpful resources from the guide include:

The DMV also has a young driver's web page.

FAQ Source: California Department of Motor Vehicles

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