California Car Accident and Personal Injury Laws



If you've been injured in a car accident in the State of California, you may have questions about how the laws will affect your property damage and/or personal injury claim. In this article, we'll review the laws most commonly associated with car accidents. To read the entirety of each law, click the link to the specific State of California statutes in each section.

Here are the California car accident and traffic laws we'll cover:

Pedestrian Laws

Pedestrians and Crosswalks

The driver of a vehicle must stop and yield the right of way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.
Section 21950

Restrictions on Pedestrians Crossing Roadways

No pedestrian must enter any marked or unmarked crosswalk when traffic is so close that it might constitute an immediate hazard.
Section 21950

Pedestrian Control Signals

Whenever special pedestrian control signals, exhibiting the words Walk or Wait or Don't Walk or the symbols of a walking person or an upraised palm are in place such signals shall indicate as follows:

  1. Walk or Walking Person. Pedestrians facing such signal may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal and shall be given the right of way by the drivers of all vehicles.
  2. Flashing or steady Don't Walk or Wait or Upraised Palm. No pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of such signal, whether flashing or steady. Any pedestrian who has partially completed the pedestrian's crossing on the Walk or Walking Person signal shall complete the crossing to a sidewalk or safety island while the Don't Walk or Wait or Upraised Palm signal is showing.
Section 21456

Crossing at Other Than Crosswalks

Pedestrians intending to cross a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles on the roadway.
Section 21953

Pedestrians on Roadway

Outside of a business or residential district, it is unlawful for any pedestrian to walk along and upon adjacent roadway.

Where sidewalks are not provided, pedestrians are permitted to walk only on or along the left side of the roadway or on it's shoulder facing traffic from the opposite direction.
Section 21956

Pedestrians' Right of Way on Sidewalks

The driver of any motor vehicle must yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian approaching before driving over or upon any sidewalk.
Section 21952

Driving Laws

Obedience to Traffic Control Devices

A driver must obey any traffic control devices applicable to the driver, unless directed by a traffic or police officer.
Section 21462

Driving on Right Side of Roadway

Drivers must drive in the right lane of roadways with the following exceptions:

  • When passing another driver in the same direction
  • When placing their vehicle in a lawful position to turn left
  • When the right lane is under construction or in disrepair
  • Upon a roadway restricted to one way traffic
  • When the roadway is not of sufficient width
Section 21650

Passing On the Left

Driver proceeding in the same direction must pass to the left at at a safe distance and shall remain in the passing lane until it is safe to return to the right lane. Drivers being passed must not increase the speed of their vehicle until their vehicle is completely passed by the overtaking car.
Sections 21750, 21751, and 21753

Limitations on Overtaking on the Left

Drivers may drive to the left side of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing another vehicle only if the left side is clearly visible and the overtaking vehicle can return to its lane without interfering with the operation of oncoming traffic.
Section 21751

Passing On the Right

Drivers may pass on the right under the following conditions:

  • When the driver about to be passed is about to make a left turn. However, the driver attempting to pass on the right must not do so without driving off the pavement of main-traveled portion of the roadway.
  • When the roadway has two (2) or more lanes of traffic moving in the same direction.
  • On a one-way street.
  • On a highways divided into two roadways where traffic is restricted to one direction upon each of such roadways.
Section 21754

Following Too Closely

A driver must not follow another driver more closely than is "reasonable and prudent", having due regard for the speed of other drivers and traffic conditions along the roadway.

A driver who is towing another vehicle must leave sufficient space ahead of their vehicle to allow an overtaking vehicle to enter and occupy this space without danger.
Sections 21703 and 21706

Drivers and Mobile Electronic Devices

Drivers must not drive while using a mobile electronic device unless the device is designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication. Drivers are permitted to use a mobile electronic device to contact emergency services.
Section 23123.5

Drivers and Intersections

When two (2) drivers approach an intersection at approximately the same time the driver on the left must yield to the driver in the right.
Section 21800

Drivers Intending to Turn Left at Intersections

Drivers must not turn left upon a roadway until the turn can be made with reasonable safety and then only after the giving of an appropriate signal.
Section 22107

Drivers Entering or Crossing a Roadway

A driver about to enter or cross a roadway from any place other than another roadway must yield the right of way to all other drivers on the roadway to be crossed.
Section 21802

Bicycling Laws

Bicyclists must obey the same traffic laws as drivers of cars, and are subject to the same penalties as are drivers for violating traffic laws.
Section 21200

Motorcycling Laws

Helmet Law

All motorcyclists and their passengers must wear helmets while riding on roadways.
Section 27803

Motorcycles and Headlights

During darkness, every motorcycle riding on a roadway must have at least one and not more than two headlights turned on.

Every motorcycle manufactured and first registered on and after January 1, 1978, must be equipped with at least one and not more than two headlights which automatically turn on when the engine of the motorcycle is started and which remain lighted as long as the engine is running.
Section 25650 and 25650.5

Driving Offenses and Accident Requirements

Reckless Driving

A driver who drives in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving, and can be fined and imprisoned.
Section 23103

Alcohol and Minors

A driver under the age of twenty one (21) with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.01% or greater must not drive upon any roadway.
Section 23136

Driver's Duty to Give Information and Render Aid

A driver involved in an accident resulting in injury or death to any person, including other drivers, passengers, and/ or passersby must locate and notify the owner (or person in charge of) that property of the name and address of the driver and owner of the vehicle involved.

If requested, the driver must also present his or her driver's license, and vehicle registration, to the other driver, property owner, or person in charge of that property. The information must include the current residence address of the driver and of the registered owner.

If the registered owner of an involved vehicle is present at the scene, he or she must also, upon request, present his or her driver's license information, if available, or other valid identification to the other involved parties.

Moreover the driver must render to any person injured in the accident reasonable assistance, including making of arrangements to transfer the injured person to a physician, surgeon, or hospital for medical or surgical treatment if it is apparent medical treatment is required.
Section 20003

Accidents Involving Death, Personal Injury, or Substantial Bodily Injury

A driver involved in an accident resulting in injury or death of any person other than themselves must immediately stop and remain at the scene of the accident until the driver has fulfilled the requirements of Section 20003.

Section 20003 reads in part that the driver must give the name and address of the driver and owner of the vehicle involved.

If requested, the driver must also present his or her driver's license, and vehicle registration, to the other driver, property owner, or person in charge of that property. The information must include the current residence address of the driver and of the registered owner.

If the registered owner of an involved vehicle is present at the scene, he or she must also, upon request, present his or her driver's license information, if available, or other valid identification to the other involved parties.

Moreover the driver must render to any person injured in the accident reasonable assistance, including making of arrangements to transfer the injured person to a physician, surgeon, or hospital for medical or surgical treatment if it is apparent medical treatment is required.
Section 20001

Accidents Involving Only Damage to Another Car or Property

A driver involved in an accident resulting only in damage to property or another car which is driven or attended by any person must immediately stop at the scene of the accident or as close to it as possible.

The driver must locate and notify the owner (or person in charge of) that property of the name and address of the driver and owner of the vehicle involved.

If requested, the driver must also present his or her driver's license, and vehicle registration, to the other driver, property owner, or person in charge of that property. The information must include the current residence address of the driver and of the registered owner.

If the registered owner of an involved vehicle is present at the scene, he or she must also, upon request, present his or her driver's license information, if available, or other valid identification to the other involved parties.
Section 20002

Accidents Involving Damage to Unattended Car or Unattended Property

A driver who collides with a parked car or who collides with other property which is unattended must immediately stop at the scene of the accident or as close to it as possible and must attempt to locate and notify the driver or owner of the damaged car or damaged property.

Once located the driver who caused the accident must give the name and address of the driver and owner of the vehicle involved.

If requested, the driver must also present his or her driver's license, and vehicle registration, to the other driver, property owner, or person in charge of that property. The information must include the current residence address of the driver and of the registered owner.

If the registered owner of an involved vehicle is present at the scene, he or she must also, upon request, present his or her driver's license information, if available, or other valid identification to the other involved parties.

If the driver or owner of the damaged car or property cannot be located, the driver who caused the accident must must leave in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or other property damaged a written notice giving the name and address of the driver and of the owner of the vehicle involved and a statement of the accident. The driver must also the police department of the city where the collision occurred or the Department of the California Highway Patrol.
Section 20002

Driver's Duty to Notify Police Department

A driver involved in an accident resulting in injury or death must report the accident to the California Highway Patrol or the police department of the local city within 24 hours after the accident.
Section 20008

Accident Reports Filed By Police Departments

A copy of an accident report is available from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of the California Highway Patrol upon request and payment of a fee.
Section 20012

Open Alcohol Container Law

A driver or passenger must not be in possession of an opened container of an alcoholic beverage or consume a controlled substance while the car is on California roadways.

An opened alcoholic beverage container can be kept only in the trunk of a vehicle or in some other area of the vehicle that is not normally occupied by the driver or passengers. It cannot be kept in the utility or glove compartment.

Passengers of a housecar or camper can consume and possess an opened container of alcohol.
Sections 23225 and 23226

Driving Under Influence of Alcohol or Controlled Substance

A driver must not drive after drinking an alcoholic beverage or consuming an intoxicant in an amount which renders the driver incapable of driving safely along roadways. In California, a driver is guilty of the offense of Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence of an Intoxicant if the driver has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or higher.
Section 23152

Ignition Interlock Device

A driver who is guilty of driving while under the influence of an intoxicant might be ordered to have installed at his or her own expenses an ignition interlock device. The ignition interlock device will serve to restore the driver's driving privileges during the pendency of the driver's probation. If an ignition device is installed, it must be installed in every car owned or operated by the driver.

An ignition interlock is a device which measures any amount of alcohol contained in a driver's body. Before starting the car the driver must blow into a tube emanating from the ignition interlock device. If the device then detects a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) higher than is permitted by law the car will not start and the violation will be reported to the prosecutor, the probation officer, and/or the judge. At that point the driver may be subject to loss of driving privileges, immediate arrest and incarceration up to the maximum term provided by law.
Section 23247

Liability Laws

California Dram Shop Law

California has a Dram Shop Law. Dram Shop Law refers to the liability of bars, hotels nightclubs and other commercial establishments who serve alcohol to patrons or to minors for injuries intoxicated patrons or minors cause to third parties such as in car accidents.

In California, a licensee can be held liable for the actions of an intoxicated minor if the licensee sold, furnished or gave away any alcoholic beverages to the intoxicated minor and having this alcohol was the proximate cause of the personal injury or death sustained by the third party.

The liability of the licensee is limited to personal injury and property damage caused by intoxicated minors.
Section 25602
Section 25602.1

Financial Responsibility Car Insurance Minimum Limits

In the State of California, each motor vehicle must be covered by an insurance policy that includes liability coverage of the following amounts for all damages resulting from an accident:

  • At least $15,000 per person
  • At least $30,000 for two or more people
  • $5,000 per occurrence for property damage
Section 16451

California Insurance Information

For information about insurance requirements, see the California Department of Insurance website.

Pure Comparative Negligence

In California, the victim in a car accident can sue the negligent driver for compensation. The victim's liability in causing the accident, their comparative negligence, affects the amount of compensation the victim receives. The amount of compensation a victim can receive is reduced by their percentage of fault in contributing to the accident.
Section 1431.2

Example of Pure Comparative Negligence

One morning, Jackson was driving north on his way to work. At an intersection, he pulled into the left turn lane. At the same time, Melanie approached the intersection from the opposite direction. Suddenly, Jackson turned left into Melanie's lane and their cars collided.

Melanie sustained serious brain injuries and damage to her car, totalling in $100,000 dollars worth of damages.

After their investigation, the police determined that Jackson had failed to yield according to traffic laws. A pedestrian witness told police he saw Melanie texting at the time Jackson's car crashed into Melanie's. As a result, the police issued Melanie a citation for using a mobile device while driving.

Melanie sued Jackson for $100,000 and claimed he was 100% at fault for the accident because he did not yield to her right-of-way. At trial, the jury found Jackson liable for failing to yield the right-of-way. However, the jury also found Melissa liable for using a mobile device while driving and partially responsible for the accident.

The verdict stated Jackson's negligence equaled 70% of the accident, and Melanie's equaled 30%. The jury awarded Melanie only $70,000 dollars.

In the event the jury had found Jackson's negligence equaled 49% of the accident, and Melanie's equaled 51%, the jury would be barred by law from awarding Melanie any compensation for the damages.
Pure Comparative Negligence: Section 1431.2
Right of Way: Section 22107
Drivers and Mobile Electronic Devices: Section 23123.5

California's No Fault Car Insurance

Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property caused by a negligent or wrongful act, or lack of action, in the operation of the motor vehicle.

The liability of an owner is limited to the following:

  • $15,000 for the death of or injury to one person in any one accident
  • $30,000 for the death of or injury to more than one person in any one accident
  • $5,000 for damage to property of others in any one accident

If a car accident victim can establish that injury or death occurred as a result of a driver's intoxication or willful misconduct, then the victim can file a lawsuit against the driver.
Sections 17150, 17151, and 17158

Statute of Limitations

California has a two (2) year statute of limitations for property damage and personal injury claims. This means if a driver, passenger, or passerby is injured or sustains property damage at the hands of a negligent driver, the victim must either settle their claim within two (2) years, or file a lawsuit.

If the victim fails to settle their claim or file a lawsuit within the two (2) year period the victim is barred from pursuing the negligent driver in court.

For information about the statute of limitations, see the Judicial Branch of California: California Courts website.

Small Claims Courts

In California, victims of car accidents can choose to sue the negligent driver in small claims court. The jurisdiction of a small claims court regarding personal injury and property damage is limited to a maximum of $10,000, exclusive of filing fees and court costs.

For information about small claims court, see the California Courts website.

California Government Tort Claims - Sovereign Immunity

In California, it is possible to submit a claim against a governmental agency or its employees for personal injury or property damage as a result of negligence on the part of the governmental agency or its employees.

The claim must refer to an lawful action on the part of the governmental agency or employee performed in the scope of their duties. If the injury or property damage occurred as a result of an unlawful action, then the claimant can sue only the person(s) who caused injury or property damage individually. The governmental agency would not be liable.

For information about government tort claims, see the California Courts website.
Constitution of California: Article 3, Section 5

Example

If Melissa, an engineer with the San Jose Planning Department, ran a red light on her way to a worksite and caused an accident, then the City of San Jose would be liable for the property damage and personal injuries caused her.

If Melissa stopped for a few drinks and became intoxicated before heading to a worksite and causing an accident, then the City of San Jose can claim sovereign immunity. Melissa performed an unlawful act and was not acting in the scope of her duties when she became intoxicated on her way to the worksite.

To seek compensation for damages, injured parties would have to sue Melissa personally. The determination of whether or not Melissa was acting within the scope of her duties would have to be decided during a trial.

For information about government tort claims, see the California Courts website.
Constitution of California: Article 3, Section 5
NCSL

Sources

State Government of California

California Department of Transportation

California State Legislature

California Department of Insurance

Governors Highway Safety Association

California Bar Association

National Conference on State Legislature

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