California, like most other states, requires drivers to have a minimum amount of car insurance. While average car insurance rates aren’t cheap in the Golden State, driving without insurance carries serious consequences and could leave you with substantial out-of-pocket costs if you get into an accident. Penalties range from a ticket and fine to license suspension and vehicle impoundment. Bankrate walks you through the ins and outs of what happens if you drive without insurance in California.

Key takeaways

  • California drivers must at least meet the liability auto insurance coverage requirements of 15/30/5 to drive legally.
  • You can be fined up to $500 out of pocket if you are convicted of driving without insurance in California, depending on whether it's your first or subsequent offense.
  • California is a “no pay, no play” state, which prevents an uninsured not-at-fault driver from suing an insured at-fault driver for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering or inconvenience.

California car insurance laws

First, let’s take a second to understand what it means to be driving without insurance in California. In this state, you only meet the legally required amount of coverage when you have:

  • $15,000 of bodily injury liability coverage per person
  • $30,000 of bodily injury liability coverage per accident
  • $5,000 of property damage liability coverage

Your policy might list these limits as “15/30/5.”

Ultimately, having this much liability coverage gives you something to fall back on. If you cause an accident or hit a person or object with your car, you can rely on your liability coverage to pay for the damages up to the limits listed above. However, most insurance experts recommend carrying higher liability limits if you can afford to do so, as the damages from an at-fault incident could quickly surpass these minimum limits.

In California, driving without insurance means not carrying at least the above amounts of liability coverage. But that’s not all. Per the state vehicle code, you’re also required to show proof of that coverage to a law enforcement officer when requested to do so. You could show a paper copy of your insurance card or pull it up on your phone. Either way, to avoid a ticket for no insurance, you’ll need to show proof of insurance when asked.

There are alternatives to carrying an insurance policy. In California, you have a couple of other ways to prove financial responsibility. One way to prove you are able to be financially responsible for an accident is that you could deposit $35,000 cash with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or get a $35,000 surety bond. However, in most cases, buying an insurance policy is the cheapest and easiest way to get the proof of financial responsibility that you need to legally drive in the state.

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What happens if you are caught driving without insurance in California?

California is a state that takes driving without insurance very seriously. Penalties for driving without insurance in California can add up quickly, especially if California penalty assessments are added to your infraction. If you’re a repeat offender or get into an accident without coverage, you may see more severe consequences for driving without insurance in California.

First conviction

Getting caught driving without insurance in California once typically results in a fine between $100 and $200. Penalty assessments may be added on top of this fine, which could bring the total closer to $400. A more severe risk is that the court could also decide to impound your vehicle, even if this is the first time you were caught driving without insurance.

Second and subsequent convictions

If you are caught driving uninsured in California more than once within a span of three years, the fine significantly increases to an amount between $200 and $500. Penalty assessments also increase to somewhere between $520 to $1,300, which can bring total fines to $1,020 and $1,800. Again, you also face the possibility of your vehicle getting impounded.

California penalty assessments

Where the costs really add up for driving without insurance in California is through penalty assessments. In California, a penalty assessment is a dollar amount added to the original baseline fine you are charged for any legal infraction. There are several penalty assessment codes on the books that pertain to driving without insurance, which means your $200 fine could quickly double or triple. Depending on where you live and what your local officials elect to apply, you could be subject to all of the additional penalty assessments:

Again, for some of these penalty assessments to be levied, your local official would have to elect to include them. But if you are subject to all of these penalty assessments, every $10 of your fine gets $29 added on top. So your $100 fine quickly becomes $390, for example. And if you get hit with the max $500 fine plus all the penalty assessments, you could be looking at $1,950 out of pocket. And that doesn’t even take into account the costs if you have damaged your own or other vehicles while driving without insurance.

What happens if you cause an accident without insurance?

Causing an accident without insurance in California can be costly. If you caused the accident, you’re on the hook for paying the damages. That means you’ll need to cover repairs to the other person’s vehicle and their medical expenses out of your own pocket. A 2019 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association found the average critically injured car accident survivor amassed nearly $980,000 in medical costs and lost wages. Even if you can’t pay the money right away, the other driver could sue you and have your wages garnished until they get the amount you owe in full.

On top of that, getting into an accident without insurance or the ability to provide evidence of financial responsibility puts you at risk of license suspension. Usually, you’ll be without your license for one year, at which point you can get your license reinstated if your insurance company files an SR-22 on your behalf. You’ll need to keep that SR-22 in place for three years. Average car insurance rates for high-risk drivers, such as those with SR-22 requirements, are typically much higher than rates for standard drivers.

Even if you weren’t the at-fault driver, driving without insurance in California limits your recourse after an accident. The other driver’s liability policy can pay for your car repairs and medical bills up to the policy limits, but because California is a “no pay, no play” state, you can’t try to get compensation for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.

Frequently asked questions

    • There is no single company that stands out from the pack as the best car insurance company for all Californians. Rather, the best insurance car in California will be the one that meets your insurance needs. If you prefer to manage your policy in person, an insurer with a robust agent network will probably be best for you. Or, if you prioritize cheap rates, a carrier with lots of applicable discounts may be a better option. Your vehicle can also affect the best insurance company for you. If you’ve added customized parts, you might need an insurer that offers coverage for aftermarket upgrades.
    • The average cost of car insurance in California is $2,701 annually for a full coverage policy. Minimum coverage costs an average of $650 per year. However, it is important to remember that California insurance premiums vary based on a variety of individual factors, including age, location, driving record, insurance history, coverage selections and vehicle type. For example, drivers in Los Angeles pay an average full coverage premium 12 percent higher than the state average, and drivers with a single speeding ticket conviction on their record pay average full coverage rates 36 percent above the state average.
    • Driving without insurance in California can impact you financially and legally. If you don’t have car insurance in California and are convicted of driving without insurance, you could end up paying thousands of dollars out of pocket in fines and potentially risking vehicle impoundment and license suspension. If you cause an accident while uninsured, you will be responsible for paying for the other driver’s damages out of pocket. Furthermore, if someone else hits your car, you will not be able to collect money for certain damages as an uninsured party.
    • Most traffic attorneys will tell you to contact them immediately after getting caught driving without insurance in California. However, you might decide to handle the matter yourself. For instance, if you had insurance at the time but didn’t have proof, you could go to the court and ask them to dismiss the fine. If your situation is more complex, you don’t have car insurance in California or this is a subsequent violation, you might consider reaching out to an attorney to represent you.
    • If you were pulled over for driving without insurance in California but you were insured at the time, you can ask the court to dismiss the fee. First, go to court and show your proof of insurance or go to the DMV to get the citation signed off. Then, pay the court’s $25 dismissal fee.