Overtaking and Passing on California's Roadways
Vehicle Code 21750-21759

California's traffic laws on improper passing and overtaking vehicles are found in Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759 VC.

Each code section provides specific rules on overtaking vehicles, passing vehicles, or both.

In short:

  • Vehicle Code 21750 VC requires motorists to pass on the left.
  • Vehicle Code 21751 VC mandates that drivers pass to the left of center only when there is sufficient clearance.
  • Vehicle Code 21752 VC prohibits drivers from overtaking and passing on the left in specific circumstances.
  • Vehicle Code 21753 VC requires motorists that are getting passed to yield to the passing vehicle.
  • Vehicle Code 21754 VC allows drivers to overtake and pass on the right in only specific situations.
  • Vehicle Code 21755 VC provides further restrictions on right side passing.
  • Vehicle Code 21756 VC limits when drivers may pas busses and streetcars.
  • Vehicle Code 21757 VC provides further limitations with buses and streetcars and prohibits left side passing in specific situations.
  • Vehicle Code 21758 VC sets forth safety rules when motorists pass slow moving vehicles traveling on grades.
  • Vehicle Code 21759 VC requires all drivers to use caution when passing animals.
  • Vehicle Code 22454 makes it illegal to pass a school bus when red lights are flashing

In the article below, our California personal injury attorneys will address:

1. What are the laws on overtaking and passing in California?

California has several important laws that pertain to overtaking and passing while driving a motor vehicle.

These provide specific directions as to when it's safe and proper to overtake and pass vehicles, busses, streetcars and animals. They also direct as to where and when a driver must pass. 

1.1 Can motorists pass on the left under Vehicle Code 21750 VC?

VC 21750 essentially requires drivers to overtake and pass other motorists on the left side of a roadway and at a safe distance.

Vehicle Code 21750 (a) states:

The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle, subject to the limitations and exceptions set forth in this article.1

1.2 May drivers in California pass to the left of center under Vehicle Code 21751 VC?

According to VC 21751, drivers on a two-lane highway can only pass to the left when there is sufficient clearance.2

Vehicle Code 21751 states that there's sufficient clearance when "the left side is clearly visible and free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead…".3

1.3 Are there circumstances where drivers cannot pass on the left under Vehicle Code 21752 VC?

Vehicle Code 21752 VC sets forth specific conditions when drivers cannot overtake and pass to the left.

Under VC 21752, no vehicle shall be driven to the left side of the roadway when:

  • Approaching or on the top of a grade, or on a curve, and the view is obstructed;
  • The view is obstructed when within 100 feet of a bridge, viaduct, or tunnel;
  • Approaching within 100 feet of a railroad crossing;
  • Approaching within 100 feet of an intersection.4

1.4 Do motorists that are getting passed have to yield under Vehicle Code 21753 VC?

VC 21753 states that drivers must yield for passing vehicles.

The language of Vehicle Code 21753 provides:

Except when passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall safely move to the right-hand side of the highway in favor of the overtaking vehicle after an audible signal or a momentary flash of headlights by the overtaking vehicle, and shall not increase the speed of his or her vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.5

The driver of the overtaken vehicle is not required to drive on the shoulder of a highway to yield.6

1.5 Are there situations where drivers in California can pass on the right under Vehicle Code 21754 VC.

Under Vehicle Code 21754, drivers can overtake and pass vehicles on the right. But, they may only do so under certain conditions.7

VC 21754 lists five conditions. These are when a vehicle is:

  1. Overtaking a vehicle that is making a left turn;
  2. On a highway within a business or residence district with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width and clearly marked for two or more lines of moving traffic in the direction of travel;
  3. On any highway outside of a business or residence district with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width and clearly marked for two or more lines of moving traffic in the direction of travel;
  4. On a one-way street; and,
  5. On a highway divided into two roadways where traffic is restricted to one direction upon each of such roadways.8

1.6 May drivers in California pass on the right by driving off the road under Vehicle Code 21755 VC?

Vehicle Code 21755 sets forth additional rules when drivers pass on the right. VC 21755 states:

The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting that movement in safety. In no event shall that movement be made by driving off the paved or main-traveled portion of the roadway.9

1.7 Are there limitations on when drivers can pass stopped buses and streetcars under Vehicle Code 21756 VC?

VC 21756 VC states that drivers may pass stopped buses or streetcars (that are loading or unloading passengers) only in safety zones or in intersections controlled by officers or signal devices.10

Vehicle Code 21756 also requires drivers to speed no greater than 10 miles per hour when passing busses or trolleys that are stopped and loading or unloading passengers.11

1.8 Can drivers pass buses and streetcars on the left under Vehicle Code 21757 VC?

According to VC 21757, drivers can pass moving or stopped buses and streetcars on the left, but only in limited circumstances.12

VC 21757 states that these circumstances include when a driver is:

  • Directed so by an officer; or,
  • On a one-way street.13

1.9 Are there restrictions on overtaking and passing slow vehicles on grades under Vehicle Code 21758 VC?

VC 21758 applies to motorists that are overtaking and passing slow moving vehicles traveling on a grade outside a business or residential district.

Vehicle Code 21758 states:

In the event any vehicle is being operated on any grade outside of a business or residence district at a speed of less than 20 miles per hour, no person operating any other motor vehicle shall attempt to overtake and pass such slow moving vehicle unless the overtaking vehicle is operated at a speed of at least 10 miles per hour in excess of the speed of the overtaken vehicle, nor unless the passing movement is completed within a total distance not greater than one-quarter of a mile.14

1.10 Can drivers pass animals on California roadways under Vehicle Code 21759 VC?

VC 21759 requires drivers to exercise caution when passing animals.15

Animals, under this section, includes horses, livestock, and any ridden animals.16

As for ridden animals, passing motorists must obey the signals given by the person riding the animal so as to avoid frightening the animal.17

2. Are there legal defenses if a driver violates Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759 VC?

There are legal defenses if a motorist is accused of illegally overtaking or passing a vehicle. It's in the motorist's best interests, though, to consult with an attorney before raising one.

2.1 What are the most common defenses?

There are five common defenses if a driver is accused of violating Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759. These are that the driver:

  1. Passed safely and didn't interfere with the operation of the other vehicle;
  2. Had sufficient clearance to pass on the left;
  3. Passed in strict compliance with California's vehicle codes (as to VC 21752, 21754, 21756 and 21757).
  4. Passed a bus or streetcar in a safety zone or at the direction of a police officer.
  5. Passed an animal but did so with sufficient caution.

2.2 Do I need an attorney?

Motorists can represent themselves when fighting a California ticket for improper passing. But, it's recommended that they hire an experienced lawyer to represent them.

It's advantageous to hire an attorney for three main reasons. These are:

  1. Prosecutors tend to offer better deals to defendants with lawyers.
  2. Defense attorneys are knowledgeable on how to get charge reductions and dismissals.
  3. Defendants with defense lawyers do not have to go to court.

3. What are the penalties for violating California's overtaking and passing laws?

Drivers that violate California Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759 VC will receive:

  1. A fine of $238; and,
  2. One point assessed to the driver's DMV driving record.18

Please note that points assessed on a motorist's record are reported to that motorist's insurance carrier. The result is typically an increase in the driver's insurance rates for several years.

If a person accumulates a certain number of points within a 1-,2- or 3-year period in California, the DMV can declare that person a negligent operator. If this is done, the DMV can suspend or even revoke that person's driving privileges. Either action requires a California DMV hearing.

4. Do I have to attend traffic school if I illegally pass another vehicle?

Motorists that overtake or pass illegally do not have to attend traffic school.

Drivers, though, can voluntarily choose to do so. Generally, you can go to traffic school if:

  1. You have a valid driver's license;
  2. The offense occurred while driving a noncommercial vehicle; and,
  3. Your ticket is for an infraction that is a moving violation.19

If a driver elects to go to traffic school, he must still pay his traffic fine.20 However, the driver generally should not get any points on his driving record if he completes the school.21

5. Is it a crime if I violate Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759?

It is not a crime if a motorist violates a California overtaking or passing law.

These violations are infractions under California law and an offender is not subject to incarceration.

6. What happens if I ignore a ticket for violating Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759?

Two things happen if you ignore a ticket for improper passing. These are:

  1. You violate a new law, Vehicle Code 40508 VC, for the failure to appear in California on a traffic citation; and,
  2. You may receive penalties for violating VC 40508.

6.1 What is the violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC?

When you are issued a traffic ticket in California, the officer will have you sign a written promise to appear at the time and place specified.

If you willfully fail to appear as promised, you violate Vehicle Code 40508 VC.22 You willfully fail to appear when you are willingly a no-show. It doesn't matter if you didn't intend to break the law.23

Nor does it matter whether you're guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.24 You violate Vehicle Code 40508 just by breaking a promise to:

  • Appear in court,
  • Appear to pay bail,
  • Pay bail in installments,
  • Pay a fine within the time authorized, or
  • Comply with any condition of the court.25

6.2 What are the penalties for violating Vehicle Code 40508 VC?

Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC is a misdemeanor. The penalties are:

  • Up to six months in county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000.26

7. What is the effect of violating Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759 on a personal injury lawsuit?

A driver who violates Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759 VC, and thereby causes an accident, may be found negligent in a personal injury lawsuit.

California law defines "negligence" as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others. In the context of an auto accident, the negligent driver is at fault for the accident and may have to pay for any damages caused.

Proving negligence in a personal injury case is sometimes difficult. In California though, a driver is considered "negligent per se" if he violates a statute.

Negligence “per se” is a legal theory in which negligence is presumed based upon a defendant's violation of a statute or ordinance

This means a driver would be negligent per se if he violated Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759.

Please note, however, that even if a driver is negligent per se, the driver may still be able to recover for any damages he incurs. This is because of California's comparative fault laws.

8. Are there laws related to California's overtaking and passing laws?

There are three laws related to Vehicle Code Sections 21750-21759. These are:

  1. California's "speeding laws;"
  2. California's law on driving on the wrong side of the road; and,
  3. California's reckless driving law.

8.1 What are California's "speeding laws?"

"Speeding laws" refers to those California laws that impose penalties on motorists if driving too fast. Some of these include:

Penalties for violating these speeding laws typically include a fine and points assessed on the motorist's DMV driving record.

As to fines, the exact amount of a speeding ticket will depend on the speed at which the driver was driving. The amount will also include a base fine, fees, and penalty assessments.

If a driver exceeds the speed limit, but wasn't driving more than 100 miles per hour, then the base fine of a ticket will be:

  • $35 if faster than the limit by 1 to 15 miles per hour
  • $70 if faster than the limit by 16 to 25 miles per hour
  • $100 if faster than the limit by 26 miles per hour

8.2 What is California's law on driving on the wrong side of the road?

California Vehicle Code Section 21651 describes how traffic should flow on California's divided public roads.27

According to Vehicle Code 21651 (b):

It is unlawful to drive any vehicle upon a highway, except to the right of an intermittent barrier or a dividing section which separates two or more opposing lanes of traffic.28

This language is clear. All vehicles on California's highways must drive to the right of a barrier or dividing section. This means they must drive on the right side of the road.

Driving to the left of a barrier or dividing section is driving on the left side of the road. A motorist is driving on the wrong side of the road if he does this.

Driving on the wrong side of the road is a "wobbler" under California law. A "wobbler" is a crime that can be punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Whether a violation of VC 21651 (b) results in a misdemeanor or felony depends on whether anyone was hurt or killed because of the violation.

A motorist guilty of driving on the wrong side of the road will also receive points on his driving record.

8.3 What is reckless driving under California law?

California Vehicle Code 23103 is the State's law on reckless driving. It makes it a crime to drive with wanton disregard for the safety of people or property.29

If no one other than the reckless driver is injured in the incident, VC 23101 is a California misdemeanor. It can be punished at most by:

  1. Five to 90 days in county jail, and/or,
  2. A fine of between $145 and $1,000.30

But the possible jail sentence and fine increase if the reckless driving causes an injury.31

And any reckless driving conviction will add two points to the driver's California DMV record.

Were you accused of improper passing in California? Call us for help…

If you or someone you know has been cited for a violation of Vehicle Code Sections 21750 - 21759, or has been injured in an accident in California, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm. If your ticket is in Nevada, please visit our page on NRS 484B.203 Las Vegas Nevada tickets for unsafe passing

Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 21750 (a) VC.

  2. California Vehicle Code 21751 VC.

  3. See same.

  4. California Vehicle Code 21752 VC.

  5. California Vehicle Code 21753 VC.

  6. See same.

  7. California Vehicle Code 21754 VC.

  8. See same.

  9. California Vehicle Code 21755 (a) VC.

  10. California Vehicle 21756 VC.

  11. California Vehicle Code 21756 (c) VC.

  12. California Vehicle Code 21757.

  13. See same.

  14. California Vehicle Code 21758 VC.

  15. California Vehicle Code 21759 VC.

  16. See same.

  17. See same.

  18. See DMV.org.

  19. See California Courts website.

  20. See same.

  21. See same.

  22. California Vehicle Code 40508 VC.

  23. CALCRIM 2240, endnote 1: Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.

  24. See same.

  25. California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, endnote 1.

  26. California Penal Code 19 PC. Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.

  27. See California Vehicle Code 21651 VC.

  28. California Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC.

  29. California Vehicle Code 23103 VC:

    “(a): A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

    (b) A person who drives a vehicle in an off-street parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500, in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”

  30. Vehicle Code 23103(c): “Except as otherwise provided in Section 40008, persons convicted of the offense of reckless driving shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than five days nor more than 90 days or by a fine of not less than one hundred forty-five dollars ($145) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, except as provided in Section 23104 or 23105.”

  31. California Vehicle Code 23104 (a) VC: “Except as provided in subdivision (b), whenever reckless driving of a vehicle proximately causes bodily injury to a person other than the driver, the person driving the vehicle shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days nor more than six months or by a fine of not less than two hundred twenty dollars ($220) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.”

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