Vehicle Code 21751:
Passing Without Sufficient Clearance

When motorists drive upon a two-lane highway in California, Vehicle Code 21751 VC states that motorists cannot pass other vehicles if there is not sufficient clearance.

Under VC 21751, a driver can overtake and pass another vehicle by moving into the left lane, but only if:

  1. The left lane is clearly visible; and,
  2. The left lane is free of oncoming traffic

There are four important points to know about Vehicle Code 21751.

  • A motorist that passes without sufficient clearance must pay a fine of $238.00.
  • A driver that violates VC 21751 will also receive one point on his DMV driving record. A driver could potentially get a negligent operator license suspension if he receives a certain number of points in a given amount of time (e.g., 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months, or 8 points in 36 months).
  • Legal defenses are available to drivers if they are accused of violating Vehicle Code 21751. It's in the driver's best interests, though, to consult with an attorney before raising one.
  • A motorist cannot ignore a ticket for passing without sufficient clearance. If he does, the driver risks getting charged with failure to appear, per California Vehicle Code 40508. Failure to appear, under California law, may be charged as a misdemeanor.

Our California personal injury attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

california vc 21751 passing without sufficient clearance attorneys traffic defense
When motorists drive upon a two-lane highway in California, Vehicle Code 21751 VC states that motorists cannot pass other vehicles if there is not sufficient clearance.

1. Vehicle Code 21751 VC – Passing without sufficient clearance

California Vehicle Code 21751 applies to the situation in which a driver wishes to pass another vehicle on a two-lane highway.

According to this section, a driver can overtake and pass another vehicle by moving into the left lane, provided that:

  1. The left lane is clearly visible; and,
  2. The left lane is free of oncoming traffic.1

Some may ask what do the phrases “clearly visible” and “free of oncoming traffic” mean. California courts have ruled that whether a lane is “visible” and “free of oncoming traffic” is based upon the facts of a given case.2

Courts have also put some emphasis on when drivers seek to pass while approaching a curve. Under this scenario, California courts have ruled that drivers:

  • Have an increased duty to stay on the proper side of the road; and,
  • Must anticipate that a vehicle from the opposite direction could appear at any moment.3

2. The penalties for passing without sufficient clearance

A driver that violates Vehicle Code 21751 faces two penalties. These are:

  1. A fine; and,
  2. Points on his DMV driving record.

2.1. Fine

A driver that fails to obey VC 21751 receives a ticket and must pay a corresponding fine.

The fine for violating Vehicle Code 21751 is $238.00.4

2.2. Points on the motorist's DMV driving record

Motorists that pass without sufficient clearance will also receive one point on their DMV driving record.5 This is unfavorable since points put on a driver's record are ultimately reported to a driver's insurance carrier. The result is an increase in the motorist's insurance rates for several years.

A further problem occurs when a driver receives multiple points on his driving record over a certain period of time. If a driver in California receives 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months, or 8 points in 36 months, the DMV can either suspend or revoke his driving privileges.

Please note, however, that either of these actions will require a California DMV hearing.

3. Legal defenses if a driver violates VC 21751

A driver that receives a ticket for passing without sufficient clearance does not have to automatically plead guilty to it, or admit he was at fault. Drivers can always challenge traffic tickets by raising a legal defense. If this is done, though, it's best for a driver to contact an attorney for help.

3.1. Common defenses if accused of passing without sufficient clearance

If ticketed for a VC 21751 violation, the best defense is for a driver to use the facts of his case to show that he had sufficient clearance to pass. More specifically, the driver must use the facts to demonstrate that:

  1. The left lane was clearly visible under the circumstances; and,
  2. The left lane was free of oncoming traffic.

Other defenses include:

  • An emergency required the driver to pass a vehicle, even though there was not sufficient clearance; and,
  • The police officer was mistaken in issuing the ticket.

Please note that if a motorist does raise a legal defense on his behalf, he will want to ensure that he can support it with credible evidence. The best evidence typically includes:

  • Witnesses
  • Photographs
  • Surveillance video

3.2. Contact a lawyer for help

If a driver decides to challenge a ticket, it is in his best interest to contact an experienced California defense attorney for help.

It's beneficial to work with a lawyer for three main reasons. These are:

  1. Prosecutors typically offer better deals to defendants with lawyers.
  2. Defense attorneys know how to get charges reduced and dismissed.
  3. If a defendant has an attorney, the defendant does not have to go to court. The defendant's lawyer can go on his behalf.
california traffic school passing without clearance
Drivers that violate VC 21751 do not have to attend traffic school. But, they can volunteer to do so.

4. Violation of Vehicle Code 21751 and traffic school

Drivers that violate VC 21751 do not have to attend traffic school. But, they can volunteer to do so.

If a driver chooses to attend traffic school, he still has to pay his fine of $238.00.6 However, the driver generally should not get any points put on his driving record.7

A driver can elect to go to traffic school if:

  1. He has a valid driver's license;
  2. The offense occurred while he was driving a noncommercial vehicle; and,
  3. The ticket is for an infraction that is a moving violation.

5. Passing without sufficient clearance and criminal charges

The State of California does not file criminal charges against a driver that violates Vehicle Code 21751 VC. This is because it's not a crime in California if a motorist passes another vehicle without sufficient clearance.

Violations of VC 21751 are infractions under California law. Violators are not subject to incarceration or any other criminal penalties.

6. Ignoring a ticket for violating VC 21751

Drivers should not ignore, or even forget about, a ticket for violating Vehicle Code 21751. Two things happen if this occurs. These are:

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

6.1. Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC

Upon receiving a traffic ticket in California, the offender is obligated to sign a written promise to appear in court.

If the driver willfully fails to appear as promised, he violates Vehicle Code 40508 VC.8 The driver willfully fails to appear when he is willingly a no-show. It is not a defense if the driver did not intend to break the law.9

It also does not matter whether the offending driver is guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.10 He violates 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.11

6.2. Penalties for violating VC 40508

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 $1,000.12
california personal injury attorneys
A driver that violates Vehicle Code 21751 may cause an accident with another motorist that leads to an injury. If the motorist later files a personal injury lawsuit against the driver, the driver could be found "negligent."

7. Passing without sufficient clearance and its impact on a personal injury lawsuit

A driver that violates Vehicle Code 21751 may cause an accident with another motorist that leads to an injury. If the motorist later files a personal injury lawsuit against the driver, the driver could be found "negligent."

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

Proving negligence in a personal injury case can sometimes be 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 passed without sufficient clearance because the act is in violation of VC 21751.

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. Laws related to Vehicle Code 21751 VC

There are three laws related to VC 21751. These are:

  1. Unlawful driving on the left-side of the road – Vehicle Code 21752;
  2. Unsafe driving on a three-lane highway – Vehicle Code 21659; and,
  3. Coasting in neutral on downgrades – Vehicle Code 21710.

8.1. Unlawful driving on the left-side of the road – Vehicle Code 21752

Like VC 21751, California Vehicle Code 21752 applies to the situation in which a driver is traveling upon a two-lane highway. The code section states that such a driver must not drive in the left lane under the following conditions:

  • (a) When approaching or upon the crest of a grade or a curve in the highway where the driver's view is obstructed…
  • (b) When the view is obstructed upon approaching within 100 feet of any bridge, viaduct, or tunnel.
  • (c) When approaching within 100 feet of or when traversing any railroad grade crossing.
  • (d) When approaching within 100 feet of or when traversing any intersection.

Motorists that violate Vehicle Code 21752 receive:

  1. A fine of $238.00; and,
  2. One point on their DMV driving record.

8.2. Unsafe driving on a three-lane highway – Vehicle Code 21659

California Vehicle Code 21659 VC applies to California highways that are divided into three-lanes.

Per VC 21659, it is unlawful for motorists in California to drive unsafely on the State's three-lane highways.

More specifically, the section states that a motorist can only drive a vehicle in the center lane, or extreme left lane, of a three-lane highway under three circumstances. These are when:

  1. The motorist is overtaking and passing another vehicle;
  2. The motorist is preparing for a left turn; and,
  3. The center lane is being solely used for traffic moving in the same direction as the motorist's vehicle.13

Note that under the first circumstance, motorists can only pass other vehicles when the roadway ahead is:

  • Clearly visible; and,
  • Clear of traffic within a safe distance.14

A driver that violates Vehicle Code 21659 receives:

  1. A fine of $238.00; and,
  2. One point on his DMV driving record.

8.3. Coasting in neutral on downgrades – Vehicle Code 21710

Vehicle Code 21710 VC is a simple law that states:

The driver of a motor vehicle when traveling on down grade upon any highway shall not coast with the gears of such vehicle in neutral.15

Violators of VC 21710 receive two penalties. These are:

  1. A fine of $367.00 and up; and,
  2. One point put on their DMV driving record.

Were you accused of passing without sufficient clearance in California? Call us for help…

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Call us at 855-LAWFIRM

If you or someone you know has been cited for violating VC 21751, 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.


Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 21751 VC.

  2. Da Vall v. Cary (1953), 115 Cal. App. 2d 378.

  3. Pohler v. Humboldt Motor Stages, Inc. (1950), 100 Cal. App. 2d 571.

  4. See DMV.org.

  5. See same.

  6. See California Courts website.

  7. See same.

  8. California Vehicle Code 40508 VC.

  9. 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.

  10. See same.

  11. California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, endnote 1.

  12. 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.

  13. California Vehicle Code 21659 VC.

  14. See same.

  15. California Vehicle Code 21710 VC.

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