Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road in California
Vehicle Code 21651 (b)

car going the wrong way
It's a crime in California to drive on the wrong side of the road.

It's a crime in California to drive on the wrong side of the road. This law is found in California Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC. 

There are four main points to know about driving on the wrong side of the road in California:

  • A person accused of VC 21651 (b) can hire an attorney to fight the charge. If a lawyer is hired, the client doesn't have to appear in court
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road is a "wobbler" under California law. This means it can be charged 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 in the incident.
  • A driver in violation of VC 21651 (b) VC will receive two points on his DMV record. You risk getting a negligent operator license suspension if you get 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months or 8 points in 36 months.
  • A motorist cannot ignore a ticket for driving on the wrong side of the road. This act will likely result in a charge of failure to appear, per California Vehicle Code 40508, which can be charged as a misdemeanor.

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

1. Is it illegal to drive on the wrong side of the road in California under VC 21651 (b) VC?

California Vehicle Code Section 21651 describes how traffic should flow on California's divided public roads.1

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.2

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.

2. Are there legal defenses if I'm accused of violating Vehicle Code 21651 (b)?

Legal defenses are available to those accused of driving on the wrong side of the road. It's in a motorist's best interest to consult with an attorney before raising such a defense.

2.1 Can I assert that a highway was not well-marked?

Perhaps the most common legal defense to a violation of VC 21651 (b) is that a highway was not well-marked. A driver may assert that, due to an absence of clear markings, he made a mistake and was driving on the wrong side of the road.

If a motorist raises this defense, it's extremely useful to have photos of the highway in question. The photos must show an absence of clear signals or markings.

2.2 Do I need an attorney if I'm accused of driving on the wrong side of the road?

Motorists can represent themselves when fighting a ticket for violating VC 21651 (b). But, it's recommended that anyone charged with this violation 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 if I'm guilty of violating VC 21651 (b)?

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.

3.1 When is a violation of VC 21651 (b) charged as a misdemeanor?

In California, a misdemeanor is defined as a crime for which the maximum sentence is no more than one year in county jail. A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a California felony.

Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC states that: "Except as otherwise provided in subdivision (c), a violation of this subdivision is a misdemeanor."3

Vehicle Code 21651 (c) VC states:

Any willful violation of subdivision (b) which results in injury to, or death of, a person shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code, or imprisonment in a county jail for a period of not more than six months.4

Subsections (b) and (c) inform that driving on the wrong side of the road results in a misdemeanor charge if the incident caused no injury or death.

If there is a misdemeanor conviction of this crime, a driver will face a maximum penalty of:

  1. No more than one year in jail; and/or,
  2. A fine of no more than $1,000.

3.2 When is a violation of VC 21651 (b) charged as a felony?

In California, a felony is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of more than one year in jail or prison.

Please again note the language of VC 21651 (b) and 21651 (c) cited above. These subsections state that a driver may face a felony conviction if he:

  1. Drives on the wrong side of the road; and,
  2. The act causes injury or death to another person.

If charged as a felony, a violation of 21651 (b) may result in a maximum jail sentence of three years.

3.3 How many points are put on my driving record if I'm guilty of driving on the wrong side of the road?

Violators of Vehicle Code 21651 (b) will receive two points on their DMV driving record.5  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.

classroom with no students, just empty desks.
If a driver elects to go to traffic school, he should not receive any points on his driving record if he completes the school

3.4 Do I have to go to traffic school?

Motorists that violate Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC 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.6

If a driver elects to go to traffic school, he should not receive any points on his driving record if he completes the school.7

4. What happens if I ignore a ticket for violating VC 21651 (b)?

Two things happen if you ignore a ticket for violating Vehicle Code 22450 VC. These are:

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

4.1 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.8  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.9

Nor does it matter whether you're guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.10  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.11

4.2 What are the 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

5. What is the effect of a VC 21651 (b) violation on a personal injury lawsuit?

A driver who drives on the wrong side of the road, and thereby causes an accident, is likely to 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. Further, the negligent driver 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 for driving on the wrong side of the road in violation of VC 21651 (b).

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.

6. Can I get charged with VC 21651 (b) even if I'm charged with DUI?

Depending on the facts of a given case, a motorist may be driving on the wrong side of the road because he is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If this is so, the driver can get charged with both a violation of VC 21651 (b) and DUI.

Driving under the influence (DUI) is against the law in California. To prove your guilty of your first time DUI in California, the prosecutor must show that you were:

  1. Driving a motor vehicle; and,
  2. Under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or had a BAC of .08% or higher at the time of driving.

Please note that the penalties for a California DUI can grow quite severe. Thus, you must consult with a California DUI attorney if charged with this offense.

Legal defenses to a California DUI charge do exist, but a California DUI lawyer is necessary to assert the right one on your behalf.

7. Are there laws related to Vehicle Code 21651 (b)?

There are three laws related to driving on the wrong side of the road. These are:

  1. Driving on the right side of the road;
  2. Reckless driving; and,
  3. Felony reckless evading.
one way signs pointing in different directions
One-way streets require drivers to drive in a specified one-way direction.

7.1 What is driving on the right side of the road under California law?

Like all other states, California has roadways that are marked "one-way." These one-way streets require drivers to drive in a specified one-way direction.

If a motorist drives in the opposite direction that is marked, he is driving on the right side of the road under California law. Driving on the right side is a violation of California Vehicle Code 21657 VC.

This section states:

The authorities in charge of any highway may designate any highway, roadway, part of a roadway, or specific lanes upon which vehicular traffic shall proceed in one direction at all or such times as shall be indicated by official traffic control devices. When a roadway has been so designated, a vehicle shall be driven only in the direction designated at all or such times as shall be indicated by traffic control devices.

The penalties for violating VC 21657 include:

  1. A fine of $238, plus court costs and assessments; and,
  2. One point on a motorist's driving record.

7.2 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.13

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 $1,000.14

But the possible jail sentence and fine increase if the reckless driving causes an injury.15

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

7.3 What is felony reckless evading under California law?

You commit the crime of felony reckless evading in California if:

  1. You evade a police officer in a motor vehicle, as described in Vehicle Code 2800.1 misdemeanor evading an officer; and
  2. In doing so, you drive with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.

In other words, reckless evading under Vehicle Code 2800.2 VC takes place when someone flees from a law enforcement officer in a car - and that person drives in a dangerous and/or reckless fashion while doing so.

There is a very specific legal definition of evading an officer. You are only guilty of that crime if:

  1. You specifically intend to evade the officer;
  2. The officer's car is distinctively marked, with a lighted red lamp in the front, a siren, and at least one other feature identifying it as a law enforcement vehicle; and,
  3. The officer is in some form of distinctive uniform.16

Despite the name, felony reckless evading in California is actually a wobbler - that is, a crime that may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Reckless evading charged as a misdemeanor carries the following penalties:

  1. At least six (6) months and no more than one (1) year in county jail; and/or,
  2. A fine of one thousand dollars ($1,000).

And if it is charged as a felony, then the penalties for reckless evading an officer are:

  1. Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in California state prison; and/or,
  2. A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

In addition, the vehicle in which you are alleged to have evaded an officer may be impounded for up to thirty (30) days.

Were you accused of driving on the wrong side of the road? Call us for help…

female operator smiling
Call us for help...

If you or someone you know has been cited for driving on the wrong side of the road, 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. See California Vehicle Code 21651 VC.
    2. California Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC.
    3. California Vehicle Code 21651 (b) VC.
    4. California Vehicle Code 21651 (c) VC.
    5. See DMV.org.
    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 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.”
    14. 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.”
    15. 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.”
    16. CALCRIM 2182 – Evading Peace Officer: Misdemeanor (Veh. Code, § 2800.1(a)), endnote 2.

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