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FAQ: California Driving (and Surviving)

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Archive-name: ca-driving-faq
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Copyright (C) 1994-1997 by George J Wu.  All Rights Reserved.
Permission to redistribute is granted provided this notice is not removed.
Redistribution must also note that this information is freely available on
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such other sources may be more current than the redistributed copy.
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Disclaimer:  Any information contained herein may be incorrect and/or may
simply be an expression of opinion.  No guarantee of suitability for any
purpose is offered or implied.  No responsibility is assumed for any use, or
for any consequences resulting from any use, of information contained herein.
The contents of this FAQ should not be construed as legal advice, for which
you should consult an attorney.
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Below are some recurring questions about driving in California.  Some answers
are extracted from net postings.  Answers include the name and email address of
the author unless anonymity was requested, in which case no author is listed.
Please send any additions, corrections, or suggestions to the update address
listed in an answer, or to the Reply-To address in the header of this message.

Many FAQs, including this one, are available via FTP on the archive site in the directory pub/usenet/news.answers.  The name under which
this FAQ is archived appears in the Archive-name line above (ca-driving-faq).

the questions:

Laws:  general
 1.I got a ticket for XXXX.  Can I beat it in court and how?
 2.There's a mistake on the ticket I just got.  Does that invalidate it?
 3.How do I get a copy of the California Vehicle Code?
 4.What are some noteworthy or peculiar California Vehicle Code laws?

Laws:  driving
 5.Is it legal to change lanes in the middle of an intersection?
 6.Is it legal for vehicles (usually motorcycles) to share a lane?

Laws:  driver's licenses and vehicle registration
 7.What is the grace period for getting a driver's license after establishing
   residency in California?  What is the grace period for vehicle registration?
 8.Do I have to have my driver's license with me when driving?
 9.Do I have to have any identification with me while not driving?
10.What information is in the driver license mag stripe?
11.Are there special license plates of Yosemite's Tunnel View?
12.How often can I be cited for expired vehicle registration?  And is it always
   or never a fix-it ticket?
13.Does my vehicle have to be registered, even if I don't drive it?
14.How much will it cost to import to CA and register an out-of-state vehicle?

Laws:  vehicle equipment
15.Is window tinting legal? What about pull-down blinds and window stickers?
16.Do I need chains in the mountains if I have snow tires?  If so, what kind?

Laws:  enforcement (see also "Radar and speed trap" section)
17.Can a local cop cite you for speeding on an Interstate?
18.Can a CHP officer write a ticket for an offense not committed on a freeway?
19.What's the difference between the CA Highway Patrol and the CA State Police?

Radar and speed traps
20.What are some locations of speed and carpool lane enforcement traps?
21.Are radar detectors illegal in CA, or just not popular for some reason?

Traffic court, traffic school, and DMV
22.Am I entitled to a jury trial for my traffic ticket?  Can I have counsel
   appointed at public expense?  Can I be sent to prison if found guilty?
23.Why can't I both argue my case in court and use traffic school to keep
   the points off my license if I lose?
24.I've heard about "comedy traffic schools".  Has anyone tried one of these?
25.Do tickets dismissed by traffic school attendance appear on my DMV record?
26.Do out-of-state tickets appear on your California DMV printout, and
   can insurance companies can find this info out if they don't?
27.Does the DMV find out about tickets received from Federal authorities?
28.Did you know you'll soon lose the right to a trial for parking tickets?

29.How much insurance must a driver carry?
30.Do insurance companies have to be licensed in CA?  How can I tell if one is?
31.Can my insurer legally ask me for my roommates' names and license numbers?
32.What's the net.recommendation for motorcycle insurance?

33.What's the state of Los Angeles' freeways after the Northridge earthquake?
   If I'm driving down from Northern California, should I take I-5 as usual,
   or is there now a faster route?
34.When you see a sign "Litter removal next two miles by organization XXX",
   what exactly does XXX do?

35.How much are the gasoline taxes in CA?

36.Can I get a ticket for a traffic violation while I'm riding a bicycle?
37.Will such bicycle traffic convictions go on my DMV driving record?
38.I had to slow down because of a bicyclist and then cross the center line to
   pass.  Aren't those damn fool lycra-butts supposed to ride on the
   sidewalk/in the gutter/in the bike lane/etc?
39.Oh?  So what are these bike lanes for, then?
40.One of those gangs of a dozen neon-shirted lycra-butts was taking up a whole
   lane the other day, don't they have to ride single file?
41.Okay, so what do I do to get around a bicyclist and be on my way?
42.I'm a slow, occasional cyclist and I feel a lot safer riding the way I walk,
   against the traffic.  Is that OK?

For further information . . .
43.What are some useful phone numbers and/or addresses?
44.What are some recommended readings?
45. Can I actually get traffic conditions over the Internet?

CHP radios and scanners
46.What is a "CHiPs detector"?  What's the complete story on CHP radios?
47.But aren't most citizens prohibited from using mobile radio scanners?

48.Where can I recycle used motor oil?
49.What about recycling in other parts of California?

and the answers:

Laws:  general

 1.I got a ticket for XXXX.  Can I beat it in court and how?

   It's hard to answer that question generally.  Some random suggestions:
   -- Pick up a copy of Nolo Press' _Fight_Your_Ticket_ (see the recommended
      readings question for ordering information and a review).
   -- Read the text of the law that you were cited for.  It's usually a CVC
      citation, see the question on getting a copy of the California Vehicle
   -- In some counties, if you go to court you waive the option to choose
      traffic school.  See the question on traffic school attendance for more
      information.  And call the clerk of the court where you got the ticket
      to find out what your options are.

 2.There's a mistake on the ticket I just got.  Does that invalidate it?

   from (Chris Calley) on 25 mar 93:

   Should you decide to fight the ticket, you might be able to argue that since
   the cop was not observant in writing down the correct state on your
   citation, that he/she might also have not been observant regarding your
   speed.  I do not believe that the simple fact that an error exists on the
   citation automatically gets the ticket dismissed.

   from (Jeff Makey) on 26 mar 93:

   About 5 years ago I got a speeding ticket in Maryland while driving a rented
   car.  Everything on the citation was correct but my driver's license number
   (the cop wrote down some other number that was on my license).  I paid the
   fine rather than travel back to Maryland to fight it, and my insurance
   company *did* eventually find out about it.  I assume that the ticket showed
   up on my California driving record, but never checked to be sure.  So don't
   expect a wrong license number to keep your record clean.

 3.How do I get a copy of the California Vehicle Code?

   The CVC is now available on the web at

   Or go to any DMV office and pay $3.00.  Many libraries carry it or a
   privately pulished version with interpretations and case references,
   such as West's Annotated California Codes and Deering's California Codes.

   from (Mark Ball) on 4 Feb 1994:

   The CA vehicle code is now available by anon ftp from

   from (Robb Topolski-KJ6YT) on 21 Feb 1994:

   you can also use gopher://

 4.What are some noteworthy or peculiar California Vehicle Code laws?

   Disclaimer:  these are paraphrased, and therefore may be wrong.  If
   you need to know exactly what the law says, please look it up!

   -- both license plates issued for a vehicle must be displayed [CVC 5200]
   -- a seller of a vehicle has 5 days to notify the DMV of the sale [CVC 5900]
   -- a new owner must apply to the DMV for transfer of registration within 10
      days [CVC 5902]
   -- an accident must be reported within 10 days to the DMV in Sacramento if
      there is death, bodily injury, or property damage > $500 [CVC 16000]
   -- U-turns are permitted on any green light unless signs prohibit[CVC 21451]
   -- a driver may not stop IN the crosswalk for a red light [CVC 21453(a)]
   -- right turn on circular red (not a red arrow!), and left turn on circular
      red from a one-way street onto a one-way street, are permitted after
      stopping and unless otherwise posted [CVC 21453(b)]
   -- a driver may not turn against a red arrow for the indicated turn
      regardless of signals shown for other movements [CVC 21453(c)]
   -- curb markings [CVC 21458}:
      red:  no stopping, standing, or parking
      yellow:  stopping only for loading or unloading passengers or freight
      white:  loading/unloading passengers, or depositing mail in adjacent box
      green:  time limit parking specified by local ordinance
      blue:  handicap parking
   -- a double parallel solid line may be crossed to make a left or U-turn,
      or turn into or out of a driveway or private road [CVC 21460]
   -- a two-way left-turn lane may only be used to prepare for and make a left
      turn or permitted U-turn from or into a highway; a vehicle shall not be
      driven in that lane for more than 200 feet [CVC 21460.5(c)]
   -- a _pair_ of double parallel solid lines may not be crossed [CVC 21651(a)]
   -- a U-turn can be made wherever a left turn can be made on a divided
      highway [CVC 21651(a)(2)], although see references to 22102-3 below
   -- notwithstanding the prima facie speed limits, a vehicle driven at less
      than the normal speed of traffic must be driven in the right-hand lane
      except when passing or preparing for a left turn [CVC 21654]
   -- motorcycles can make use of high occupancy lanes unless explicitly
      prohibited by traffic control devices [CVC 21655.5]
   -- the descending vehicle shall yield to the ascending vehicle on a grade if
      the roadway is of insufficient width for both [CVC 21661]
   -- when preparing to turn, you must drive into a bicycle lane, if one, no
      more than 200 feet from the intersection [CVC 21717]
   -- pedestrians have right-of-way in crosswalks, but pedestrians shall not
      walk or run into the path of a vehicle [CVC 21950]
   -- right turns must be made into the rightmost lane except when turning from
      a terminating highway with three or more lanes or from a one-way highway
      at an intersection [CVC 22100(a)]
   -- left turns may be made into any available lane [CVC 22100(b)]
   -- U-turns must be made from the two-way left turn lane, if one, or
      leftmost lane otherwise [CVC 22100.5, 22102]
   -- U-turns are prohibited in a business district except at intersections or
      through openings in a divided roadway [CVC 22102]
   -- U-turns are permitted in a residential district only if no vehicle
      approaching is closer than 200 feet or where protected by sign or
      signal [CVC 22103]
   -- turn signals are required for turns and lane changes which may affect any
      other vehicle [CVC 22107]
   -- signals are required during the last 100 feet before turning [CVC 22108]
   -- vehicles shall be stopped or parked, where permitted, with the right-hand
      wheels within 18 inches of the right-hand curb; if no curbs, right-hand
      parallel parking is required unless otherwise indicated [CVC 22502(a)]
   -- it is unlawful to drive a vehicle while under the influence of an
      alcoholic beverage or any drug [CVC 23152(a)]
   -- it is unlawful for any person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight,
      of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle [CVC 23152(b)]
   -- During darkness, lights shall not project glaring rays into the eyes of
      oncoming drivers when approaching within 500 feet.  The use of low beams
      shall be deemed to avoid glare regardless of road contour.  Low beam
      headlamps shall be used when following another vehicle within 300 feet.
      In all cases, foglamps and/or auxiliary passing lamps may be used with
      low beams if they are aimed so as to avoid projecting glaring rays into
      the eyes of oncoming drivers.  [CVC 24403-9]
   -- The operator of a private motor vehicle is responsible for the use of
      seat belts by him/herself and all passengers 4 years of age or over
      [CVC 27315(d)]; in addition, passengers 16 years of age or over are
      responsible for their own seat belt use [CVC 27315(e)].  The fine for
      not wearing a seat belt is $20 for the first offense and $50 thereafter
      [CVC 27315(h)].

      from (Sharen A. Rund):
      Effective 1 Jan 1993, you can be stopped and ticketed for _not_ wearing
      your seat belt - currently, you can only be ticketed if the officer
      stopped you for another infraction, then noticed that you were not
      wearing your seatbelt.
   -- a passenger seat restraint must be used for children under 4 [CVC 27360]
   -- there doesn't appear to be a law giving right-of-way to either party in
      a merge onto a freeway, although the Spring 1991 DMV California Driver
      Handbook states "Freeway traffic has the right of way." [p. 48].
   -- there is no law specifically prohibiting a lane change in the middle of
      an intersecting, see FAQ below on that
   -- there appears to be no maximum permitted number of lane changes per mile,
      although CVC 22108 does require one to signal at least 100 feet before
      executing a lane change

Laws:  driving

 5.Is it legal to change lanes in the middle of an intersection?

   from (Chuck Fry) on 25 Mar 1993:

   There is no section in the CVC specifically outlawing a lane change in the
   middle of an intersection.  HOWEVER, many revenue ... uh, law officers will
   ticket you under the blanket section generally known as "Unsafe Lane Change"
   [CVC 21658(a)].

 6.Is it legal for vehicles (usually motorcycles) to share a lane?

   from (Sidney Markowitz) on 21 Jun 1993,
        modified on 23 Jun after further research:

   The motorcycle drivers handbook handed out by the DMV discourages lane
   sharing (driving alongside cars in the same lane) because it is often a
   violation of the Basic Speed Law (CVC 22350) or involves unsafe lane
   changes.  However, that statement in itself indicates that there is no law
   against lane sharing, and that a rider can be cited only if the act violates
   one of the other laws.

   Many states other than California explicitly make lane sharing illegal.

   California does make "lane splitting", occupying two lanes by riding the
   line between them, illegal, I believe in CVC 21658(a):

      A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practical entirely within
      a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until such
      movement can be made with reasonable safety.

   The common response that I got from a query to on this
   subject is that Bay Area cops do not ticket for riding a motorcycle slowly
   (on the order of 10mph faster than the cars) alongside a line of cars
   stopped at a traffic light or stuck in a traffic jam, as long as you are
   within a lane (not on the shoulder).  However, it also seems common
   net.wisdom that police in Marin County and in Fremont do issue tickets for
   that behavior.  The important point is that the tickets are for violation of
   the basic speed law or for unsafe lane changes, which are subject to the
   judgement of the officer and so are pretty difficult to challenge in court.

   Regardless of the warnings in the DMV handbook, I and many other people have
   been taught in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's rider training course that
   it may be safer for motorcyclists to slowly and carefully ride alongside a
   line of stopped cars than to sit in line where they may be rearended by a
   car that is not paying attention.  Also, many motorcycles are air cooled and
   will overheat in just a few minutes of idling while sitting still.

   This is one of my major peeves:  That so many motorists act like I'm doing
   something illegal and unfair by riding where they can't drive when I lane
   share at a light, and that there is absolutely no mention of the motorcycle
   laws on the standard driver's license exam, so there is no reason for them
   to know better.

   There:  Now a few more car drivers know about this.  When you see a
   motorcyclist riding by you when you are stopped or almost stopped, don't
   swerve out to cut them off.  They are legal (if they are being careful),
   they may be acting out of safety considerations, and they are reducing
   traffic congestion by getting out of the thick of it instead of being part
   of it.

Laws:  driver's licenses and vehicle registration

 7.What is the grace period for getting a driver's license after establishing
   residency in California?  What is the grace period for vehicle registration?

   The grace period for a driver's licenses is 10 days unless you are employed
   for the purpose of driving, in which case there is no grace period [CVC
   12505].  Application for vehicle registration is required within 20 days
   [CVC 4152.5].

 8.Do I have to have my driver's license with me when driving?

   If you get hauled in for a traffic violation, yes.  A licensee must display
   it to a magistrate or judge upon request if brought before them for any
   traffic violation [CVC 12952].  A charge of failure to have your license in
   possession while driving is automatically dismissed if you produce it in
   court [CVC 12951(a)], as long as it was valid, etc.  After two such
   dismissals, the court has the option not to dismiss.  So, you shouldn't
   make a habit of not carrying it while driving.

 9.Do I have to have any identification with me while not driving?

   Not if you don't break any laws.  If you do break the law and don't want to
   sit in jail, it helps to have positive identification:  "Whenever any person
   is arrested by a peace officer for a misdemeanor, that person shall be
   released [...] unless [...] [t]he person could not provide satisfactory
   evidence of personal identification" [Penal Code 853.6(i)(5)].  Note that
   most traffic tickets are not for misdemeanors but infractions, and "all
   provisions of law relative to misdemeanors shall apply to infractions"
   [Penal Code 19d].

10.What information is in the driver license mag stripe?

   (RISKS appears on Usenet as comp.risks.  See any issue for information
    on accessing RISKS DIGEST archives.)

   In RISKS DIGEST 11.03, hibbert@xanadu.UUCP (Chris Hibbert) wrote:

   There will be a magnetic stripe on the back with three tracks encoded on it.
   The middle track will be encoded in the same format as your credit cards,
   and will therefore be readable with ordinary commercial readers.  This track
   will only contain 40 bytes of information, and will only contain the name,
   driver's license number, and expiration date.  The other two tracks will be
   in a format that is incompatible with current commercial readers, and will
   contain the rest of the information that is printed on the front: birth
   date, eye color, hair color, height, weight etc.

   The picture on the front will be an ordinary photo [color], with a hologram
   of the state and DMV seals to make counterfeiting harder.  There will
   apparently be a different version for people under the legal drinking age:
   the picture will be on the right instead of the left.

   In RISKS DIGEST 11.63, atn@cory.Berkeley.EDU (Alan Nishioka) wrote:

   Just for fun, I thought I'd try to read it.  I had previously been able to
   read bank cards (with help from sci.electronics).

   Bank Cards -- conform to ANSI/ISO 7810-1985 ($10)
   Track 1:    6 bit word with 1 bit parity.  LSB first.
               code offset 32 below ASCII code.
   Track 2:    4 bit word with 1 bit parity.  LSB first.  Numbers only.

   Driver's License --
   Track 1:    6 bit word with no parity.  Otherwise same as Bank Card.
   Track 2:    Same as Bank Card.
   Track 3:    ?

   California Driver's License:
   Track 2:    (low density)
      8 unidentified digits   License Number   Separator
      Expiration Date (YYMM)   Separator   Date of Birth (YYYYMMDD)
   Track 1:    (High density)
      Name   Address   City
   Track 3:    (High density.  Can't reposition read head. )

   It looks like there is space for a 58 character name [...], a 29 character
   address and a 13 character city.  I suspect the third track contains the
   rest of the information from the front of the license.

11.Are there special license plates of Yosemite's Tunnel View?

   from (David Lee) on 11 Jan 94

   Licence plates are now available that benefit Yosemite National Park.
   These licence plates are issued by the State of California and help to
   improve the park by funding specific projects through the Yosemite Fund.
   The plates are primarily light blue in color and show the panorama from
   Tunnel View.  The word "California" at the top is a cursive script in red
   and the words "Yosemite National Park" are in a sans serif font across
   the bottom.

   You can go down to your local DMV office and convert your licence plates
   over by applying and plunking down $41.  This fee is both a DMV
   administrative fee to convert your plates and an $18 contribution to the
   Fund.  You'll then be sent your new plates either with the new number
   series (1UAx xxx) or a conversion of your existing vanity plates.
   When your car comes up for renewal again, you'll be paying an extra
   $25 each time that will be going to the Yosemite Fund.

12.How often can I be cited for expired vehicle registration?  And is it always
   or never a fix-it ticket?

   from on 3 Mar 1992:

   If I had gotten a ticket for an expired registration, I would have gotten it
   taken care of very quickly.  Here is an explanation I got from a police
   officer whom I asked about expired registration:

   He usually allows 1-2 months of padding before he pulls someone over.  He
   will write the ticket "ALMOST" all of the time because the first time is
   usually a fix-it.  If he pulls someone over, and they already received a
   ticket for the expired registration within 5-7 days of the current day, he
   will usually let it go.  If it is longer than 5-7 days, he will always write
   the ticket and not make it a fix-it.  Fix-it tickets are always at the
   discretion of the officer.

   As for the officer stating that you had 6 weeks, there is nothing in the CVC
   that states that.  Once your registration expires, you should expect
   receiving a ticket.  Your registration is due the day the one from the
   previous year expires.

   from (Melville Capps) Tue Dec 28 14:49:14 1993

   This is not legal advice -- this is a description of how I successfully
   defended an expired registration ticket marked "non-correctable," and
   got it dismissed by the judge after showing proof of correction.

   The issuing of a fix-it ticket is NOT at the discretion of the issuing
   officer (despite what they and many judges believe)!

   Follow this typically convoluted legal citation carefully. . .

   Start at CVC 40610 which states how the officer SHALL issue a fix-it
   ticket for any of the violations listed in CVC 4454 (not having valid
   registration card in the vehicle) OR a violation of CVC 40522 (which
   refers one to CVC 40303.5 which lists what violations are correc-table).
   The violations that are correctable include CVC 4000(a) (DRIVING a
   vehicle without a valid registration -- it doesn't matter who owns the
   vehicle the violation is committed by the DRIVER).  The officer MUST
   issue tickets for the listed violations as correctable unless he or she
   finds any of the following in CVC 40610 (2) (b):

   1. "Evidence of fraud or persistent neglect."
   2. "The violation presents an immediate safety hazard."
   3. "The violator does not agree to, or cannot,
       promptly correct the violation."

   What is at the officer's "discretion" is not the issuing of a fix-it
   ticket, but whether or not the conditions above exist and therefore
   prohibit the issuing of a fix-it ticket.  It is well worth challenging
   the findings of the officer.  Fight That Ticket! (and before you do
   read the Nolo Press Book, "Fight Your Ticket," for some real legal ad-
   vice.  If at one's arraignment, the judge will listen to reasoning why
   the ticket should have been correctable he or she may dismiss it upon
   showing proof of correction.  If the judge refuses to listen to one's
   argument at arraignment (which is likely), then instead of entering a
   plea one needs to demur to the charge.  A demur is basically stating
   that one is improperly charged, and that the court therefore has no
   jurisdiction to hear the case.  Read the book "Fight Your Ticket"
   and/or get legal advice before doing this though as it is technical in
   nature, impedes the normal cash flow of the traffic court, and will
   probably piss off the judge, but its your legal right!

   The most obvious way to fix a registration violation is register the
   car, but another sure way is to stop driving the vehicle.  Often if
   you are driving someone else's vehicle the officer will assume that
   you cannot correct the violation and therefore issue you a non-
   correctable ticket.

13.Does my vehicle have to be registered, even if I don't drive it?

   from (Dan Hepner) on 23 Dec 1992:

   Normal registration fees are due if:  The vehicle is parked on a public
   street, or at any public parking facility once during the year in question;
   the vehicle is towed once on a public street during that year; and of
   course, if the vehicle is driven.  One-trip permits allow for moving a
   vehicle from one storage place to another, or to a repair facility, but
   doing either without such a permit incurs the full fee.  Off-highway fees
   (usually far less than normal registration) are due if the vehicle is
   operated, or transported, off-highway within the state of CA.

   Once due, these fees do not go away with the next year; rather the opposite
   occurs, the fees are delinquent, implying a penalty.  The longer they remain
   delinquent, the greater the penalty.  Each year adds new fees, and a new
   penalty.  As bad as could be imagined.

   There does appear the _option_ of waiving the fees and penalties to new
   owners, but CVC 9562 suggests that this should not be expected if one buys a
   vehicle with out-of-date plates.  "Certificates of non-operation", which
   claim that the vehicle never incurred the fee, are commonly used in
   circumstances which would imply a massive liability, but one must be signed
   by each of the previous owners.

   from (Melville Capps) Tue Dec 28 14:49:14 1993

   There is now a non-operational registration that must be used if the
   vehicle is not going to be on the public streets (either driven or
   parked).  The non-operational registration costs $5 for the year, and
   you can register the car at any time by sending in the registration
   fees.  Unfortunately the greedy DMV doesn't pro rate your registration.
   The state raised over $1,000,000 in 1992 from the $5 non-op fees. How
   much money the state grabbed by not pro rating the registrations on these
   200,000 vehicles is anyone's guess.

14.How much will it cost to import to CA and register an out-of-state vehicle?

   from (Al Clark), (Chuck Fry), (Dan Hepner), and (David Levine)
   in Jan 1993:

   Assuming it meets Federal emission standards, you can register it in CA,
   but you need to pay:
   1) Use tax (in lieu of sales tax) for it's value, unless you did not buy it
      for use in CA.  If you owned the car for more than 90 days before you
      brought it into CA, you are okay.  The use tax is reduced by the amount
      of sales tax paid to the another state, if owned for 90 days or less.
      The stated purpose is to reduce any advantage one might have in buying a
      car in some other state "for use in California".

   2) Smog impact fee, a one time fee of $300.  If the car meets CA emission
      standards for the year of manufacture, this is not applicable.  It says
      what emission standards it was manufactured to meet on a sticker under
      the hood.

   3) You'll need a smog check and certificate for most vehicles.  Figure
      around $40 for this.

   4) Normal CA registration costs.  Part of this is based on car's value.
      This like a personal property tax, and this part is a deduction on your
      Federal Income Tax.

   For late model vehicles, the smog check is usually not a problem.  First,
   there isn't that much difference between "49-state" emission standards and

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