By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to ban texting while driving, sending the proposal to likely passage in the House of Representatives.
"It's become an epidemic," said Senator Nancy Detert, a Republican who has been trying for five years to pass the bill. "This needs to stop."
Detert said Florida is one of only five U.S. states that does not currently have any restrictions on texting behind the wheel. She said public opinion polls show 89 percent support for the ban.
"They see the beauty of it," said Detert. "We don't need facts and figures; we see it, driving to Tallahassee."
The bill would make texting a "secondary violation," meaning a police officer would have to see a driver doing something else wrong to pull a driver over. Usually, Detert said, that would be drifting in and out of traffic lanes.
A first offense would carry a $30 fine and a second or additional texting incident within five years would be double the fine and add three points against a driver's license. A driver who accumulates 12 points in 12 months would face a 30-day suspension of his license.
Supporters of the legislation said they were more interested in educating young drivers than in punishing those using hand-held electronics. Drivers could still text while sitting at a red light or while pulled over on the road shoulder.
Detert's bill is supported by a wide coalition, including the AAA motor club, the Florida Parent Teacher Association, medical and insurance associations and Florida sheriffs and police chiefs. It sailed through three Senate committees without a dissenting vote and got a 36-0 endorsement by the full Senate.
A companion bill by Republican House Representative Doug Holder is pending on the House calendar. It also is endorsed by three committees, with only one member opposing it.
Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 39 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in six states.
Talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in only 10 states, led by California and New York.
While the IIHS does not take a position on the legislation in Florida, spokesman Russ Rader said research shows that legislation to ban texting while driving has so far not had the desired impact on car accidents. "Unfortunately the bans have not reduced crashes," said Rader.
That was perhaps because bans are now so well publicized that offenders are hiding their phones from view on their laps; an even more dangerous practice, he said.
In several states crash rates had actually gone up after texting bans were introduced, he added.
(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman)