By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - Illinois will become the fourth U.S. state to allow illegal immigrants to drive, after the state House of Representatives on Tuesday approved temporary licenses and Governor Pat Quinn said he would sign the measure into law.
Only Washington state and New Mexico allow drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, and Utah provides driving permits.
Supporters of the measure said some 250,000 illegal immigrants already were driving in the fifth most populous U.S. state, and the new law would require them to take a drivers test and have insurance. It was not yet clear how many illegal immigrants would feel comfortable stepping forward to apply for licenses.
"Illinois roads will be safer if we ensure every driver learns the rules of the road and is trained to drive safely," Democrat Quinn said in a statement. "I look forward to signing this legislation."
The vote was 65 to 46 in the state House, after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the proposal on December 4.
Republican opposition to the measure melted after the November 6 election, when Democratic President Barack Obama won re-election with 66 percent of Hispanics voters backing him nationally and Illinois Democrats making big gains in legislative seats.
Some national Republicans have softened their opposition to immigration reform.
Former President George W. Bush, who rarely speaks on policy issues, last month called on lawmakers to debate immigration reform "with a benevolent spirit" and bear in mind the contribution of immigrants in building the country.
After the election, Republican senators from the Mexican border states of Texas and Arizona proposed what they called a compromise plan to offer visas to children brought to the United States by illegal immigrant parents. The plan by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl is intended as a Republican alternative to the Democrats' "Dream Act," which would grant citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
The Illinois Highway Safety Coalition says unlicensed, uninsured drivers are involved in almost 80,000 accidents in the state each year, resulting in $660 million in damage. Unlicensed immigrant drivers cost $64 million in damage claims, it said.
The measure would extend to undocumented immigrants Illinois' existing temporary visitor drivers license, used by legal immigrants. The licenses are "visually distinct" from ordinary licenses, with a purple background and the words "not valid for identification" on the front, explained Lawrence Benito, chief executive of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
State Farm Insurance, a major insurer headquartered in Illinois, said the legislation could present challenges for insurance companies in assessing the driving record of illegal immigrants, but the company would implement the law.
"Just because you have a driver's license of any kind doesn't mean you'll get insurance," said spokeswoman Missy Dundov. "We have to consider all the information available."
The Illinois Safer Families Coalition ran ads opposing the measure. Coalition spokesman Bill Kelly noted that a truck driver who bribed a state official to illegally obtain a driver's license was involved in a 1994 crash that killed six people.
"I'm afraid that this bill, this poorly thought-through bill, is going to result in similar tragedies," Kelly said.
The scandal resulting from the 1994 accident led to the conviction and jailing of former Illinois Republican Governor George Ryan.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Illinois was home to 2 million Latinos, or nearly 16 percent of the population.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and David Gregorio)