By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida is one of just a few states without any type of ban on text messaging while driving, but that could soon change as lawmakers move to slam the brakes on distracted drivers in the fourth-most-populous state.
"Texting while driving is an epidemic in Florida," Representative Doug Holder, the longtime sponsor of a bill to limit the practice and improve safety on Florida's roads and highways, said on Friday.
"This (texting) endangers everybody around you," he said.
Holder spoke to Reuters a day after his bill won unanimous approval in a House transportation subcommittee in Tallahassee.
A similar bill has already been cleared by two committees in the state Senate. The legislation, which has fizzled in previous sessions in the state capitol, is widely expected to be signed into law by Republican Governor Rick Scott later this year.
Both bills would make texting while driving a secondary offense. That means a motorist would have to commit another violation, such as careless driving or running a red light, to be pulled over. But when stopped, a driver could be hit with two tickets, one for the primary infraction and another for texting.
The bills carry a penalty of $30 for first-time texting offense and $60 for a second offense within five years. Also, a crash while texting would require six points against the driver's license and texting in a school zone would carry two points.
The pending bills would allow drivers to use hand-held messaging devices while idling at a stop light, or when pulled off to the road shoulder. Police and other emergency responders would be exempt.
President Barack Obama, citing "deadly crashes involving drivers distracted by text messaging while driving," signed an executive order in October 2009 banning federal employees from texting while driving.
Many state and local governments have been slow to follow the president's lead, despite what some safety advocates see as the growing danger posed by people texting while behind the wheel.
Florida currently stands with Arizona, Montana, South Carolina and South Dakota as one of just five states with no texting while driving restrictions.
Smooth sailing for the legislation in Tallahassee this year is largely attributable to a group of insurance, education, legal, medical and automotive lobbyists calling itself the "FL DNT TXT+DRIVE COALITION."
The organization put together some chilling testimonials from family members of victims due to texting-related accidents.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said 3,700 crashes in the state in 2011 stemmed from driver distraction due to electronic devices.
Gary Browne, an auto collision repairman who sees a lot of mangled cars, said people need to know that it is not acceptable to take their eyes off the road for texting while driving.
Browne's 53-year-old wife Cheryl died in May 2011 after a texting driver in a pickup truck plowed into her car while she was stopped at a red light in Melbourne, Florida.
"That's the problem, it's so acceptable," said Browne. "It's like nobody cares. People need to realize you can't do it."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Tom Brown and Dan Grebler)