TAMPA -- State lawmakers seeking to have Florida join the 39 states that prohibit texting while driving said they have gained the upper hand.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Doug Holder, a Sarasota Republican, filed a bill to make texting while driving a secondary offense under which a driver can receive a citation but only after being pulled over for a primary offense such as speeding or reckless driving.
Cell phone calls while driving would still be permitted under the bill, a companion to one filed in the Senate by Venice Republican Nancy Detert
Federal estimates show distracted driving contributes to 16 percent of all fatal crashes, leading to around 5,000 deaths every year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported.
"If you are texting while driving you are 23 times more likely to have an accident," Holder said. "I think the timing is right. I think we are going to get something passed.
"Generally conservatives are somewhat reluctant to let government have control. I am conservative but (distracted driving) has become an epidemic."
Holder said he's not aware of any opposition to the bill at this point.
He said the bill could be considered a compromise of sorts because it does not prohibit all use of handheld devices while driving, as laws in some states do. But he said he believes it is important to approve a texting law, especially because of widespread use by teen-agers.
"Teen-agers must realize that some behavior they do at their home or walking around the mall is not behavior behind the wheel, but we don't have anything on the books."
State Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Delray Beach, at a November rally in Tampa against distracted driving led by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said the distracted driving bills died in the Legislature before because of the libertarian leanings of former Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon.
Cannon has left office because of the term limits law.
The Reason Foundation, a California-based libertarian think tank, said in a report earlier this year that "cell phone usage has never been proven to cause accidents."
"While cell-phones can be distracting, so can many other features in cars. Is the next step to ban GPS units and car radios?" said a January blog post by Reason Foundation transportation policy analyst Baruch Feigenbaum.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has said distracted driving consistently ranks as one of the traffic safety issues at forefront of many drivers' thinking.
"Each year, more than 80 percent of drivers in the annual AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index cite distraction as a serious problem and a behavior that makes them feel less safe on the road.
Holder's bill establishes unlawful use of a "wireless communications device" in a crash as a penalty of four points against a drivers license. A moving violation in conjunction with unlawful use of a wireless device within a school safety zone would carry of penalty of two points.
The bill says a person may not operate a vehicle while manually typing or entering letters, including texting, e-mailing and instant messaging.
Exceptions apply to operators of authorized emergency vehicles or others reporting an emergency or criminal or suspicious act to law enforcement.
Exceptions also apply to use of navigation devices and receiving radio broadcasts. ___