Originally created 02/21/01

House panel overhauls Barnes' driving plans



ATLANTA - Lawmakers gutted parts of Gov. Roy Barnes' far-reaching driving package Tuesday, softening a proposed crackdown on open-alcohol containers and axing a ban on 16-year-olds driving in metro Atlanta.

The House Motor Vehicles Committee approved a substitute for a bill Mr. Barnes announced early this month, saying it would "start saving lives on Day 1."

The substitute, which the full House will consider, eliminates Mr. Barnes' proposal to prohibit 16-year-olds from driving in 18 Atlanta-area counties without adult supervision.

It also calls for a fine for anyone possessing an open-alcohol container in a moving car - if an officer can determine to whom the alcohol belongs. Mr. Barnes' plan would have held the driver accountable for any open containers found.

But Mr. Barnes isn't giving up.

"The governor still supports the teen-driving restrictions in all 18 counties," Barnes spokeswoman Joselyn Butler said. "He hopes this is something the Senate will deal with and the House will come around."

Rep. Bobby Parham, D-Milledgeville, the chairman of the Motor Vehicles committee, said he wanted to make sure the bill, which contains drunken driving laws needed to keep the state eligible for federal highway money, passes in the House.

The teen-driving provision was unpopular with some lawmakers, mainly those from Atlanta's suburbs.

But Mr. Parham said the legislative fight is far from over.

"I don't think the governor's about to give up," he said. "He's too shrewd a political engineer."

While less restrictive than Mr. Barnes intended, the bill would still toughen laws against drunken and aggressive drivers.

New drunken driving laws would lower the blood-alcohol limit for legal drunkenness to .08. The state's limit is currently .10, although drivers can be charged for driving under the influence at .08 if they are driving erratically.

The bill also would increase community-service requirements and punishment for repeat DUI offenders.

"We're still looking at a bill that strengthens penalties on people who are driving while intoxicated," Ms. Butler said.

The bill also addresses "road rage." Drivers who intentionally harass or intimidate other drivers, particularly by following too closely, weaving or driving recklessly, could face a $5,000 fine and a year in prison.

They would also have six demerit points slapped on their driver's license - the highest number of points currently assessed in Georgia for any moving violation.

Mr. Parham said that the governor's House floor leaders were polling representatives Tuesday to see whether they would support the restrictions on 16-year-old drivers, either in 18 counties as proposed or the four - Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb - Mr. Barnes originally considered.

As the bill works its way through the General Assembly, a second teen-driving proposal is expected to reach the House floor soon.

Sponsored by Sen. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta and backed by Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the bill would limit the number of nonfamily passengers teen drivers could carry, set 10 p.m. curfews for teens and require 40 hours of driver's education.

Mr. Parham said his committee might work to make that bill, which has already passed the Senate, even tougher.