ATLANTA - The state Senate signed off on Gov. Roy Barnes' highway safety plan Monday, setting up an eleventh-hour debate before the plan can become law.
The vote on the plan, which would lower drunken-driving levels, raise the driving age to 17 in four Atlanta area counties and crack down on "road rage," won't be final until the Senate squares their version with the House, which passed a much weaker version of the bill.
Under the Senate version, the state's level for drivers to be considered legally drunk would be lowered from .10 to .08 grams. Open containers would be banned in moving vehicles, changing a current law that allows passengers, but not the driver, to have drinks.
It would increase penalties for repeat drunken-driving offenders and for aggressive drivers who attempt to intimidate or harass other motorists.
The House kept the drunken-driving provisions, but provided some exemptions to the open container law and wiped out the increased driving age - which originally would have covered 18 metro Atlanta counties.
Supporters said the bill addresses key traffic concerns in a state where the number of cars on the road, and the number of fatal accidents, has increased in recent years.
They particularly emphasized a spate of high-profile accidents that have killed teens in the past couple of years.
"Every one of us probably has some childhood friend who died at 16, and we could probably list all their names," said Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, Mr. Barnes' Senate floor leader. "When you are 16 you (think you) are invincible; there's nothing that can hurt you.
"We've got to help them a little bit."
Critics called the plan unfair to teens in the four metro counties who are good drivers and argued that it would hurt, not help, making young drivers more responsible.
"I want my child to have two years of experience while I've got control of those car keys," said Sen. Robert Lamutt, R-Marietta. "I don't want them to learn to drink (at college) at the same time they're going away to learn to drive."
While the bill eventually passed 52-0, critics tried to push a long list of amendments that would have removed the teen driving provisions, further toughened drunken-driving laws and made other changes.
Sen. Bart Ladd, R-Atlanta, opposed raising the driving age in his district. But, in an apparent attempt to draw support away from it, he offered an amendment that would have expanded the driving age increase to Chatham County and Clayton County, near Atlanta.
"I'm sorry if Chatham has to be dragged into it," he said. "Sometimes you've got to take a few casualties."
After Mr. Thompson publicly spoke against the plan, and other senators spoke with Mr. Ladd privately, he withdrew the amendment.
Because the General Assembly's two chambers passed different versions of the same bill, it will now be hashed out in a committee made up of members of both bodies. House Speaker Tom Murphy has said he opposes raising the driving age anywhere in Georgia, while Mr. Barnes and his floor leaders remain dedicated to the concept.
The General Assembly will take today off and convene again Wednesday, the last day of this year's session. Lawmakers in both chambers have said they expect negotiations on the bill to last until the session's final moments.