The (Mostly) Safe Golf Cart

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Parker Sykes, a 67-year old retired engineer, lives in a very large planned development for active adults over 55. “It’s like a storybook community,” he said of The Villages, in Central Florida northwest of Orlando. Everything there is spotless, flowers are abundant and much of the lifestyle centers on the estimated 65,000 golf carts in residence, he said. “Everybody drives a customized golf cart because it’s part of our culture.”

Mr. Sykes and his neighbors, like a growing number of people in retirement communities across the country, are driving golf carts not only to play golf but also to hit the road for short trips to the supermarket, doctors’ appointments and dinner out. The carts are convenient, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, cheaper to buy and maintain than cars, and a handy alternative in areas with limited public transit. Plus, drivers say, they are fun and easy to drive.

While the overall safety record of golf carts is not tracked nationally, some people, including Mr. Sykes, are concerned about how they are used.

Golf carts, which are partly enclosed, are often perceived as being safer than they are, said Jana Lynott, senior policy adviser for transportation issues at AARP. People who use them on the roads “are as vulnerable as bicyclists and pedestrians,” Ms. Lynott said, “and older adults are at increased risk for injuries in a crash, as they’re more vulnerable as they age.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that in 2015, nearly 18,000 golf cart-related injuries nationwide required emergency room treatment to people of all ages.

In 2016, The Villages had 94 rescue and emergency medical service incidents involving golf carts, with 70 involving injuries, said Edmund Cain, fire chief for The Villages’ Public Safety Department. The department says it does not track fatalities and could not provide data on the nature of the injuries.

The 40-square-mile district has a population of about 120,000. Most residents use carts on the 42 miles of paths that are shared with bicyclists and pedestrians, but carts also are driven in public areas shared with traffic, he said. Among the causes of crashes, he said, are drivers’ losing control or handing the wheel to underage and unlicensed grandchildren.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles did not respond to numerous requests for data.

Golf carts are designed to travel at less than 20 miles per hour and are not required to meet any federal safety standards, including the installation of seatbelts. Regulation comes at the state level.

“States that are allowing golf carts on public roads are turning back the clock on 50 years of vehicle safety progress,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry. “These vehicles don’t have to meet even the basic safety standards that are in place to prevent injuries and save lives in crashes.”

Still, said Fred L. Somers Jr., general counsel for the International Light Transportation Vehicle Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers: “Over all, serious injuries and deaths pale in comparison to bicycle or motorcycle crashes. In my judgment, it’s way overblown.”

Some law enforcement officers have a similar view.

Harris Blackwood, director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City had a long and positive history with golf carts. “It’s a city built on golf carts,” he said of the planned community with a significant retired population, where the carts have been used as a major means of transportation for more than 50 years. He said the state made a concerted effort in recent years to improve safety standards. “At one time, your 9-year-old could take a golf cart to the store,” he said. “If we saw a trend in the number of injuries or number of fatalities, we would certainly take a position, but we’ve not seen that come to pass.”

Lt. Matt Myers of the Peachtree City Police Department said the carts could be safe and an asset if guidelines, education and enforcement are carried out, and if well-designed roads and infrastructure are provided.

“In the last 15 years since I’ve been doing this, there has only been one death,” he said. Most serious collisions are caused by teenagers who drive too fast or turn too quickly; older adults generally don’t do that, he said. “I think it is a misrepresentation to say it is a major safety problem for retirement communities,” he added.

Similar reports come from California. “It’s not something that rides high on our list of problems,” said Chris Cochran, assistant director of marketing and public affairs for the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. In 2014 there was one death and 17 injuries; in 2015, there was another death and 12 injuries for golf carts statewide.

Today, 24 states have statutes that allow localities to regulate golf cart use on public streets, said Amanda Essex, a policy specialist in transportation for the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in five other states, legislation has been introduced to regulate their use.

Legislation typically includes prohibiting golf carts on state and federal highways, and on roads with speed limits above 25 to 35 miles per hour. In some cases, their use is restricted to daytime, requiring signage to indicate use and specifying driver age and licensure.

At least 375 municipalities have ordinances that permit golf carts (sometimes called golf cars) on public roads, Mr. Somers said. The growth is fairly recent, with dozens of municipalities enacting legislation every year, according to Mr. Somers.

“We know that these vehicles were originally not designed for street use,” Mr. Somers said. “There is very little crash resistance.” He added that “most municipalities are legitimately concerned with safety.”

Many accidents occur because of driver negligence, like distraction or intoxication, Mr. Somers said. “Problems arise if people don’t follow the rules,” he said. “A 90-year-old, who is blind with no license, shouldn’t be allowed to drive a golf cart.”

Kristopher J. Seluga, a partner at Technology Associates, a forensic engineering consulting firm, said the numbers might actually be higher because of underreporting. “Many fatality victims don’t survive long enough to make it to the emergency room,” he said. “When that happens, they don’t end up in the C.P.S.C. data.” He estimates that because of increased use, the number of accidents has increased steadily in recent years while the number of injuries has roughly tripled since 1991.

“For the retirement community, a big safety issue is people falling out,” said Mr. Seluga, who added that when drivers make a sharp left turn, passengers are often caught off-guard and are thrown. “If you don’t have seatbelts and a door, it is difficult to stay in the cart,” he said.

He said he typically received several news alerts each week about serious golf cart accidents; one is usually about a death. “Many articles refer to the incidents as ‘freak accidents,’” he said. “But if it happens all the time, it is not a ‘freak accident.’”