Safety Concerns Rise As Golf Carts Take to the Streets

By Donna Koehn | June 22, 2010

When Shannon Wiegert bought the new, bright red golf cart for scooting around car shows, he didn’t think to ask about safety features on the slow-moving vehicle.

And when his little girl begged his older daughter for rides around the neighborhood, he didn’t bat an eye. Golf carts are common in his Lakeland community; golf cart crossings dot the roads around the golf course nearby. He trusted Ashley, 17, with the family car, so driving a golf cart seemed no big deal.

But Gabriella, 6, died of head injuries she suffered in April when she fell from the cart on a Friday afternoon ride.

When Wiegert finds himself unable to sleep at night or blindsided by grief at work, he heads to the Internet to look for ways to keep this from happening to other children.

What he has found is a jumble of national, state and local laws and ordinances; contradictory findings about safety; and a lack of simple advice for parents on protecting children.

“Everybody says it’s somebody else’s responsibility,” he says.

Kristopher Seluga, a mechanical engineering and safety expert who conducts studies on golf cart safety, says he is frustrated every time he reads of another death or injury to a child.

“In so many of the articles they use the term ‘freak accident,”‘ he says. “It’s not. It happens all the time.”

Each year, about 13,000 golf cart-related accidents require emergency room visits, and that number is rising as the economical, fun-to-drive carts become more popular on city streets, says Seluga, who analyzed statistics compiled by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Of those accidents, about 40 percent involve children younger than 16, and half of those are due to a fall from a moving golf cart.

“That’s a disproportionate amount of children, considering most golf carts are still used on golf courses by adults,” says Seluga, who works for Technology Associates, a Connecticut-based company that reconstructs accidents.

His studies, using golf carts and child-size crash dummies, suggest that many ejections occur during left turns. He says children are susceptible to falling because of their small size and center of gravity, and they aren’t strong enough to hold on to railings that help adults.

Additionally, the railing next to the seat on the passenger side acts as a fulcrum for children, causing them to go up and over during a left turn, making it more likely they will land on their heads, he says.

Gabriella died from brain injuries she suffered in the fall.

“I’m a strong advocate of seat belts for everyone, but especially for children,” Seluga says. “I would forbid anyone to ride whose feet don’t rest on the floorboard.”

Fred Somers, lawyer and secretary for the National Golf Car Manufacturers Association, says the Atlanta-based trade group disputes the safety of seat belts on slow-moving golf cars – the industry term for the vehicles. He says people need to be able to quickly jump out of a golf car in a rollover.

“If you’re strapped in a golf car and it rolls over, you’re going to be stuck and crushed to death,” he says. “If you’re going to have seat belts in a golf car, you’d better have a crush-proof canopy.”

There is a dearth of studies on the issue. One of the few is a 2008 report by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, that showed that injuries involving golf carts increased 130 percent over the past 17 years. Researchers attributed that to the rise in popularity of the carts on city streets.

Rollovers are most common on hilly golf courses, not streets, and most of those involve a cart turning on its side, not upside down, safety experts say.

Street Vehicles

The city of Palm Desert, Calif., was a pioneer in the use of golf carts on city streets for older residents who winter there. Its first ordinance was created in 1974, and through the years the city has required the addition of safety features such as seat belts, turn signals and brake lights.

Mark Diercks, the city’s transportation engineer, says golf carts with seat belts have proved safe, and rollovers have not been a problem.

“The only fatal accident involving golf carts that I am aware of in Palm Desert occurred on a golf course, late at night, involving some very intoxicated individuals,” Diercks says. “Seat belts were not involved.”

Seluga, who tracks golf cart accidents, says he knows of no deaths caused by rollovers in which people were using seat belts. He agrees it would be impractical to force golfers to use them on the golf course.

In 1997, aware that golf carts increasingly were migrating from golf courses onto city streets, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration created a new category called Low Speed Vehicle to regulate safety.

The vehicles are capable of reaching 20 to 25 mph, and include what the safety administration calls personal neighborhood vehicles, neighborhood electric vehicles and golf cars. All are required to have seat belts and other safety devices.

However, golf carts that go slower than 20 mph – which are far less expensive and the kind most often used on the street – are not regulated, unless state or local governments set rules. Many of them are purchased second hand from golf courses.

In Florida, anyone 14 or older may drive a golf cart, even without a driver’s license. No seat belts or other safety features are required, although driving is restricted to streets approved for golf carts by local governments.

Communities with Carts

The retirement communities of Sun City Center and The Villages of Florida conduct annual inspections of golf carts, but require no seat belts. All Sun City Center streets are approved for golf carts, although the carts are not allowed to make right or left turns onto State Road 674. They may, however, travel on a designated golf cart path alongside it and may cross it at three locations. In March, a path opened allowing carts to cross U.S. 301 for access to a Walmart in Wimauma.

Some Davis Islands residents want the Tampa City Council to allow golf carts on their neibhborhood’s roads for short rides including transporting children to sports practices and games. Many people already use them for such purposes. The council will hear from the city attorney and police officials at its meeting June 24.

According to Somers of the golf car trade association, sales of the vehicles have shown a “tremendous uptick” because they are economical, environmentally friendly and easy to operate. Retirement communities and resorts were the first to take the carts off the golf course, but neighborhood use is spreading across the country. They also are used at businesses, apartment complexes, colleges and on athletic fields.

Somers also pointed to a jump in sales due to tax credits created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. For Low Speed Vehicles purchased in 2009, up to $7,500 was offered by the federal government. LSVs bought from Feb. 17, 2009, to Jan. 1, 2012, qualify for a 10 percent tax credit, up to $2,500.

Wiegert’s daughter died after a fall from a golf cart incapable of traveling faster than 17 mph – meaning his cart legally was sold to him without safety features. Research shows children can fall from carts driven as slowly as 11 mph.

Wiegert says he never would have allowed his daughter in the golf cart if he had any idea her life was in danger. He is frustrated by the confusing regulations and lack of safety information.

“The laws are just a mess,” he says. “But I’m not going to get discouraged.”

He has been writing elected officials to ask them to pass stricter laws governing golf carts. He proposes three options: requiring seat belts on all carts used off of golf courses, regardless of their top speed; requiring children to wear helmets while riding; or requiring cart manufacturers to build a protective railing that would keep children from falling out.

“Gabriella wouldn’t ride her bike without her helmet, and she even wore it when she went roller skating,” says her mother, Heather Wiegert.

On Thursday, the family received a shipment of memorial bracelets they plan to sell to raise money for helmets. Also, an artist friend has designed limited-edition sets of a sterling silver bracelet, necklace and earrings that she will donate for fundraising. The jewelry features a ladybug, which has sentimental meaning for the family.

Information on purchasing the items will soon be available on the family’s website at www.gabriellaslegacy.org/ index.php. The site also has an online petition that requests new regulations be instituted; it has about 700 signatures from across the country. The Wiegerts and their friends have collected about 650 signatures on written petitions, as well.

The Florida Assisted Living Association has raised $850 to buy helmets and has set up drop-off sites for donations of new helmets. Shannon Wiegert is executive director of an assisted-living facility in Lecanto.

Last week, Heather Wiegert opened an envelope filled with sympathy cards created by a fourth-grade class from Tampa.

“Sometimes it’s things like that, little things, that keep me going,” she says.

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