Golf carts making the rounds in some communities

Although most of us are used to seeing golf carts traveling along paved pathways on golf courses, these carts and other neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) are increasingly making the rounds on neighborhood streets in retirement areas and other self-contained communities. Like private automobiles, golf carts have evolved into many shapes, colors, and sizes; some are even designed to look like popular automobiles (e.g., Roadsters, Cadillacs, or Rolls Royces). Although golf carts usually incorporate basic safety features such as rear-view mirrors and brake lights, some also include safety features such as turn signals, windshields, wipers, headlights, and safety belts. Some golf carts even include radios, carpeting, and cargo space for packages.

Golf carts and other NEVs show great promise for use as an alternative mode of local transportation, especially for senior citizens, children, and people with disabilities who may not have access to personal automobiles. Use of golf carts (sometimes called "electric buggies") and other NEVs also contributes to reductions in noise and air pollution.

CUTR recently undertook a small-scale research project to establish a baseline of information about the potential use of NEVs by senior citizens and others who cannot drive or who prefer to use golf carts for personal mobility. The project was funded by a grant from the University of South Florida Institute on Aging (IOA).

According to Dr. James Mortimer, Institute Director, "This pilot project raises a number of important questions, including the acceptance of golf carts as a form of transportation in Florida and the degree to which seniors who no longer qualify for a driver’s license can safely operate golf carts on city streets. Because transportation is a significant problem for our senior population, studies are needed to determine how golf cart and NEVs can be incorporated into the design of new and established retirement communities in Florida. All too often, these communities are designed with the assumption that seniors will continue to rely on the automobile for transportation, which makes aging-in-place difficult, if not impossible."

State and Local Governance Issues

In Florida, a golf cart is defined as "a motor vehicle designed and manufactured for operation on a golf course for sporting or recreational purposes" (s. 320.01). Although state statutes set general parameters for the use of golf carts on public roadways, specific rules governing golf cart operation are left to local government entities (usually a city or county). Florida Statutes permit the operation of golf carts during daylight hours; however, the responsible government entity may allow golf carts to be operated on roadways between sunset and sunrise if the golf cart is equipped with headlights, brake lights, turn signals, and a windshield. In Florida, a golf cart operator does not need a driver’s license. Further, there are no age requirements specified for golf cart drivers, which means that children are allowed to operate golf carts, as are non-licensed adults.

Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

At the Federal level, few regulations have been promulgated relating to the use of golf carts on public roadways. A notable exception is the January 1997 adoption of the "golf cart crossing warning sign" (W11-11), which has been added to FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The regulations require that the golf cart symbol be accompanied by an educational plaque for at least three years from the date of initial installation. The regulations also permit states to use the sign to warn that golf carts will be sharing the road with vehicles and other slow-moving devices (for example, bicycles and mopeds).

Case Study: Palm Desert, California

CUTR interviewed several communities with active golf cart programs, including one in Palm Desert, California. Beginning on January 1, 1993, California Assembly Bill 1229 authorized Palm Desert to initiate and administer a Golf Cart Transportation Pilot program. The five-year program is intended to develop a convenient transportation system that is safe, environmentally sensitive, and offers zero auto emissions. It was designed to expand the use of golf carts to more than just transportation to golf and recreational amenities. It also provided for broader use on public streets and private roads than is currently allowed for in California. In Palm Desert, permitted users are allowed to travel via golf carts to schools, colleges, parks, shopping, businesses, and government offices.

The long-term goal of the project is to provide full golf cart access throughout the community. A recent study of Palm Desert’s golf cart users found that average golf cart operators use their golf cart twice a day, four times a week, and ride alone or with one passenger, taking a three-mile trip for a recreational purpose. The benefits of a program such as this one include a reduction of some of the environmental and social problems related to traffic pollution and congestion. The Golf Cart Pilot Program is credited with reduced traffic congestion, reduced pollution, the development of new routes for golf cart traffic, and the development of new facilities to accommodate golf carts (such as parking and battery recharging outlets).

Interest in the Palm Desert Golf Cart Pilot Project was related to the need to reduce air pollution in Southern California. The pilot project conducted an air quality assessment to estimate the net air quality benefit that occurred during 1993 as a result of the substitution of gasoline-powered automobiles with electric golf carts, which are considered "zero emission vehicles." A reduction of nearly four tons of pollutants was realized during the first year of the program. According to reports published by the City of Palm Desert, subsequent studies indicate a reduction of 16 tons of carbon monoxide annually.

Although the environmental impact may be fairly evident, another important goal of the pilot study was to provide certain groups of people with access to transportation, while placing them in a vehicle where there is reduced opportunity for causing harm to themselves, other motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Conclusions

Aside from the potential for a positive environmental impact, the use of electric golf carts and other NEVs holds great promise for enhancing the safe mobility of senior citizens, persons with disabilities, and others who do not or cannot drive regular vehicles. As individuals reach an age when they are no longer comfortable driving (or have their licenses revoked), golf carts may prove to be a safe, affordable, and environmentally sensitive way to maintain independence and mobility, at least for local trips.

For more information, contact Program Director Rosemary Mathias, (813) 974-9787.

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