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Golf carts and cars: Where fun and safety intersect

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of February 9, 2012)

Leisurely tooling around on a golf cart has become synonymous with luxury living in Florida, especially in golf-course neighborhoods and the private communities on Vero’s barrier island. 

It’s cool to drive one, or to let kids take the wheel.

What’s not cool is when golf carts – in proximity to bikes, pedestrians and automobiles – make the roads (and sidewalks) less safe for everyone.

The two most common problems with golf carts, according to law enforcement, are that drivers aren't expecting to see them on roads and sidewalks, and people driving golf carts often think they're on vacation from traffic laws.

They’re not, even golf cart drivers  don't have a driver's license.

The City of Vero Beach has talked about allowing golf carts to be driven on roadways in the city's two ungated, golf- course neighborhoods of Riomar and the Vero Beach Country Club. The issue of golf carts also came up at last week’s meeting of the Orchid Town Council.

"On the barrier island, you do tend to have a fair amount of golf cart use in the gated communities and where different parts of a community about each other on ocean side of A1A and river side of A1A," said Castaway Cove resident Jim Harpring, general counsel for the Indian River County Sheriff's Office. "You see them going to the beach, crossing A1A and going back and forth. You see that to a pretty fair extent."

One resident at the Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club was concerned enough to write to the Town Council, which prompted a lively discussion on the issue last week and highlighted the need for public awareness about the responsibilities of golf cart owners and drivers.

"Shouldn't golf carts be required to follow the same 'rules of the road' as cars – in particular, stopping at stop signs?" asked Orchid resident Al McNally in an e-mail to Councilman Harry Webber on Jan. 22.

McNally said he feels the ability to use golf carts on Orchid streets is "one of the many great features" of the community, but that he has two concerns – preventing an accident and avoiding unnecessary liability.

"In many ways, having stop signs that aren't obeyed is more dangerous than having no stop signs at all . . . since a visitor might reasonably assume a golf cart (or car) was going to stop, act accordingly and only realize too late that the cart (or car) was not going to stop," McNally wrote.

The Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club is gated and its roads are private. The property has stop signs erected by the community association, but Police Chief Phil Redstone isn’t allowed to issue tickets or to enforce civil traffic laws..

"We have a problem, and it's an accident waiting to happen," Webber said.

Accidents have happened, with injuries, in Orchid and other communities such as the Moorings, where real estate broker Marsha Sherry called golf cart safety a "timely issue" which needs some attention, especially at the height of season when beachside golf brim with snowbirds and their guests, young and old.

"You are aware that we have no authority over our roadways?" Orchid Vice Mayor Bud Oatway reminded Webber during the Town Council meeting.

Such is the case with all the island’s gated communities.

Homeowner associations make the rules about whether residents can have golf carts, where they can be driven and when. Those rules take a backseat to Florida traffic laws, however, the moment a golf cart ventures out the gate onto a public road such as A1A. At that point, drivers of golf carts are subject to tickets, fines and strict regulations regarding what is "street legal."

Even more essential to this issue is, what is a golf cart anyway? Florida statute says “Golf cart means a motor vehicle that is designed and manufactured for operation on a golf course for sporting or recreational purposes and that is not capable of exceeding speeds of 20 miles per hour."

Those carts are not legal for operation on public roads (unless specifically designated by the local government) and, if a police officer chooses to, he or she can ticket a driver.

Underage drivers can be fined the same as older drivers.

The $125 penalty for not stopping at a stop sign, for example, can dampen the fun of a jaunt on a golf cart.

"As far as enforcement is concerned, you're basically violating the non-criminal traffic infraction," Harpring said. "It depends on exactly what you're doing, but it could be a moving infraction.

"And the statute specifically says the golf cart may not be operated on public roads under the age of 14," he added. "If you're talking about a DUI situation, DUI in a golf cart is still DUI. It's still considered a motor vehicle. Even though they're on a private road, DUI is on a criminal infraction."

On a public road, the mere existence of a golf cart could be trouble. "If the municipality or community doesn't have an ordinance allowing golf carts, that would be a separate infraction," Harpring said.

If a city or town council wants to allow golf carts on its roads, it's not a matter to be taken lightly, according to Florida Law.

"Upon a determination that golf carts may be safely operated on a designated road or street, the responsible governmental entity shall post appropriate signs to indicate that such operation is allowed."

Even if the council does give its OK, there are restrictions, such as daylight hours only, unless the golf cart is made street legal – meaning it has mirrors, headlights, tail lights, turn signals, brake lights and a windshield.

The city would also need to make, post and maintain signs alerting drivers to roads approved for golf carts.

Street legal golf carts, according to the Indian River County Tax Collector's Office, must be registered and insured. Prior to registration, the vehicle must pass inspection and the owner must show where and when the vehicle was purchased.

"They have to come in with the certificate of origin or the MSO, the manufacturer’s statement of origin, which is basically the birth certificate for the golf cart," said Michelle Bailey, a customer service representative at the tax collector's office. "They have to go through compliance and be inspected by the compliance examiner in West Palm Beach and get a compliance certificate."

There are penalties for not going through the trouble of getting and keeping a cart registered.

The tax collector's office says that, to its knowledge, no street-legal golf cart vehicles are registered in Indian River County.

"The operator of a golf cart can receive a uniform traffic citation for operating the cart on a public roadway if it is not properly registered with the state (license plate) and does not have all appropriate safety equipment (headlamps, turn signals, etc.)," said Capt. Keith Touchberry of the Vero Beach Police Department.

Touchberry said that in his 23 years with the city police, "I do not recall any crashes involving a golf cart."

The city would like to keep it that way, and that's why officials have not rushed to approve a citizen request to allow limited use of golf carts on Vero roadways.

"Golf carts are fun but have a purpose.  As much as it would be nice to allow residents to get around in them on public roadways from time to time, they pose a safety hazard to other motorists (not to mention themselves) for a number of reasons," Touchberry said. 

Making sure youngsters aren't out racing around in motorized vehicles lacking seat belts and other safety equipment is also a concern, as parents commonly hand over golf cart keys to kids much too young to have keys to the family car.

"The concern about allowing minors to operate them on public roadways stems from their lack of driving experience and overall maturity behind the wheel," Touchberry said.

Overall, the law enforcement officers ask drivers of cars and golf carts to be on the alert for each other.

"Most motorists do not expect to see a golf cart on any public roadway unless they know they are in an area where such use is authorized," Touchberry said. "Their presence is neither expected nor anticipated and this puts the cart operator at an extreme disadvantage."