A growing number of people across South Carolina are using golf carts not for golf but to visit friends, get to the store or cruise their neighborhood.
Golf cart owners must get a permit, which is available at any S.C. Department of Motor Vehicle branch.
Golf carts may be operated on roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less, though they may cross at an intersection of a highway where speeds are greater.
Golf carts must comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 500, which classifies them as low-speed vehicles and requires head lamps, stop lamps, turn signal lamps, tail lamps, reflex reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, seat belts, and vehicle identification numbers.
Drivers operating golf carts must be at least 16 years old and possess a valid South Carolina driver's license and a registration card of the golf cart.
Drivers are supposed to remain within four miles of their home, a distance the state recently increased from two miles.
Source: South Carolina Highway Patrol
And that is raising a growing number of questions, such as whether parents are doing enough to ensure their children don't drive them, how safe they actually are, and where exactly they could be allowed.
While golf carts are supposed to be registered with the state, the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles does not compile statistics on them like it does for motorcycles, cars and trucks, said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks.
“It's something we're looking at. That information is requested from us more and more, and I think that's because of increased use,” she said. “I can tell you, yes, there is a general increase in the use of golf carts.”
Their popularity is fueled partly because they are battery-powered, and gas prices have remained high.
Also, the 2009 stimulus provided a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the cost of low-speed vehicles, a federal classification that includes most golf carts.
While police don't consider golf carts a major safety problem, there are occasional accidents and complaints, particularly about kids driving the carts illegally and erratically.
And one lawmaker is trying to push to allow them on bike paths, which others say is a bad idea.
While some downtown Charleston residents own golf carts, they are much more popular on Daniel Island, said Charleston City Councilman Gary White, who represents both areas.
“I bet you at least 40 percent of the homes on Daniel Island, maybe greater, have golf carts,” he said. “It's pretty significant.”
White, who lives on Daniel Island, said his family owns a cart and tries to use it as much as they can. “It's an easier mode of transportation,” he said. “When the weather is good, it's nice.”
The only problem that White has heard of has been young people who don't have a driver's license driving the carts. “I wouldn't say it's an epidemic by any stretch of the imagination, but parents should be very mindful,” he said.
Mount Pleasant Police Capt. Sean Keneally said the town gets some complaints about golf carts, particularly in the summer.
“The only real issue we have is the under-aged people driving them,” he said. “They say they're driving recklessly through the neighborhood.”
The town made a push this summer to educate residents on golf cart rules. “People are always concerned for these kids' safety,” he said. “That's why we try to go and educate the parents.”
The DMV's Parks said she also has seen underage drivers of golf carts in her Columbia neighborhood. “It scares me,” she said. “I don't know of an accident that's happened, but I would hate to see that had to happen for people to stop doing it.”
Data hard to find
It's also unclear how many accidents golf carts were involved in.
The S.C. Department of Public Safety classifies golf cart accidents in a broad category of “other” accidents, which also involve other non-automobile incidents.
Keneally said he recalls only one recent golf cart accident, which happened in Park West. A woman in a golf cart tried to cross two lanes of traffic: One driver stopped and waved her across, but a driver in the other lane hit her. The golf cart driver wasn't injured but received a ticket.
Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Chris Nickels, who works as a lawyer on Daniel Island, said he has handled four golf cart cases in the past two years.
“Golf carts also tip over, and passengers in the golf cart get injured very badly,” he said. One case involved a golf cart owner who loaned the vehicle to a friend, who drove it while intoxicated and turned it over, injuring his passenger.
Bike path use?
Golf carts and other motorized vehicles such as mopeds currently are prohibited from using bike paths, but that could change.
State Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, told The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News that he plans to file a bill in January that would let municipalities allow golf carts to operate on bike lanes.
Clemmons, who did not return a message Monday, appears to be responding to a specific situation in his district.
Residents of Seagate Village would like to drive golf carts to Myrtle Beach State Park, which is just across U.S. Highway 17. However, one of the subdivision's entrances is a few hundred yards north of the state park's main entrance, though a bike path along the highway connects the two.
It's unclear if the bill would pass, or whether it would let municipalities restrict golf carts to only certain bike lanes. White said he is wary of the idea. He said he thinks golf carts would cause a safety problem along the new bike lanes down S.C. Highway 61.
Tom Bradford, executive director of Charleston Moves, also panned the idea, saying many bike lanes are only wide enough to accommodate bikes, pedestrians and the occasional baby stroller going in opposite directions.
Bradford noted that the West Ashley Greenway's pavement is only 8 feet wide.
“Where the hell would you put a golf cart?” he said. “It's patently ridiculous.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.