The other day during rush hour when I was stopped at a traffic light on Coleman Boulevard, I saw a family in a golf cart lurch across the intersection to the other side of the road. The golf cart was packed to the brim, kids hanging off the sides and the back of a vehicle that was being driven so fast any speed bump could spell disaster.
As Charleston has grown at a staggering pace, once sleepy thoroughfares like Coleman have become riddled with traffic. Two-lane roads have become four lanes. But golf carts still seem to be growing in popularity. Downtown, on roads that are equally busy, golf carts are a mainstream mode of transportation for everything from school drop-offs to dinners out.
I have nothing against golf carts personally, we have one and it’s admittedly a joy to drive. It’s a way of life in the Lowcountry, a reminder that we live in a special place that perfectly melds a vacation lifestyle with that of a functioning society. But that said, many of the same parents that wouldn’t dream of driving a mile without their child strapped into a car seat seem to have little issue driving across busy intersections with three and four kids hanging off the sides of a golf cart.
Accidents do happen, and for some South Carolina families, the outcome is tragic. In 2017, a man on Folly Beach crashed his golf cart in the midst of a seemingly innocent water balloon fight with friends. His head hit the pavement and he died of his injuries. Eighth-grader Cameron Berry died from head trauma seven years ago following a golf cart crash in Bowman.
Golf carts aren’t toys, and according to South Carolina state law, golf carts and their souped-up cousin, the low-speed vehicle, have to abide by laws similar to those of motor vehicles. Low-speed vehicles, unlike golf carts, can be driven at night, but they must be equipped with headlights, rear lights, brake lights, parking brakes, turn signals, seat belts, rearview mirrors, etc.
Both versions must be driven on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less but may cross highway intersections with higher speed limits. Vehicles cannot drive faster than 25 mph and kids must be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver’s license to drive them. Local governments are also free to adopt stricter laws if they see fit.
But these laws aren’t necessarily going to protect your child from injury. Driving up to 25 mph in a vehicle with few safety protections can be a recipe for disaster if you’re not careful. A golf cart is, of course, no match for an automobile in an accident. According to 2017 research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, golf cart accidents involving kids are a growing problem across the country.
"Just because golf carts don't usually reach speeds other recreational vehicles can, this doesn't mean they are harmless," said Dr. Mariano Garay, a Penn State College of Medicine researcher who studies golf cart injuries in kids.
Her research found that 76 percent of kids who were in golf cart accidents broke at least one bone. Skull fractures were more prevalent than extremity fractures and more than 27 percent of kids sustained concussions. Head trauma was among the most common injuries, happening in over a quarter of crashes.
Dr. William Hennrikus, a senior author of the research and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in Hershey, Penn., says that it’s a lack of awareness about the risk that’s making the problem even worse.
Researchers at AAP contend that parents can take a number of steps to minimize this risk. For example, installing seat belts in the golf cart and, no matter the speed limit, driving at a cautious pace (around 10 mph) and staying off busy roads. When you do encounter cars, pull over to the right side of the road and let them pass. And obviously, don’t operate a golf cart if you’ve been drinking. It’s dangerous for you and your family, and you can get a DUI on a golf cart just like you can in a car.
In addition to what researchers recommend, in our cart, Keegan has to sit between us and he can’t sit in the back seat unless there’s an adult with him. This minimizes the risk that he’ll accidentally fall off.
And one other piece of advice: Hide your keys so your kids (young and old) can’t get to them, especially if you want to prevent your cart from ending up in a neighbor’s pool or stuck in a ditch down the street.
You might tell your kids not to drive your golf cart, but the temptation isn’t worth the risk. We’ve got a plowed-over mailbox and the golf cart tracks to prove it.