Golf Carts and Safety

A front page article in today’s New York Times comments on the rise of electric carts around the country. Particularly in retirement communities, they’ve caught on big time. I like the idea: internal combustion engines don’t do well on stop-and-start trips, produce a lot of pollution when they start, and make a lot of noise.

But why only retirement communities? Electric carts also seem perfect for most city driving. They’re much more practical than Segways or motorcycles in that they can actually hold groceries. Traffic on arterials in dense center cities never moves faster than the 25-35 MPH speed limit the golf carts have anyway. They cost less than cars and, in general, require less work to keep running. They’re cheap, at least in theory, so they seem perfect for people with low incomes.

So why don’t we have more of them? I’d suspect that government regulation has a lot to do with it. To be “road legal” by Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards a golf cart must have a bunch of safety equipment including seat belts and a variety of warning lights. These add cost and complexity.

Even if one takes as a given that all this equipment really saves lives, it seems unlikely that a 500 pound golf cart will ever be more dangerous to ride in than a 20 pound bicycle or 100 pound motorcycle. To the extent that any golf cart might displace either of these deathtraps, it would save lives.

But, that won’t happen. Since they’re produced in such small numbers relative to cars, they likely can’t make use of the best manufacturing technology. Things that would bring down the price and allow for even more safety equipment won’t be affordable until golf carts become more popular. And, so long as these mandates exist, golf carts will remain a tiny niche.

Already, the prices of road-legal golf carts are roughly the same as the prices of the least expensive cars. Since they’re less versatile, the main buyers will be people who play lots of golf and have enough disposable income to afford at least one other car. In other words. . .retirees. [Sigh.]