Erin Hutchison has owned a golf cart for three years and never had an accident, nor has she ever felt unsafe riding near her Columbia County home to get outside, see friends and visit neighbors.
Hutchison, whose mother has driven a golf cart for a decade, described the vehicles as “relaxing,” but the recent death of a young girl in Aiken has raised awareness of the danger they can pose.
Golf carts can go as fast as 20 mph, have no seat belts and few regulations on their use. They can be dangerous to pedestrians who might be hit, or to drivers or passengers who might be thrown from the vehicles if they crash.
In Georgia, you need to be 16 or older and hold a license to drive one. Other states, including Florida, allow underage drivers.
South Carolina issues a special permit that allows people younger than 16 to drive golf carts, but only during daytime, on secondary roads and within four miles of their home or workplace.
“There are a lot of kids in our neighborhood, so people usually do a good job of driving slow,” Hutchison said. “Still, when you’re on a golf cart, you have to always pay close attention. You never know what might happen.”
Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris says golf cart accidents are uncommon, but when they happen, they can be serious.
“The main point I want to stress is people should never stand on a golf cart,” he said. “Not inside the cart and definitely not on the back platform. Last year, a young man was seriously injured when he fell off while standing. He’s OK now, but he got lucky.”
Last Monday, 3-year-old Kirsten Grace Jones, of Graniteville, was fatally struck by a golf cart in the parking lot at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. Police said a security guard, Donald Eugene Fox, 63, was driving the vehicle. The investigation is ongoing, according to officials.
David Adams, a safety program manager for the state Department of Transportation, said tracking golf cart accidents can be difficult in Georgia because law enforcement agencies do not have a “golf cart” category on crash reports.
The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 15,193 golf cart injuries occurred in the U.S. last year, with more than 15 percent resulting in hospitalization.
Morris said he’s never experienced a golf-cart-related fatality during his time in Columbia County and that the majority of injuries go undocumented.
“People just need to be smart and safe,” he said. “Keep your limbs in the cart and make sure everyone’s in a seat – these things may sound simple, but they’re very important.”
David Zagoria, a former assistant district attorney in Fulton County who is now a personal-injury trial lawyer in Atlanta, says that golf carts are “inherently safe” but can be costly for those who do not abide by the laws.
He said his firm has never sued a golf cart company but averages five cases a year in which residents are sued in the millions for wrongful-death claims or in the hundreds of thousands for injuries related to people failing to supervise children or being involved in crashes.
“The problem is these vehicles are not viewed as dangerous among youthful drivers,” Zagoria said. “And without parental supervision, children as young as 12 years old can easily flip, skid and go unnoticed on public roadways.”
Texting and driving is illegal in a golf cart, as is driving while impaired.
In April, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law allowing local governments to set their own restrictions on “personal transportation vehicles” such as golf carts on public roads.
Columbia County passed an ordinance restricting drivers on roads with a speed limit greater than 35 mph, not including state routes and ones managed by Grovetown and Harlem.
In Richmond County, a similar ordinance is in the works that possibly includes a registration process, along with brake light, headlight, turn signal and horn requirements to make the carts “street legal,” said Barry White, the director of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“If someone breaks one of these laws, our officers usually give a warning,” Morris said of Columbia County. “I honestly can’t remember the last time we handed out a golf cart citation.”
He said the sheriff’s office does receive numerous calls regarding golf cart safety.
“The two main complaints we get are for people standing and for carts with too many passengers,” he said. “I can’t stress it enough: Be smart. Be safe.”