About 1,000 people a month are injured in golf cart accidents across the country, with most of the accidents happening away from the links, two separate studies show.
Golf carts seem safe enough, one researcher said, but beneath their buzzing electric engines, they have a wobbly safety record.
There were more than 48,255 golf cart-related injuries in the United States from 2002 to 2005, with the highest injury rates observed in males 10-19 years old and those older than 80, according to a study released this month by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Contusions and abrasions were the most common injury, the study said, while fractures and concussions were second.
A similar study due out next month by Nationwide Children’s Hospital shows 148,000 injuries from 1990 to 2006. There were 13,411 injuries associated with golf cart accidents in 2006 alone, the hospital reported.
Chattanooga is not immune to the trend.
“Last year, in Chattanooga, we saw three children in the emergency department with injuries from golf cart accidents,” said Becky Campbell, program lead for Erlanger hospital’s Safe and Sound, an injury prevention program. “One child had a closed-head injury, another had a broken arm and another had a broken leg. Those are serious injuries.”
Golf carts are popular among youngsters and families who use the vehicles to buzz around their neighborhoods, according to the UAB study. Parents like the low-speed vehicles — most have a top speed of 15 mph — that mostly run on electric batteries.
Injuries on a golf cart were more common than near drownings (someone revived by medical personnel) but less common than nonfatal horseback riding injuries, the study reports. The study shows 4.14 people per 100,000 were injured in golf cart accidents, while 35.7 people per 100,000 were injured while riding horses and 1.5 people per 100,000 nearly drowned.
Tennessee law allows golf carts, called “low-speed vehicles” in the code, to be operated on any road with a speed limit of 35 mph and lower, but the operator must have a valid Class D driver’s license and the vehicle must be outfitted with headlights and seat belts.
Mixing normal road vehicles with boxy golf carts, which often come without doors, windshields or seat belts and a lightweight, easy-to-crush roof, doesn’t make much sense, said Dr. Gerald McGwin, the professor who conducted the UAB research.
GOLF CART INJURIES
148,000 injuries from 1990 to 2006
13,411 injuries in 2006
3 children treated for injuries at Erlanger hospital in 2007
4.14 people per 100,000 injured in golf cart accidents
35.7 people per 100,000 injured riding horses
1.5 people per 100,000 nearly drowned.
SOURCE: University of Alabama at Birmingham
“Golf carts don’t offer the occupant any protection,” Dr. McGwin said. “The braking system is very primitive, and they just aren’t sufficient to share the same environment with passenger cars.”
Ooltewah golf cart dealer Steve Ray said the carts can pose some safety risks, but he said most accidents occur when golfers are intoxicated or when children drive recklessly.
“Golf carts are so much safer than motorcycles or four-wheelers,” Mr. Ray said. “Children like to ride. I understand that mentality.”
But he said he tells parents to consider a golf cart as opposed to an ATV or motorcycle.
“You can’t race anybody, and if you did, you’d only be going 15 miles per hour,” he said.
A golf cart’s weight is located completely under the occupants in the form of batteries, Mr. Ray said. Carts weigh about 800 pounds, with 300 of that heft locked up in the batteries alone, he said. That low center of gravity makes it hard for the vehicles to tip over.
GOLF CART SAFETY
* Operate carts at reasonable speeds
* Brake slowly, especially on downhill slopes
* Avoid sharp turns
* Wear seat belts when available
* Operators should be at least 16 years old
* Do not operate a cart after drinking alcohol
* Keep both feet on the floor at all times
* Be prepared to use the handgrip to prevent a fall
SOURCE: National Children’s Hospital
He admits, though, that if the cart manages to flip, it’s usually caused by some significant force, like falling off a bridge or turning a curve too sharply, and that can produce serious injury. That’s why he recommends seat belts, which he said are cheap to install.
Mr. Ray said he tells customers to follow the law first, but if the golf cart is to be driven on private property — where state road laws don’t apply — he advises that no one under 14 years old be allowed to operate a vehicle alone. He also recommends never taking the carts down any hill steeper than what might be found on a golf course.
At the Windstone Golf Course in Ringgold, Ga., Jeff Craig, the head golf professional, doesn’t allow anyone under 16 to operate a golf cart. That’s mostly for insurance reasons, he said.
“It’s just like driving a car,” Mr. Craig said. “People don’t think of it like that, but they are just as dangerous.”
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...