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Should We Be Embracing Golf Carts as a Cheaper Alternative to Electric Vehicles?

Should We Be Embracing Golf Carts as a Cheaper Alternative to Electric Vehicles?
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If you live in Kentucky, you may have noticed lately that a fair number of golf carts have strayed quite a bit from the course. These aren't poor golfers looking for an errant shot — at least, not exclusively. The Associated Press reports that multiple Kentucky municipalities have recently passed or are actively considering laws allowing golf carts on city streets.

The trend began back in 2008, when the state legislature awarded local governments the right to award golf carts the right to certain public roads. Initially there was a provision keeping the carts within 5 miles of a golf course, but that restriction was dropped in 2010. Now the permissible area has expanded to any road with a speed-limit of 35 miles per hour.

Kentucky is not exactly in uncharted waters here. In 1998, responding to growing concerns about golf carts on roads, the federal government created safety standards for a new class of vehicles called "low-speed vehicles." Those rules required LSVs to have basic safety equipment like headlights and seatbelts. (Oddly enough, the standards didn't apply to golf carts, since most didn't travel 20-25 m.p.h.)

Still, states had the final say where LSVs could go. While the initial idea was for this new class of vehicles to make a short trip into town, traveling primarily around communities (especially retirement communities) properly planned for LSV traffic, today all but four states allow LSVs to mix with traffic on regular roads — with relatively few restrictions:

Some Kentucky officials seem properly concerned about letting golf carts travel beside, say, Ford F-150s. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety believes all LSV drivers face significant risks on the road; in one crash test conducted a few years ago, the dummy in an LSV received fatal injuries when rammed by the equivalent of a pick-up going just 31 m.p.h. An actual golf cart, which barely provides sufficient protection from a well-struck golf ball, would no doubt fare far worse.

So why are so many people in Kentucky cities — and beyond — risking personal safety by cruising regular roads in golf carts and their kind? Well the simplest answer is money: the AP reports that Kentuckians have turned to golf carts as a way to avoid rising gas prices. But if that's the case, then why aren't these same people just buying full-sized electric vehicles?

The answer may still be money. One top-selling golf cart-style vehicle in the United States, the Polaris GEM, costs anywhere from $8,000 for the basic model to $15,000 for a six-seater. By comparison, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt run about $30,000 and $35,000, respectively — and that's with big recent slashes to their sticker costs.

But money can't be the whole story. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that people who drove LSVs used them for quick errands while keeping a primary car at home for longer trips. In other words, each golf cart-style vehicle is really a package with a conventional car; when you add the two together, you surely exceed the cost of the Leaf or the Volt, even before considering gas costs for the primary car.

Most likely the choice has more to do with the American love affair with fast and/or large cars. That's not going away anytime soon, but it can be nudged in a better direction by bundling EVs with buyer access to conventional cars. What the golf cart trend demonstrates is a broad awareness of the need to balance occasional SUV/luxury/pick-up demand with everyday EV use. That's something car companies themselves can offer, but it's also something that cities could encourage through partnerships with local car-share services.

Which brings up one more reason some city residents might turn to golf carts: local governments aren't doing enough to promote standard EVs.

Recently some policymakers from across Europe gathered at a workshop in the Netherlands to exchange ideas for encouraging EV use in cities. Their approaches fell into two general categories: politically difficult measures and rather quick "no-regret" policies. The latter included simple things like removing regulatory barriers to EV infrastructure, using EVs for the municipal fleet, and creating electric-only parking areas.

If city residents really just want to ride golf carts everywhere, then officials should help them do this as safely as possible. But if they only want to ride golf carts because there are too many barriers to full-sized EV use, then it's probably time — pardon the expression — to help them reach the green.

Map via the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Top image: nattio / Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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