A few years back, we lived on a beautiful tract of land in the country outside of Social Circle. Oh, you should have seen it: a gurgling creek behind our house that was set in an open meadow, thick stands of hardwood encircling the property and a driveway so long the existence of our house was unknown to passersby on the country road that fronted our place. Fetching the morning paper for Bob before he headed off to work involved cranking the car and heading up a steep hill on the driveway before it opened out into a wide and deep field. At some point, we realized that having a golf cart would make the task easier, so we bought a used one.
We had two large and gorgeous German Shepherds then, Bubba and Brandy, and they quickly seized on the chance for a morning ride. Picture the two of them propped on the front seat, facing backwards and jostling for space. I was barely hanging onto my position as the driver while they steadily forced me out the left side of the cart.
Once we moved into town and didn't need the cart any longer, it was transported to my parents' farm on the Alcovy River, and my dad, finding it ever more difficult to get around, pounced on it as his favorite means of surveying his place. Toward the end of his life, he still wanted to drive about in the golf cart, even if his passenger had to press the accelerator. It's one of my dearest memories of those days.
There's a lot to be said for travel by golf carts. Covington is among an ever-growing number of cities around the country that have enacted ordinances in recent years to allow their use on streets where the speed limit is 35 m.p.h. or less. They are charming, quiet, easy to get into and out of, non-polluting and certainly fuel efficient in these days of spiking gas prices. They are particularly useful for short trips around town. You'll see many carts that have been custom-designed and decorated for personal expression. Every cart in use on Covington streets must be registered with the police department at a cost of $15.00. The applicant gets a decal to be placed on the vehicle. Registration makes for easier recovery in case of theft, according to Police Chief Stacey Cotton.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission finds there are 15,000 golf cart-related injuries each year requiring emergency room treatment, according to the website for engineering experts Technology Associates. Forty percent of those accidents involve children, and 50 percent involve a fall from a moving vehicle. However, research by the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2008 found only 20 percent of golf cart accidents occurred at home or on public roads, the rest occurring on golf courses. Might a little too much beer be involved?
A significant mode of injury is when passengers are ejected from a cart when the driver makes a hard turn with the cart at near maximum speed, ranging from 20-35 mph. Momentum will then propel passengers in the direction the cart was previously headed. Some 10 percent of injuries are from rollovers. Most injuries are to the head and neck. Children are particularly susceptible to injury because of their small size, inability to touch the floor with their feet, and reliance on side restraints that are not high enough to prevent falling out, Technology Associates says. Rear-facing seats are especially dangerous to children. Seat belts are not required golf cart equipment because they are meant to allow golfers to enter and exit easily. Neither are brakes required on all four wheels. Rear wheel-only brakes can cause carts to fishtail and the driver to lose control in certain circumstances.
In 2010, the Institute for Highway Safety recommended that golf carts be banned from city usage. A spokesperson for the National Conference of State Legislatures cites the lack of safety features required in cars and the danger carts face from larger vehicles. Heck, I'm even intimidated in my little Prius by jacked-up pickups tailing me on Floyd Street. I'd certainly not like to be in a golf cart at times like that.
Around here, golf carts are sometimes seen tooling through town seemingly at maximum speed filled with kids, even toddlers, and we gasp. (At least strap some helmets on those little ones.) The federal government doesn't regulate golf carts for safety, and neither local nor state laws speak to potential safety issues. Police Chief Cotton says there is always risk involved when carts take to the roadways, and he encourages citizens to take all sensible precautions to prevent accidents or harm.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.