Golf carts: How safe are they?

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With over 1,500 golf courses in Los Angeles and communities built up around them, golf carts are a common sight. The carts of yore have evolved. Some, such as low-speed vehicles (LSV) go faster, up to 25 mph. Some are bigger. LSVs can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. Golf carts are used in airports, warehouses, on private roads and on the street in certain communities.

Despite their usefulness, they can be dangerous. Recently, a 55-year-old woman was killed as she made her way to the Royal Vista Golf Course in Walnut, CA, as she crossed Colima Road in her golf cart. Another woman, 58, fell out of her cart on privately owned property in Wallace, CA, near Sacramento, when the driver made a left turn. She fell on glass shards and died.

Are Golf Carts Safe?

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are approximately 17,000 accidents involving golf carts annually. Of these, 40 percent involve occupant ejection from the vehicle. Unfortunately, due to the type of safety restraints that are used, many ejection victims are seriously injured, resulting in a wide range of injuries from concussion to brain hemorrhage to death. Children fare the worst and account for more than 40 percent of ejection accidents.

One recent accident involved a 12-year-old child in Las Vegas. The accident occurred on the premises of a local country club. The child’s father, who was driving the vehicle, swerved to avoid a parked boat trailer, and both he and his son were thrown from the cart. The father suffered injuries described as non-life threatening. His son died at St. Rose Siena Hospital.

Why Are Golf Carts So Dangerous?

The danger lurks in the type of restraints used to keep people safe. Most golf carts have laterally-placed hip restraints, giving occupants something to hold on to. This is particularly important when the vehicle makes a left turn, which increases the lateral acceleration. Because the center of gravity changes, this imbalance causes the passenger to slide out of the cart. Theoretically, by holding on to the hip restraint, the passenger should be able to avert falling.

What Are Hip Restraints, and Why Don’t They Work?

The restraint is a bar on the outer portion of the bench seat. In order for the bar to be effective, it is necessary to hold onto it, or be ready to grab it at an instant’s notice during a sharp turn. However, since the bar is on the outside, it acts as a fulcrum around which an individual can pivot during a turn, falling to the ground.

To be of any use, the restraint should be longer, taller and placed in the central area of the bench seat. Children especially lack the grip strength and the fast reflexes needed to grab it quickly. Without seat belts, children are at significant risk.

Some cart manufacturers and dealers install seat belts on bigger LSVs or by request. However, most carts on the market lack seat belts. Part of the problem is that the National Golf Car Manufacturers Association (NGCMA) opposes the use of seat belts on the grounds that the seat belt may cause increased risk to the occupant. The NGCMA contends that without a seat belt an individual could jump from the cart if there was an indication that rollover was imminent. The idea that a small child or an older adult would have the ability to leap from a moving vehicle in time to avoid being hurt in a rollover crash has been contested by experts.

Consumer Safety and Golf Cart Accidents

Due to the high number of accidents, particularly in California, we asked a Los Angeles attorney whether he thought consumer safety was an issue. David Azizi, who is experienced with golf cart accidents, said that it was clear that manufacturers have the duty to make sure golf carts are safe, and if a flaw in their design exists, such as the lack of proper restraints, it is necessary to find a way to remedy that. “It’s up to the manufacturer to place safety ahead of any other factor. Consumers have a right to expect that.”

Do Consumers Have the Right to Expect Safe Products?

This may seem like a no-brainer. Of course, consumers have that right. The conflict is whether consumer convenience will supersede safety. Seat belts, even more that restraints, would prevent accidents. Yet, for many golfers this would be an inconvenience. Typically, a golfer enters and exits the vehicle many times during a round. Using a seat belt could seem difficult. The question here is whether inconvenience trumps safety.

Scott Geller, a partner at Safety Performance Solutions and an Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Center for Applied Behavior at Virginia Tech, described the dichotomy between at-risk behavior and safety. “Comparing the inconvenience scores of safe versus at-risk behaviors can clarify why safety is often a fight with human nature. In almost every case, inconvenience scores will be higher for safe than at-risk behaviors. And the greater the gap between a safe behavior and its at-risk counterpart, the more difficult it will be to get people to perform the safe alternative.”

Adapting this thought for golf carts, golfers may want to weigh the inconvenience of buckling and unbuckling their seat belt each time they enter or exit the cart against the safety a seat belt can provide. Whether safety will win out over inconvenience is yet to be seen.