August 2, 2013

Maine crashes put focus on loose golf cart rules

Safety controls are scattered at a time when more of the slow-speed vehicles are operated off golf courses.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Two serious accidents in less than a week involving golf carts have highlighted a lack of safety and inspection requirements for the vehicles.

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Camille and Wes Wolfertz of Long Island wave as they drive their golf cart away from the Long Island dock after a trip to the mainland for supplies Thursday, August 1, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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A Long Island sign encouraging people to share the road with the multiple vehicles, including golf carts. Photographed on Thursday, August 1, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The motorized carts, which are becoming more popular off the golf course, must be registered if they are used on public roads in Maine. But there are no unified safety regulations or inspection requirements for their use.

A Sanford man died two days after he fell off a golf cart Saturday night at the Point Sebago resort in Casco. John McKay, 52, was riding in a cart driven by Gary Belinsky, 59, of Westford, Mass.

Police said McKay fell after he stood up, wearing flip-flops, while the cart was moving. Belinsky has been charged with drunken driving – the carts are considered motor vehicles – although police have not alleged that he was driving recklessly.

On Tuesday night, five people were injured, two seriously, in a golf cart accident on Frye Island in Sebago Lake. Police said speed was a factor in the crash but alcohol was not believed to be involved.

Neither accident occurred on a golf course.

Golf cart accidents are uncommon in Maine, but they have the potential to cause serious injuries, even though the vehicles rarely go faster than 15 mph.

With a high center of gravity, golf carts can be prone to tipping. And most don't have seat belts, so passengers can easily be thrown in a crash.

David Farina, president of Country Club Enterprises, a retailer of Club Car golf carts, said interest in golf carts is higher than ever. His company owns and operates Patriot Golf Cars in Saco.

"Nothing has changed about the carts themselves," he said. "What's happening is that they are ending up off golf courses and people are driving them faster than they are meant to be. Unfortunately, I think you're going to see more of these accidents."

The state keeps track of golf cart accidents only if they involve fatalities and occur on public roads, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

He said he knows of no such accidents involving golf carts in recent years. The fatal accident in Casco on Saturday occurred on private property.

A study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2008 showed that the injury rate for golf cart accidents doubled from 1990 to 2006. The study attributed the rise to the fact that carts are used more often away from golf courses and are being driven faster than intended.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that, nationwide, 13,000 golf cart-related accidents require emergency room visits each year.

Across the country, accidents involving golf carts occur nearly every week.

In early July, a 6-year-old Ohio boy was struck and killed by a golf cart that a 7-year-old was driving on a public road.

Two weeks later, a Massachusetts woman was fatally injured when she fell from a golf cart while attending a wedding in Indiana. The driver of the cart was arrested on a drunken-driving charge.

Last week, a 77-year-old man crashed a golf cart in Hilton Head, S.C., and died from his injuries.

In Maine, golf carts are used regularly on islands.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said state law allows the use of low-speed vehicles, including golf carts, on islands as long as they are registered and the island's governing body allows it. Anyone who drives a golf cart must have a valid driver's license.

"I watch these crashes with amazement," Dunlap said. "I don't understand why you would want a golf cart to go faster."

Portland permits the use of golf carts on islands that are part of the city, including Peaks and Great Diamond, and have public roads.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg could not immediately provide figures on the number of registered golf carts on Portland's islands. The last reported accident involving a golf cart occurred in May 2012.

Voters on Long Island, a separate town in Casco Bay, decided several years ago to allow golf carts on the island's roads, said Town Clerk Brenda Singo.

In its most recent count, Long Island had 135 golf carts. The island's population is just over 200 in the winter and swells to about 1,000 in the summer.

Singo said she was not aware of any reported accidents involving golf carts.

Frye Island passed a similar ordinance in 1999, requiring registration for carts that are used on public roads. A town employee could not provide the current number of registered carts on Thursday.

The ordinance lists practices that are prohibited, including driving without a rearview mirror and driving by anyone without a valid driver's license.

But there are no regulations for the carts themselves, which can vary widely, said Farina, of Country Club Enterprises.

Tuesday's accident on Frye Island involved a limousine-style golf cart with several rows of bench seating, said Police Chief Rod Beaulieu. He said his preliminary investigation suggested that the brakes failed to slow the cart as it gathered speed going downhill with seven people on board.

In his six years as chief, Beaulieu said, he had never dealt with a golf cart accident involving serious injuries until this week.

Farina said most golf carts made today are electric, not gas-powered, and have engine braking to help slow them down. Golf carts that are manufactured as "street legal" are equipped with seat belts and roll bars.

Those carts have bigger motors and can go as fast as 25 mph, Farina said. Prices can range from $2,000 to more than $10,000 for a new cart; used models can cost less.

"These vehicles are safe," he said, "but when you have people using them in different ways and when you add alcohol to the mix, bad things can happen."

 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Wes Wolfertz of Long Island loads up his golf cart after making a trip to the mainland for supplies Thursday, August 1, 2013

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

  


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