(The residents of the ultimate gated community, presidents of the United States, appear to love their golf carts. Almost every modern president has been photographed in one; George W. Bush called his Golf Cart One. Barack Obama looks so happy in his. While presidents are in office, a golf cart is probably the only vehicle they're allowed to drive themselves.)
According to a story from Popular Mechanics archived by Wikipedia, the first golf cart was created in 1932. But using a vehicle to get around the golf course didn't widely catch on for at least 30 more years. Today, the golf cart industry holds its financial data more closely than Hosni Mubarak's accountant. Fred Somers, the secretary and general counsel for the National Golf Car Manufacturer's Association, says he doesn't know how big the industry is. (The most recent figure I could find was that in 2000 it was a $600 million-a-year industry.) Nor would any of the three major manufacturers, Club Car, E-Z-Go, and Yamaha, supply information on how many vehicles they sold yearly or how many are out there. (In 2009, according to Bloomberg, Club Car produced 100,000 vehicles.)
What Somers would say is that the organization is undertaking an education project to get people to call the vehicles "golf cars," not "golf carts." He explains, "A cart is something you push." I explain that unless they provide some industry statistics, I'm calling it a golf cart.
If William Stevens Jr. of Club Car were to make his epic journey today, he might be able to drive legally on certain roads, a privilege some localities extend to citizens in golf-cart-dense communities. A variety of state and local laws govern the definition of a golf cart, who can drive it, and where. In Florida, for example, no driver's license is required. Generally, golf carts are defined as having a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour. (The NGCMA would like to see a national standard of 15 miles per hour.) In recent years, almost every state has passed laws allowing what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls souped-up golf carts—neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs), low speed vehicles (LSVs), and personal transportation vehicles (PTVs)—to travel on many public roads, a trend the Institute finds alarming.
In the sunny world of active retirement, the darkness on the horizon is the knowledge that for many, activities will dwindle as disability takes away their independence. So some people, who know they can no longer qualify for a driver's license or whose grown children are saying it's time put away the car keys, continue to rely on their golf cart for getting around. Sun City's Paul Herrmann recalls that one resident on supplemental oxygen was told by her doctor she could no longer use a car. "But he did allow her to drive a golf cart." It was supposedly safer not only because it's slower but because when a driver's foot comes off the accelerator, the motor of a golf cart stops. (This feature was not designed for drivers likely to pass out.)
Gerald McGwin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, co-authored a 2008 study in the Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care on golf cart mayhem, and he thinks anyone incapable of driving a car should not be behind the wheel of a golf cart. He and his colleagues estimated that between 2002 and 2005, there were more than 48,000 golf-cart-related injuries, mostly contusions, fractures, and concussions. The majority of the casualties were not the active retired set, however, but children, teenagers, and people over 80. (Some residents of retirement communities say that for their visiting grandchildren, the biggest thrill is riding in the golf cart.)
Another 2008 study, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that from 1990 to 2006, at a time carts increasingly moved off the course and into wider use, the injury rate rose more than 130 percent.
McGwin would like to see mandatory seat belts in golf carts and drivers required to wear helmets—although it's hard to imagine an active retiree driving to the hairdresser in her golf cart, then crushing the result under a helmet. He is also concerned about the increasing mixing of golf-cart-type vehicles and cars. "Have you ever seen what a Suburban can do to a golf cart at 35 miles per hour?" he asks.
Lt. Nehemiah Wolfe of the Sumter County sheriff's office gives monthly lectures on golf-cart safety at The Villages, and, usually, several dozen people attend. They want advice on grandchildren and golf carts, on rules of the road. Although residents are enormously attached to their carts, Wolfe advises people not to get too carried away when it comes to making their carts as clean and polished as possible. He says, "We discourage putting Armor All on the seat, because people tend to slide out as they go around curves."
Correction, Feb. 24, 2011: The article originally made reference to Disneyland instead of Disney World. (Return to the corrected sentence.)