Golf carts and retirement: How the vehicles have made life better for seniors (PHOTOS).

All you need to know about retirement.
Feb. 24 2011 11:47 AM

Slow Ride, Take It Easy

The astonishing rise of golf carts, and how they have improved retirement.

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In the winter of 1962, William Stevens Jr., a young owner of the fledgling golf-cart company Club Car, took a six-day, 450-mile journey of questionable legality. In order to show just how reliable one of his small electric vehicles could be, he and a colleague drove a golf cart from his factory in Georgia to a golf merchandise show in Florida. At one point, a Florida highway patrol officer pulled him over and told him he couldn't drive his slow-moving contraption on the highway. Stevens replied, "I haven't seen any signs saying that we couldn't." The officer let him go.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

It turned out to be a prescient trip, foretelling changes in the worlds of both golf and retirement. Back then, people who played golf walked the 18 holes. Today there are many courses at which players are required to use a golf cart. Back then, retirement generally meant that you stopped going to work, not that you had started a new "lifestyle." But around the same time when Stevens was driving to Florida, the first age-restricted retirement community, Sun City, Ariz., was created. Today more than 1 million people live in these "active retirement" developments, and at many, the golf cart is the symbol of liberation from the strictures of their former lives.

At The Villages, a seniors-only community of 83,000 west of Orlando that was opened in the late 1980s, there are about 100 miles of golf cart trails. "This community was developed for the golf-cart lifestyle, it was built for that very deliberately," says Gary Lester, vice president for community relations. "It was developed so people can do everything by golf cart—go to the hairdresser, grocery store, bank, dancing, movies, and, oh, yes, you can play golf." A video on The Villages Web site specifically touts the golf cart's rejuvenating qualities. One resident says, "It's just like driving a go-kart. It makes me feel like a kid again."

In warm-weather retirement developments around the country, from Florida to California, Georgia to Texas, the golf cart is the primary means of transportation. The golf cart both liberates and confines. Seniors cruise around giddily in these quiet electric vehicles. Open to the air, unencumbered by doors and seat belts, life becomes a kind of rolling party. But when the golf cart is your primary mode of transportation, it means you're not going very far and not getting there very fast. When everywhere you need to go is reachable by golf cart, it generally means you aren't going anywhere but your retirement community.

Don Hahnfeldt, 66, is a retired Navy captain who used to, in his own words, "drive submarines" for a living. When he and his wife Cheryle bought their home at The Villages six years ago, they arrived with a Cadillac and an Infiniti. By the time they'd closed on their house, they were the owners of their first golf cart. Six months later, their cars sitting idle but their golf cart racking up miles, they bought another one. A year after that, they sold the Infiniti and hung onto the Cadillac mostly because they needed it to chauffeur visiting grandchildren to Disney World. * Hahnfeldt's experience is typical. There are about 50,000 privately owned golf carts at The Villages. That's more golf carts than all the buses, taxis, and subways in Manhattan.

Ernie Keckonen, sales manager of The Villages Golf Cars, where the vehicles generally retail for between $6,000 to $8,000, says that the ability to travel in a golf cart is a major reason people move to The Villages. "You're open to the weather, you're going a slower speed, you observe things. You're closer to other golf-cart drivers, so you can interact with people as you go. It's easier to park. It's like a big toy in some ways." Many residents spend a lot of time and money customizing their golf carts to look like Hummers or vintage Chevys and Mustangs. A retired firefighter drives one that looks like a miniature fire truck. People decorate them with memorabilia from their home states or favorite football teams.

At Arizona's Sun City, Paul Herrmann, executive director of the visitor's center, gives the development credit for making golf carts a way of life. He says early on residents started driving off the course and doing errands in their golf carts. Today, he observes, "I would venture that at least half our golf carts have never been on a golf course." So insinuated are golf carts in the life of Sun City that in the 1970s, garages at the development began being designed to fit not two cars but a car and a golf cart.

The reality show Sunset Daze, set at Sun City Grand, follows the adventures of its senior cast as they circle around the complex in their golf carts like the teenagers cruising in American Graffiti. Two of the participants are sixty-something Sandy and her forty-something daughter Dawn, who is living with Sandy while recovering from substance-abuse problems. There's a poignant moment when Dawn plaintively asks her mother, "Can I borrow the keys to the golf cart?"

In his book, Leisureville , journalist Andrew Blechman, 42, has a somewhat jaundiced view of The Villages. He was disturbed by the voluntary self-segregation, the attitude that the end of one's life should be endless entertainment. But he had to admit driving around in a golf cart was a blast. As he writes, "The sensation is oddly thrilling. Cruising along in a golf cart at 20 miles per hour is somehow more invigorating than traveling in a car at seventy." In an interview he acknowledges the advantages of the golf-cart life, "Frankly, it's very peaceful. It's more relaxing to drive a golf cart to grocery store. It's safer, more economical, better for the environment." He observes that while cars are alienating, golf carts are social—you just take your foot off the accelerator and stop and talk to whoever's passing by.

But, still, there was something disquieting about the land of the golf cart: "It's the emblem of a community that is closed and remains closed. You don't have enough juice to get out of the community or any desire to."

(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.)

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