"I probably just saved a gallon of gasoline!" gushed Marianne Law, while visiting friends who live in the Villages. • Law had just driven a Club Car electric golf cart from her host's home to a nearby CVS pharmacy to pick up a prescription. • "If I didn't borrow this cart, I would have brought my rental car," she said. "These carts make so much sense here." • Such comments are music to the ears of Tony Colangelo Sr. He owns and operates the Villages Golf Cart Man, a store that sells regular carts and street-legal "low-speed vehicles" — LSVs — and similar alternatives to conventional automobiles. • Colangelo has been featured on national morning TV shows and in magazines and newspapers as something of a spokesman for the burgeoning interest in golf cart sales. His specialty is customizing golf carts to look like everything from a Cadillac Escalade to a Hummer to a 1957 Chevrolet to a 1965 Ford Mustang.
Those Chevrolet- and Mustang-styled carts? "Can't keep 'em in stock," he said.
With gas prices seemingly stuck at about $3.50 a gallon or higher, a growing number of Florida residents are looking at carts as a second form of transportation. And a number of Florida communities are making carts legal to drive on certain streets, or are looking the other way when residents do it anyway.
The largest proliferation of carts is in retirement communities such as Sun City Center and the Villages, where carts are allowed on some streets and on cart-specific trails that can take them from their neighborhoods to shopping centers, banks, churches, restaurants or just to see the sights.
It's estimated that there are as many as 50,000 carts in the Villages, and some residents are members of one or more of the multiple golf cart clubs that are dedicated to particular styles or brands. There's even a golf cart drill team that performs in parades. The Villages set a world record in 2005 for the largest golf cart parade with 3,321 participants.
While the Villages, a planned retirement community, is a mecca for golf cart owners, plenty of other communities have embraced the idea of using carts for transportation. Florida towns such as Indian Rocks Beach, Winter Garden, Tavares and Islamorada allow carts at least partial use of public roads. Many cities have followed a path similar to one taken several months ago in Marathon, where local officials declined to rule on the legality of carts on city streets, instead deferring to the state of Florida's laws.
Indeed, some communities actively embrace carts. In Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, for instance, officials announced in June that dedicated parking spots for carts would be created in the business district, reasoning that four carts would fit in the same space as one car.
Other communities have a long history with handling carts. Years ago, long before a gas crisis drove motorists to look for cheaper alternate transportation, the Village of Key Biscayne passed a law allowing licensed drivers to operate annually inspected, insured carts on all its roads but one.
But the use of carts has also caused conflict: Ten years ago, residents of Loxahatchee, long used to operating golf carts in the community's semirural areas, complained loudly when the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department began a "zero-tolerance" policy and began ticketing cart drivers.
One way around local ordinances is to drive a cart that is classified as an LSV, sometimes called an NEV, for neighborhood electric vehicle. Under Florida law, a plain golf cart can be converted into a street-legal LSV and operate on roads with speed limits no higher than 35 mph. But the law requires the cart to have headlamps, taillights, brake lights, a light to illuminate the rear registration plate, turn signals, seat belts, rearview mirrors, parking brakes, windshield wipers and a horn. Top speed must be "not greater than 25 mph."
It can cost $1,000 or more to convert a basic cart into an LSV. If you stay on dedicated cart trails, though, you don't need anything more sophisticated than a conventional golf cart, and some communities allow, or at least tolerate, use of non-LSV carts on some roads.
Colangelo and myriad other golf cart outlets across Florida offer a startlingly wide range of new carts, starting at about $5,000 and topping out at more than $25,000 for custom models. For custom orders, Colangelo's technicians often take a conventional cart and strip off the body, replacing it with whatever style the customer wants.
As you may expect from small, light vehicles sometimes sharing the roads with cars and trucks, safety is an issue. There have been at least 10 fatalities resulting from golf cart accidents in the Villages, including two deaths in June from separate accidents.
Colangelo is a big advocate of installing seat belts in all carts, and he also suggests converting drum-brake models to more efficient disc brakes, matched to upgraded tires and wheels.
"These carts can't replace cars and trucks for everything," Colangelo said. "But there's no way you can drive around a place like the Villages and not see evidence that we're saving a lot of gasoline here."