CLEARWATER — The glorified golf carts have buzzed the beachfront for months, lime green or coral pink and always hard to miss.
Offering free, tips-encouraged taxi rides, the carts, run by a startup called Florida Free Rides, have become a hot waterfront commodity. They shuttled up to 2,000 people on New Year's Eve alone.
Yet in the last six months, the electric carts have operated largely unregulated. So, too, have a number of pedicabs, low-speed motorcycles, rentable Segways and four-wheeled Surrey bikes whistling down beach roads.
That could change soon, as the City Council considers new regulations for the popular people movers on Clearwater Beach and beyond. The council could vote on some new rules early next month.
Among the regulations: Drivers must pass background checks; vehicles must field safety inspections; and businesses must hold $500,000-per-incident insurance policies.
Some rules are even more specific: Pedicabs must steer clear of the beach roundabout, vehicles for hire can't collect fares mid ride, and drivers can't work more than 12 hours a day.
The push for regulation comes in the weeks before Spring Break, when swelling crowds and hectic traffic leave beach transit ripe for things to go wrong.
"They're everywhere, they're obstructing traffic and they drive unsafely. It's almost, 'Where do you start?' " council member Paul Gibson said of the slow-moving pedicabs. "If they're in an accident, it may be their last."
But the proposed regulations have also raised the eyebrows of some on the beach, including leaders of Florida Free Rides, who believe the rules unfairly target their business.
The company has had no accidents, said co-founder and driver Jason Gibertoni, and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce has fielded no complaints about their service. Their $12,000 Star electric "bubble cars" go 25 mph and are outfitted with lights and seat belts.
Yet they worry their service could be confused with other electric-cart chauffeurs, who have been criticized as aggressively demanding tips and driving dangerously across the Memorial Causeway.
They also worry that one rule might unfairly benefit their competition: the popular open-air Jolley Trolley shuttles that circulate the beach. One new rule says pedicabs and for-hire carts can't pick up passengers at a Jolley Trolley stop.
Beach Chamber president Darlene Kole said that rule could hurt competition and free enterprise on the beach while unfairly benefiting the Trolley, an independent not-for-profit that earns more than $300,000 a year in city and Pinellas County subsidies.
"Do taxicabs in New York City have to make their riders walk a block up the road before they can safely pick them up?" Kole said. "There comes a point where it's like, really? You're going to nitpick this to death?"
Gibertoni also questions what good the regulations will do without including the core of local transit: taxis. In 2009, acting on a police request, the council unanimously voted to stop inspecting taxis, citing costs and "changes in the business environment" that made city regulations obsolete. Council members on Monday said they want the county to enact its own regulations.
"This ordinance really is becoming a whole lot about nothing," Gibertoni said. "If they want to take this up, the responsible thing would be to do it for everyone."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.