TEMPLE TERRACE — City Council member Bob Boss rolled up to the intersection in his 15-year-old golf cart and waited as a black sedan drove by. Lifting his foot off the brake, he pressed down on the accelerator — the cart averaged 11 mph — and continued on to the tee.
In Temple Terrace, golf carts and cars coexist peacefully, for the most part. But starting in October, that relationship will move past the roads surrounding the golf course and extend through the entire community.
Residents who register their golf carts with the city will be allowed to drive on all city roads, said city spokesman Michael Dunn. County and state roads, such as 56th Street, and Fletcher and Fowler avenues will be off limits.
"We're trying to get away from relying on cars for everything," Dunn said. "As part of our comprehensive plan, we want to become as friendly toward bicyclists, pedestrians and others as we possibly can."
Here, in a city of about 25,000, many neighborhood roads have speed limits of 25 mph. Kids play outside in family-friendly neighborhoods. One girl skipped down Whiteway Drive recently as another walked on the nearby sidewalk.
Temple Terrace officials hope the ordinance makes it easier to visit friends in a nearby neighborhood or go downtown without having to get in a car, Boss said.
The city joins a handful of others spots across the state where it is legal to drive golf carts on the streets, including Tampa's Davis Islands area and retirement communities Sun City Center and the Villages, northwest of Orlando. Although officials elsewhere see room for danger, those in golf-cart friendly areas say it's perfectly safe to drive them alongside pickups and SUVs. With rising gas prices and a growing desire for alternative forms of transportation, golf carts might be part of the solution.
"You don't have the gas, you don't have as high of insurance and it's fun," said Kristy Mahoney, office manager for the Sun City Center Area Chamber of Commerce. "The disadvantage, you always have to think about the risk factors, in case a car hits you or things like that."
The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles doesn't track golf cart accidents. It isn't even listed as a vehicle type on traffic incident forms. But just last month, a woman in Pasco died from head trauma after a sharp turn threw her from a cart being driven on a road in Land O'Lakes. In Bonita Springs a drunken golf cart driver was charged with vehicular homicide in the April 2011 death of his wife.
Nationwide, golf-cart related injuries were responsible for nearly 14,000 emergency room visits in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Despite any local legislation, golf carts are still banned from all state roads in Florida. The risk is just too high, said Gary Thompson, traffic operations engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation. However, in light of changing times and public pressure in places such as Davis Islands, the state does allow golf-cart drivers to simply cross some state roads, although they can't drive on them.
"If somebody operates their golf cart in a reasonable and prudent fashion, they should be safe," Thompson said. "If they decide to get out on their own and take off down a state road, it wouldn't be too long before they run into a problem."
Although golf carts won't be allowed along state or county roads, they could cross Bullard Parkway, a busy county road that cuts through the heart of town, using two designated golf cart tunnels.
To drive carts on city streets, drivers must possess a valid Florida driver's license and follow all of the same rules and regulations associated with other vehicles, Dunn said. The registered carts must also meet basic equipment requirements, such as adequate brakes, reliable steering and safe tires. Headlights must be used at night. And drivers who violate rules of the road should expect to get tickets from the Temple Terrace Police Department, ranging from $103 to $151.
Bringing golf carts under traffic laws has another advantage, said Boss, the council member.
"We know people use the carts to get around," he said. "Now we have the ability to enforce them. The biggest issue is making sure the parents are in compliance and aren't letting their kids drive around."
But it's not uncommon to see too many kids piled onto a golf cart, Boss said. Or driving too fast. Or pulling a skateboard. Previously, these things were hard to enforce and the responsibility rested with the golf courses. Come October, police can issue citations.
Still, one major safety component is missing from most carts: seat belts. And authorities can do nothing about that. Only a small number of golf carts have safety belts. For the majority, which don't, the city won't be able to enforce Florida's seat belt laws, Dunn said. The same applies to motorcycles and classic cars made before safety belt requirements.
"I think if you're going to use it in place of an automobile to go to Walmart or the local grocery store, then a seat belt would be a good thing to have, but most don't come with seat belts," said the DOT's Thompson. "It's just unfortunate that many times when things are enacted, it takes some sort of tragedy to bring these concerns to the forefront."
Dunn said he expects the golf carts to be a positive change for Temple Terrace. Of course, he said, common sense will play a big role in keeping people safe.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3111.