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Yes, you can drive a golf cart on public roads. Depending on the golf cart. And the road.

TAMPA — Gary Payne has a car, but he prefers zipping around Davis Islands in a golf cart.

He drives it to restaurants, stores and the park.

"I take it to watch the sunset and the cruise ships come in," Payne said. "It's easier than loading into the car. Golf carts are everywhere here."

And there, too.

From Sun City Center up to Dunedin, people are using the open, electric, rubber-tired conveyances in ways that belie the name golf cart.

Should they be? Is it safe, let alone legal, to be driving them off the links and along roadways where they compete with vehicles that are in a different league for size and speed?

The answer is, it depends.

Standard golf carts "lack the kinds of safety features that we rely on in our vehicles," Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said. "And the fact that they are much slower creates a dangerous situation for those in the golf cart as well as for motorists in standard vehicles."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in 2017, an estimated 17,800 injuries treated in emergency rooms were associated with the use of golf carts.

Still, Florida allows them on certain public streets under certain conditions.

One option is to convert the golf cart into a car: Add seat belts, turn signals, a parking brake, exterior windows, a windshield, tail and head lamps, and a power train that can reach 20 to 25 mph, then take it for inspection to a Motor Services Regional Office and obtain a registration and insurance.

If you do all this, your rig is legal for a licensed driver to operate day and night on roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less.

Another option is getting your community together to lobby local government for an ordinance legalizing golf carts on public roads — but they still require most of the safety features, they must top out no faster than 20 mph, and you can only drive them from sunrise to sunset.

You may see standard golf carts dropping off kids at Mabry Elementary School in South Tampa, or tooling to the convenience store on Sunset Drive in Lutz, or enjoying the scenery along winding North Rome Avenue. But they probably shouldn't be.

In the city of Tampa, Davis Islands is the one community covered by a golf cart ordinance. Temple Terrace started out as a golf community and they're legal there, too. Golf cart-friendly communities in unincorporated Hillsborough County include Sun City Center and Twin Branch Acres.

There are no neighborhoods designated in St. Petersburg, but the city of St. Pete Beach allows golf carts — as do Dunedin, Ozona and Crystal Beach.

Officials in Pasco County told the Tampa Bay Times they couldn't provide a list of communities where golf cart use is legal, but a man who sells the machines there — Marty Luster of Golf Car Depot in Clearwater and Land O' Lakes — said people drive golf carts around Connerton and Epperson.

Luster said sales of golf carts outfitted for street-legal use have risen 25 percent during the past five years.

"Every year they have gotten more popular," he said. "There are more people moving here and more communities are becoming golf cart-friendly."

One requirement in communities where they're designated as legal: Signs must be posted that note other vehicles have to share the road with golf carts.

Obtaining designation usually starts with a neighborhood association. A petition is filed with the local government for a state-required safety survey, measuring such factors as "speed, volume and character of motor vehicle traffic using the road or street."

Even in a golf cart-designated community, headlights, brake lights, a turn signal, and a windshield are required, but a seat belt is not on the list. An operator must be at least 14 under state law, but in some communities — including Davis Islands — the minimum age is set at 16 and a drivers license is required.

The penalty for failing to follow the law in driving a golf cart is around $160 across the Tampa Bay area.

Enforcement, though, is rare.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has issued just one citation in the last three years.

In the city of Tampa, 31 people have been dinged during the last five years, but most just got a warning — and most of those were issued on Davis Islands before the community won designation as a golf cart community in January 2018, said Hegarty, the police spokesman.

"They weren't legal, but they had become a mass," said Payne, the Davis Islands golf cart fan. "It was natural we make it legal."

The retirement community of Sun City Center at Hillsborough's southern border pressed for an ordinance in the 1980s, said John Bowker, the community's historian.

Today, Bowker estimates, there are well over 3,000 golf carts among Sun City Center's 6,000 households.

"Beginning in 1962, we allowed them to go from someone's home to the golf course," Bowker said. "But it was being abused. They'd say they were going to the country club and end up somewhere else.

"So, we made it okay to take them everywhere."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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