John Locke Update / Research Brief

Pump the Brakes on Golf Cart Regs

posted on in City & County Government, Local Government
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Sometimes, local governments seem to create solutions to problems that may not even really exist in the first place.  And usually, when they do, those “solutions” create tremendous burdens on individuals and businesses.  I had to ask myself this week if that wasn’t exactly what was happening in Carolina Beach, where the town council is considering a ban on golf carts.

As anyone who’s vacationed on the North Carolina coast will know, golf carts are widely used in beach communities.  Often, towns are very small, distances between houses and businesses or the beach are short, and parking space is limited, so it doesn’t really make sense to drive.  But walking a mile or two with small children, large coolers, beach umbrellas, and towels can be difficult.  Older people or those with mobility limitations may similarly struggle to walk.  So golf carts are a great compromise.  They’re small and easy to park, they can be loaded up with everything a family needs for a day at the beach, and they don’t move very fast, so they’re generally safer.

Of course, the one exception to that safety calculation is when cars hit golf carts.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, the consequences can be catastrophic.  A golf cart has no chance against a much larger, heavier car, and the passengers in a golf cart have little real protection.

So Carolina Beach has proposed increasing regulations, which always seems to be the answer in the minds of local government officials.  In the short term, it would just mean that golf carts have to have headlights and taillights, a fixed mirror, and seatbelts.  But by 2020, it gets a lot more burdensome.  According to Port City Daily, only “low-speed vehicles,” not golf carts would be permitted after that date.

And what’s the difference?  Well, “low-speed vehicles must have headlights, stop lights, turn signals, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, windshield wipers, speedometer, seat belts, and a VIN number” as well as be “registered and insured with the NCDOT.”  They’re also marginally faster, with top speeds between 20 and 25mph, as opposed to the typical golf cart’s top speed of 15-20mph.

Unsurprisingly, the residents of Carolina Beach don’t love this proposal.  Converting a golf cart to a “low-speed vehicle” would cost more than $2,500, according to some residents’ calculations.  At a recent town council meeting, every resident who spoke about the regulations opposed them.

And what about the impact on businesses?  There are local businesses in the area that rent golf carts to vacationers.  If their costs go up, will they be able to maintain their businesses?  Will out-of-town visitors opt to drive instead if the cost of golf cart rentals increases?  And will that increase congestion and parking problems while reducing safety?  If it’s more difficult to drive and park because the option of hopping on a golf cart has been eliminated, will that impact shops and restaurants?

Hopefully, Carolina Beach’s town council will listen to residents and scale back these changes.  I commend them for opening discussions to the public and hearing input.  Next, they need to take those comments on board and avoid undue burdens on local residents and businesses.

But this is also a useful example of the sorts of pitfalls local governments need to be careful to avoid.  Sometimes, by trying to fix something that’s not really broken, local governments can actually make things worse for residents, taxpayers, and businesses.  Local governments (and state and federal governments, for that matter), need to be careful that they don’t fall into this trap.

Julie Tisdale is City and County Policy Analyst at the John Locke Foundation. Before coming to the Locke Foundation, she worked at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, India, where she wrote about various economic and public policy… ...

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