The golf cart is not limited to the fairways anymore. More and more communities and municipalities are permitting the use of golf carts on roadways for running errands, grocery shopping, and even delivering pizza. As more golf carts are used on public roads, interactions between those vehicles and automobiles are increasing. An important issue that arises is whether those vehicles are golf carts (a.k.a. “golf cars”) or low-speed vehicles .
Application of Federal Standards
In 1998 the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) were amended to include classification of “low-speed vehicles” . This extension of regulation took place following the recognition by NHTSA that more and more golf carts were being used on public roads. The golf cart industry fought the regulation and self-imposed a speed limit of 18 m.p.h. to avoid being subject to the regulations.
Low-speed vehicles (LSV) are defined as vehicles capable of achieving a top speed of more than 20 m.p.h. Golf carts that are capable of reaching this speed threshold because of its original equipment gearing and motor, or post-sale modifications are considered LSV. The FMVSS equipment requirements for LSV include the requirement that the vehicle be equipped with head lights, taillights, turn signals, and seatbelts, to name a few of the requirements . While these features may be standard on LSV manufactured as such, most modified golf carts do not meet the FMVSS requirements when converted to LSV. There are several possible reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that most businesses performing the modifications are unaware of the requirements of FMVSS.
For a motor vehicle to lawfully be operated on-road, it must comply with all applicable FMVSS. Typically, the manufacturer will certify that the vehicle complies with all applicable FMVSS. If it later turns out that the vehicle does not comply with all applicable Federal standards, NHTSA will order a recall . With regard to the sale of modified golf carts as LSV, if the businesses are not certifying compliance with FMVSS, NHTSA cannot order a recall. Rather, the use of a LSV on a public road which does not comply with FMVSS is considered driving a non-motor vehicle by NHTSA, such that the local authorities can stop and cite the operator.
The minimum standards set forth in the FMVSS applicable to LSV are beneficial to the practitioner who represents a party injured in a LSV accident. The FMVSS can be used against the business selling the LSV to establish the minimum standards for safety which should have been met, but were not. The government rules defense can be used as a sword for the prosecuting attorney, rather than the shield of defense counsel. Additionally, the cause of action against the seller of the LSV can bring additional insurance coverage to the table.
Florida Statute §316.212 governs the operation of golf carts upon the public roads within the state. While this section has some of the same requirements that the FMVSS has for LSV, the statutory requirements are much less stringent. Further, the operation of golf carts on public roads requires that the roads be designated for use by golf carts and cannot be operated by a person under the age of 14.
The operation of LSV on public roads is governed by Florida Statute §316.2122. Notably, the roadway need not be designated for use of LSV. Rather, the only requirement is that the posted speed limit is less than 35 m.p.h. Further, the operator of a LSV must have a valid drivers’ license, and the vehicle must be registered and insured in accordance with §320.02, Florida Statutes. The failure of an agent to procure insurance for a LSV after being advised there was one in the household may be an additional area for potential liability when examining all potential issues in a personal injury lawsuit.
Florida Statutes governing golf carts give local governmental entities the power to enact stricter standards upon the use of golf carts on public roadways. The existence of any local standards governing golf carts should be considered in evaluating potential liability following a collision. There is not a similar provision regarding LSV in Florida Statutes.
In 2005, the sales of LSV and golf cars totaled $2 billion at the end market. There were 620,000 LSV sold that year . The demand for LSV is being driven by several factors including an increase in gated/planned communities designed to radiate from central shopping facilities which are ideally suited for non-automobile traffic; the increase in state legislation making LSV “street legal”; and increased fuel costs. As noted above, the low relative vehicular weight of the LSV as compared to the typical automobile and the lack of occupant protection make collisions between the two especially dangerous for the occupants of the LSV. The mandated safety features for LSV are designed to make them more visible to motorists (e.g. headlights, turn signals, brake lights) and safer when accidents do occur (seatbelts). The failure of the LSV retailer to include these features which may have prevented or lessened the severity of a particular accident should not be overlooked when evaluating potential parties to a lawsuit.
 In applicable regulation, NHTSA uses the terms “golf cart” and “golf car” interchangeably, as a vehicle with a maximum attainable speed of 20m.p.h. The National Golf Car Manufacturers Association, however, draws a distinction under ANSI/NGCMA Z130.1-1993 between those vehicles with a top speed of 15 m.p.h. as “golf cars” and those with the capability of a top speed over 15 m.p.h. as “personal transport vehicle” or “low speed vehicle.” For the purposes of this article, NHTSA definitions and terminology are utilized.
 FMVSS 571.500
 To be a low-speed vehicle pursuant to FMVSS the top speed attainable in 1 mile must be more than 20 m.p.h. but not more than 25 m.p.h.
 Once a vehicle is determined to be a low-speed vehicle, it must be outfitted with: headlamps; front and rear turn signal lamps; taillamps; stop lamps; reflex reflectors; a drivers’ side exterior mirror and either a passenger side exterior mirror or an interior mirror; a parking brake; a windshield; a VIN number; and seat belts.
 Businesses purchasing and modifying golf carts are considered “alterers” in the eyes of NHTSA because they are purchasing the used golf carts for resale and modification. It is the purchase for the purpose of resale that makes the business an “alterer” rather than a modifier.
 International Competitive Assessments, Golf Car-type vehicles and the Emerging Market for Small, Task-Oriented Vehicles in the United States; Trends 2000-2005, Forecasts to 2008.