Putt-putt golf carts of yesteryear have given way to pimped-out street versions that are much speedier, and apparently more dangerous.
A new study finds that golf cart-related injuries jumped from 5,772 in 1990 to 13,441 in 2006. Many of the most serious injuries occur on streets rather than on the links, researchers said. Nearly a third of the injuries involved children under 16 years old.
Popularity of golf carts has risen dramatically, say the researchers, as these four-wheeled vehicles extend beyond golf courses to become a mode of transportation at sporting events, hospitals, airports, national parks, college campuses, businesses and military bases. In fact, the researchers say golf carts have become the primary means of transportation in many gated and retirement communities.
In many planned communities in the Southwest, electric and gas-powered golf carts are used on the streets. Factory models typically can't exceed about 30 mph (48 kph), but aftermarket kits can soup them up for higher speeds. The carts often poke along in bike lanes as impatient drivers of regular autos speed around them.
Rising popularity is just part of the reason for the increase in injuries, said researcher Tracy Mehan of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"The increase is likely due to the growing capabilities, such as the fact that they have increased speed and power," Mehan told LiveScience, "plus their increasing popularity and also the lack of regulation regarding their use."
By the numbers
With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Daniel Watson of Ohio State University's College of Medicine and his colleagues (including Mehan) reviewed data on golf cart-related injuries reported in a national database. They counted nearly 150,000 golf cart-related injuries that were treated at U.S. emergency departments between 1990 and 2006.
More than 70 percent of the injuries in which location was reported occurred at a sports or recreational facility. However, the researchers note that street injuries more often resulted in concussions and were more likely to require hospitalization than golf cart spills in other places.
Nearly 40 percent of the injuries resulted from the rider falling or jumping from a golf cart, for both adults and children.
The researchers say the rise in golf cart popularity for street and in-community use, along with the soaring injuries, makes a case for the implementation of safety regulations.
Currently, in some states, golf carts are legal on public roads and on highways and are subject to all the same rules of the road as any vehicle. Most golf carts, however, are not subject to federal regulation, and state and local regulations for golf carts vary widely by region, according to the study researchers.
"Given the large increase in golf cart–related injuries over the study period, greater efforts are needed to prevent these injuries, especially among children," said researcher Lara McKenzie of Nationwide Children's Hospital.
The researchers suggest children under the age of 16 not be permitted to drive golf carts and children 6 years or younger should not be permitted in golf carts at all.
In addition, they recommend private and public facilities, where golf carts are allowed, should require driver's licenses and safety-operations training, as well as implement safety policies and perhaps consider golf cart safety in the design of pathways and landscapes.
The study will be detailed in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.