A funny thing happened on the way home from the 18th green. Senior citizen golfers and their spouses discovered they could also stop off at the bank, grocery store, or restaurant without paying a nickel for gas.
Now, in some retirement communities through the Sun Belt, golf carts have become the vehicle of choice. From California to Florida, many seniors are kenneling their gas-guzzlers in the garage and switching on to electric golf carts.
"When we moved to Sun City Center, [Fla.], we had two cars," says Jack Fischer. "But here we felt we could get by with one car and one golf car - with the golf car to be used for on-campus transportation."
The move to golf carts as the primary mode of transportation has given rise to a new breed of retirement neighborhood - ones where everything is golf-cart accessible and drivers speeding along at 25 m.p.h. are pushing the edge of the envelope.
At Sun City Center, 30 miles south of Tampa, 15,000 residents are only a short ride from the community grocery store, banks, beauty parlor, and health-care facilities, in addition to the club house, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses.
Mr. Fischer, who has never actually driven his golf cart onto a golf course, estimates that at least half of the residents here own a golf cart.
The numbers are similarly impressive at Lady Lake, Fla., a retirement community northwest of Orlando, Fla. There, some locals estimate that 70 percent of the 17,000 residents own their own carts. "Everything here is golf-cart accessible," says Chris Mianulli, who works at a golf-cart sales and service shop within the community.
In addition to three 18-hole golf courses and six nine-hole courses, the community has three country clubs, two bowling alleys, two major grocery stores, seven restaurants, various shops, and an eight-screen movie theater under construction. The gated retirement community is bisected by a busy state highway, but Lady Lake planners got around that potential safety hazard by building a golf cart bridge over the congested thoroughfare.
Still, convenience isn't the only reason to hop on a golf cart. Mr. Mianulli notes that they are also fun to drive.
Similar planned retirement communities are sprouting up across the Sun Belt. Some cart-friendly communities like Palm Desert, Calif., and Sun City, Ariz., have existed for years. And according to Fred Somers of the National Golf Car Manufacturers Association in Atlanta, there are roughly 400,000 privately owned golf carts in the United States today. Plus, the market is growing as the number of seniors and the number of planned retirement communities grow, manufacturers say.
By one estimate there are 14,000 such communities in Florida alone.
Used golf carts can be bought for as little as $1,500, while new carts cost from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on luxury options.
Most carts can't travel faster than 15 m.p.h., a speed that dovetails with the pace of life at many retirement communities. And eight hours of recharging the battery costs about 50 cents for an entire day of putt-putting around, compared with $1.30 to $1.50 for a single gallon of gasoline.
There are other attractions as well. For some elderly drivers, golf carts are a safer transportation option. It allows them to maintain their freedom and get out and about without having to drive a car at high speeds or deal with heavy traffic. Many seniors simply feel more comfortable behind the wheel of a slow-moving, easy-to-maneuver golf cart.
But one company is seeking to carve out its own niche by offering a hybrid vehicle halfway between a golf cart and a car. It is capable of traveling up to 25 miles per hour and can accelerate from 0 to 20 m.p.h. in six seconds.
The next generation?
They call it the NEV or Neighborhood Electric Vehicle. It is made by Bombardier, the Canada-based company that manufacturers Lear Jets and Sea-Doo personal watercraft.
Unlike most golf carts, the NEV is equipped with seat belts, head and tail lights, directional signals, a shatter-proof windshield, and roll bars. Total cost: $7,100.
"We anticipate that if these really take off they will be replacing the second car," says Seth Jacobson, a company spokesman in Los Angeles.
Under current laws in most states, it is up to local governments to regulate the movement of golf carts and similar slow-moving vehicles. Most private carts in use are restricted to retirement communities or gated neighborhoods.
Yet some safety experts, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), are concerned that the line between cars and carts may be blurred as more people buy golf carts and they begin straying out onto public roads.
The agency is considering establishing a new category for slow-moving vehicles traveling 15 to 25 m.p.h. Although they wouldn't need air bags, such cars would require seat belts and other safety features like those offered on the NEV.
It appears at this point that the agency will not attempt to require safety measures like seat belts on personal golf carts traveling less than 15 m.p.h. in private communities. But potential standards for carts capable of speeds over 15 m.p.h. remain unclear.
Safety experts, like David Snyder of the American Insurance Association in Washington, are urging the NHTSA to bar golf carts and other slow-moving vehicles from all public roads. He says mixing small golf cart-like vehicles with trucks and speeding cars is a recipe for disaster.
Mr. Synder says personal golf carts should only be permitted within gated communities or clearly segregated areas where they will not be in contact with a normal mix of traffic.