Golf carts used to be just for the links. About a decade ago, resort and retirement communities in Arizona, California, Nevada and elsewhere started to experiment with allowing golf carts on the streets. Then new environmental incentives began encouraging manufacturers to introduce a whole new class of golf cart-like vehicles marketed expressly for on-road use.
They're known as neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs), and what's different about them is their higher speed and dressed-up exteriors. Basically they're glorified electric golf carts, and the concern is that significant numbers of them are going to end up on public streets instead of controlled environments.
Clean air laws are pressuring for dramatically increased sales of electric vehicles including NEVs, and many states aren't adequately controlling where the NEVs can be used. Several states have passed laws essentially allowing such vehicles on streets with speed limits up to 35 or even 40 mph.
Under federal safety standards, NEVs belong in the class of "low-speed vehicles," which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as having top speeds of 20 to 25 mph. Any golf cart or other four-wheeled motorized vehicle with a top speed in that range qualifies for the class. (Golf carts typically have top speeds below 20 mph, although it's possible to get ones that go about 25 mph.)
Low-speed vehicles including NEVs are exempt from almost all safety standards applying to cars. All that's required is some basic safety equipment — windshield, mirrors, headlights, signal lights, tail and brake lights, reflectors, safety belts, and a parking brake. Low-speed vehicles don't have to have doors or bumpers, and they're not required to meet any crashworthiness tests.
In other words, NEVs aren't going to do much to protect their occupants in any kind of crash. It's easy to imagine what would happen if such a vehicle weighing 1,300 pounds were to get hit by a sport utility vehicle weighing three or four times as much. The NEV wouldn't even fare well in a collision with a small car, which still would outweigh the NEV by a thousand pounds or more.
State emissions laws are spurring sales
Although NEVs aren't cars, they're being pushed on the market along with electric cars under California's mandate for zero emissions vehicles. (The mandate goes into effect next year, and similar laws have been enacted in Massachusetts and New York.) To comply with this law, electric vehicles must account for 2 percent of an automaker's total car sales in California. NEVs count toward the quotas, and any electric vehicle sold before 2003 earns extra credits. So there's an incentive to sell NEVs in volume — and do it soon, perhaps selling tens of thousands this year alone.
So far two major automakers have gotten into the business. DaimlerChrysler is selling vehicles called GEMs through its recently acquired subsidiary, Global Electric Motorcars. Ford has the Th!nk Neighbor. Independent manufacturers including Lee Iacocca's Lido Motors, Western Golf Car, and Columbia ParCar also are producing NEVs.
Besides zero emissions laws, tax incentives for electric vehicles in California and other states are helping to spur NEV sales. Close to 6,000 NEVs were sold in Arizona, for example, when the state briefly offered a $10,000 tax credit toward the purchase of zero emissions vehicles.
There still aren't many NEVs on the streets, so their crash experience is limited. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has looked at golf cart crashes, finding at least nine deaths on public roads between 1993 and 1998. Eight of the nine deaths occurred when the golf carts collided with cars or trucks. The young male driver of the cart shown above died when his vehicle was struck in the side by a sport utility vehicle.
Street legal doesn't mean street safe
The problem with all this pressure is that many states don't have adequate NEV laws. California and 12 other states have laws allowing low-speed vehicles or NEVs on streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less. Kansas allows these vehicles on streets with speed limits up to 40 mph. Other states haven't enacted any specific laws.
Light and flimsy NEVs would be out of their league in crashes with other vehicles going 35 mph. Besides, actual speeds on streets with 35 mph limits frequently are a lot higher. Speeding is widespread, and when drivers speed they often exceed posted limits by a significant margin. For example, 30 percent of drivers in a recent District of Columbia survey were exceeding posted limits by at least 11 mph.
"NEVs are a safety problem waiting to happen," says Institute president Brian O'Neill. "Souped-up golf carts aren't cars, and they don't belong on streets and roads with regular traffic. If they really start catching on, we'll have to run some crash tests to demonstrate their lack of protection."
GM petitions for federal action
General Motors' executive director of safety integration, Bob Lange, points out that this is a "huge problem for highway safety. If we presume a collision rate equal to that of cars and trucks, there will be a couple of thousand crashes annually involving low-speed vehicles. That could result in several hundred serious or fatal injuries, none of which would happen if the states would behave responsibly and limit the operating environments of these vehicles."
General Motors has taken the lead among automakers to bring this issue to government attention, lobbying California officials to change state laws to restrict low-speed vehicles to streets with 25 mph speed limits or less. The company also recently petitioned the federal government to change the safety standards. General Motors wants two new requirements — labels identifying the safety hazards associated with operating low-speed vehicles in mixed traffic and additional conspicuity features that would make these vehicles more visible. Another request is to monitor crashes and inform state agencies of the potential for a safety problem.