In a little-publicized but potentially important ruling earlier this month, the federal government authorized the creation of a new class of motor vehicle allowed to use public roads: souped-up golf carts.
Under the new federal rules, four-wheel vehicles with a maximum speed of 25 mph will be exempt from most federal safety regulations and allowed to use public roads, subject to local approval.
Who would want to drive a golf cart? As it turns out, plenty of people in smaller communities, particularly retirees in California. In just the last two years, the number of states permitting the electric-powered vehicles on roads has grown fivefold.
"In truth, nobody knows how large the market is for these vehicles," said Philip R. Recht, deputy chief at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Everybody sees some advantages to mobility and the environment."
Until the ruling, federal regulators had banned golf carts from public roads, but 16 states had ignored Washington and given the green light to the buggies. Thousands are in use across the Sun Belt, and their numbers are likely to grow geometrically now.
Environmentalists backed the new federal decision, seeing a low-cost way to jump-start electric vehicle usage across the fastest-growing part of the nation. In the California community of Palm Desert alone, carbon monoxide emissions are being cut by an estimated 16 tons annually thanks to use of the golf carts, according to the federal ruling.
But auto safety experts are bitterly opposed, saying the Clinton administration has opened the door to a potentially deadly auto hazard.
"I despise this ruling," said Gerald A. Donaldson, senior research director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, a group backed by the insurance industry. "They are promoting a new sector of vehicle manufacturing with lower safety standards. It is an absolute outrage."
In its decision, the highway safety agency acknowledged the deaths of 16 occupants of golf carts on public roads between 1993 and 1997. It is unknown how that fatality rate compares, in terms of vehicle miles, to that of cars, motorcycles or bicycles.
The genesis of the new ruling was a petition filed by Bombardier Inc., a Canadian firm that makes what it calls "neighborhood vehicles" in a plant near Montreal. They are priced from $6,200 to $8,000 and have a 30-mile range on a single charge.
The firm foresees a tremendous new growth market, fueled by people who want electric vehicles but can't afford those offered by major manufacturers, said Pierre Arsenault, vice president of the firm's neighborhood vehicle division.
Under the old federal rules, anything that had four wheels and could go faster than 20 mph was defined as a car and had to meet costly federal safety standards. The new carts, called low-speed vehicles, must be equipped only with seat belts, windshields, headlights and turn signals.
The new federal rule is patterned after the program established in Palm Desert, which allows golf carts on 3.5 miles of separate paths, 14 miles of special street lanes and 18.75 miles of other local roads, said city traffic engineer Mark Greenwood.
But under state law, the carts can operate on any 25-mph residential street within one mile of a golf course--which in Palm Desert means everywhere. So another 100 miles of roads there are open to the carts. The city has 200 carts registered for use on public streets and another 3,000 that are used on private roads in gated communities.
"Our safety record has been very good," Greenwood said. "We have had four accidents in the four years the program has been active. There haven't been any fatalities or serious injuries."
But Bombardier is pushing for states to adopt the far-less-restrictive safety rules created by Arizona, which allows golf carts on roads with posted speeds of up to 35 mph. Safety advocates shudder at the idea of golf carts operating on four-lane thoroughfares alongside cars traveling illegally at 40 to 50 mph.
"We think the Arizona law has worked well," Arsenault said. "This is a much safer alternative to a motorcycle or a scooter. Is this less safe than a car? Obviously."
Times staff writer Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W., No. 1100, Washington, DC 20006. Via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.