The Laughs On U.S.
Big Brother Tinkers with Grandpas Golf Car
by Sheldon Richman
Sheldon Richman is vice president of policy affairs at the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Those of you who feared the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had run out of things to regulate, rest easy. It found something: the newest form of senior-citizen transportation. It seems that retired folks in the Sun Belt are increasingly zipping around town in golf cars. This new addition to city streets has not gone unnoticed by the regulators at the NHTSA. (You might think these vehicles are called "golf carts" but the National Golf Car Manufacturers Association in Atlanta insists that a "golf cart" is actually the two-wheeled contraption golfers drag behind them to carry their clubs.)
Its not your normal golf-course golf car that has come under federal scrutiny. Were talking turbo-charged golf cars, the kind that can reach 25 miles per hour (mph). The Canadian company Bom-bardier Inc. took the basic golf car, sped it up, and now markets it as an on-road runabout. It is known as an LSV (low-speed vehicle) or NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle) and sells for $6,700.
Regulations are already being written in towns in California and Arizona, where senior citizens are known to migrate. Florida could be next. The town regs call for roofs, windshields, seatbelts, lights, and brakes. They dont require doorsso far. Most of them have sheets of canvas for doors. Some municipalities restrict where the vehicles can go, confining them to streets with speed limits not exceeding 35 mph or to designated lanes.
But local regulation can be so haphazard. Think of the potential for chaos: youre driving an NEV from California to Florida (avoiding the interstates, of course) and you never know if your vehicle is up to standard in any particular town.
Enter the NHTSA. In January the agency called for comment on proposed regulations in the Federal Register, and the comments have rolled in apace or at least at the speed of a souped-up golf car. Municipalities and state politicians are delighted that the feds are addressing this vexing problem. The people who make the cars have mixed feelings. But the Ralph Naders of the country think the NHSTA has sold out to the awesome Golf Car Lobby. Presumably they are upset that the regulators arent proposing reinforced steel doors, impact resistant bumpers, mandatory super-long extension cords, and airbags, unless children and short people (can you still say that?) are riding in them. The Naderites are having a tough time proving their charge since, to date, no operatives of the lobby have been spotted sharing coffee at the White House after a good nights sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. And if Vice President Al Gore has made any shake-downsorrycampaign-finance calls from the White House, it hasnt come to Bob Woodwards attention.
At any rate, an NHSTA spokesman said the rules used by Palm Desert, California, are good enough and will probably be adopted nationally.
To avoid inciting the nations golfers to riot, the spokesman hastened to add that his agency, which has jurisdiction only over highway safety, was not planning to regulate vehicles that stay on golf courses. I heard those will be left to the National Fairway Traffic Safety Administration, chaired by Bob Hope. Most golf courses use cars that cannot top 15 mph. NEVs can reach 25 mph. The official EPA mileage estimate has not been released yet. But big deal. Your mileage may vary anyway.
I asked the agency spokesman if this issue was coming to the fore now because of a rash of accidents. "In three and a half years, theres been only one accident in Palm Desert," he said. Some teenagers went joy-riding and turned an NEV over. (As the driver was being led away by police he was heard to say, "Mistakes were made.") Hardly an epidemic.
Why not then leave the matter to local authorities or, better yet, insurance companies? The spokesman was quite candid.
"We are the national authority on regulating motor vehicles," he said. "We dont want some old duffer getting hurt in one of those cars and have his senator ask why we werent protecting his constituents."
See? The regulations arent unnecessary. They protect the regulators.
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