In recent years, people throughout the world have become aware of the rising popularity of golf carts for use outside of golf courses, and several new terms have come into play causing some confusion. Casually reading material and talking to others, it would seem that one of the new terms, low-speed vehicle (LSV), is synonymous with the term golf cart, but actually, these are two separate classifications of vehicles. At one time, they could have been used interchangeably, but today, LSVs and golf carts have several important distinctions that have been clearly defined through federal and state laws.
Early History of Golf Carts
Golf carts, as they are known today, are small, powered vehicles that are used to transport golfers through a course. According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), golf carts are technically golf cars because traditionally carts do not include a means of self-propulsion. They rely on people, animals or a separate mechanism to move from place to place.
While early golf carts akin to rickshaws were employed in the early 20th century, they fell into disuse with the advent of electric and internal-combustion motors, and the term golf cart came to be used for the motorized vehicles carrying golfers through the various golf courses around the world.
For the most part, golf carts changed very little after this, and they remained limited to the links. However, in the 1980s and 1990s when master-planned communities began to sprout in coastal areas of the United States, these small, efficient vehicles began to be used as local transportation.
The subdivisions and suburban areas where these vehicles were popularized soon came to be known as golf-cart communities, and by the late 1990s, their popularity spread from the coasts to the rest of the nation. In addition, golf carts were recruited for a number of other purposes, such as transporting people and hauling materials in resorts, industrial and commercial property, college campuses, amusement parks, airports and just about everywhere. This prompted federal and state governments to adopt standards for their use on public roadways, just like full-size automobiles and motorcycles.
NHTSA Defines Low Speed Vehicle
The popularity of the low-speed electric vehicle (LSEV) as a form of local transportation grew significantly as the 20th century came to a close, and supporters noted several advantages, including low upfront and operating costs and a lower environmental impact than that of traditional vehicles. However, concerns began to emerge about the safety of LSVs on public roadways.
As a response to safety concerns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drafted rule 49 CFR 571.3 of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This rule was finalized on June 17, 1998, and it established the low-speed vehicle (LSV) and neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) as a new class of motor vehicle distinct from the golf cart.
By definition, LSVs are motor vehicles that are intended for “short trips for shopping, social and recreational purposes primarily within retirement or other planned communities with golf courses.” They must have four wheels, weigh less than 3,000 pounds and have a top speed of more than 20 mph but no greater than 25 mph at any point over a one-mile distance on a level, paved surface. In addition, the rule states that LSVs must be equipped with an array of safety features, including all of the following:
- Windshield constructed of automotive safety glass
- Turn indicators
- Rearview mirrors
- Windshield wipers
- Headlights, taillights and brake lights
- Parking brake
- Seat belt
Finally, because LSVs are classified by federal law as motor vehicles, each must have a unique vehicle identification number (VIN) for registration with state and local agencies. In the years following the finalization of the NHTSA rule, state and local authorities in many jurisdictions have adopted further standards for the performance and safety features of LSVs.
It is also important to note that the federal rule does not specify the types of roadways where LSVs may be driven, but most state and local authorities have limited their use outside of golf courses. For instance, most states only allow LSVs on roads with a maximum speed limit of 35 mph.
These rules vary widely from state to state. Texas and Alaska allow LSVs on some highways with speed limits of 45 mph while in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Kansas, LSVs must remain on roads with speed limits of 30 mph or less. In Rhode Island, New Jersey, and West Virginia, LSVs can only be driven on public roads with speed limits of 25 mph or less. In addition, some states dictate that LSVs may not cross roadways with higher speed limits than are allowed for LSVs.
NHTSA Golf Cart Classifications
In addition, the new NHTSA rule clearly defined three other classes of motor vehicles: the fleet golf cart, personal golf cart, and speed-modified golf cart:
- Fleet golf cart – A fleet golf cart is defined as a motorized vehicle with a maximum speed that is less than 20 mph and is employed solely for the purpose of carrying golf equipment and people. Fleet golf carts are made and marketed exclusively for use on golf courses rather than public roadways.
- Personal golf cart – A personal golf cart is a self-propelled vehicle that has a top speed of less than 20 mph but is intended for personal use. These vehicles may be powered by either electric motors or internal combustion engines and may be driven on golf courses and public roadways for purposes other than golf as long as they meet all state and local regulations. Personal golf carts, however, are not classified as motor vehicles by federal law. Therefore, they are not subject to NHTSA rules.
- Speed-modified golf cart – A speed-modified golf cart is a golf cart that has been adapted with aftermarket parts to increase its maximum speed after being purchased by an individual. If such a vehicle has a speed of 20 mph or greater, it is considered an LSV for legal purposes and is subject to all federal, state and local regulations.
Clarify Status of Any Low Speed Electric Vehicle
Although federal rules are very cut and dry on the definitions of LSVs and golf carts, it is advised that drivers always check with state and local authorities on the rules for street-legal vehicles and vehicle registration.