Golf Cars and Distracted Driving1
Much has been expressed in the media in recent years about texting and use of cell phones while driving. Traffic accidents and resultant injuries and even death are attributed to the combination of texting or use of cell phones and driving. According to Traffic Safety Facts published by NHTSA in March 2017, 3,477 people died and another 391,000 were injured in 2015 in motor vehicle crashes caused by drivers who were distracted because they were texting or using cell phones.2
Anything that takes your attention away from driving can be a distraction. Sending a text message, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system, and eating or drinking while driving are a few examples of distracted driving. Any of these distractions can endanger the driver and others.3
“Distraction “is a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention from the driving task to focus on some other activity instead.4
Most golfers operating a golf car, PTV5 or LSV6 on a golf course don’t think of distracted driving as a hazard similar to a passenger car on road driving. Their lower speed and the paucity of other vehicular traffic on a golf course lend support to this state of mind. Notably, except in a threesome or foursome when two or more players are using golf cars or in the presence of golf course maintenance vehicles, golf car operators don’t have a need to look out for other vehicles. Also lacking on a golf course is the presence of pedestrians excepting only when playing in a group where one or more players are walking and either carrying their bags or using pull or push carts. In contrast, when using golf cars, LSVs or PTVs on public streets or trails, the failure to recognize other vehicles and pedestrians if distracted becomes much more of an acute danger than on a golf course.
Notwithstanding, there are cases involving personal injury when a distracted or inattentive golf car operator fails to see a pedestrian golfer or another nearby golf car. Collisions with other golf cars or objects, a walking golfer being hit with a golf car, being thrown from a golf car because of operator error and being hurt in a rollover or tip over accident due to driver distraction, inattentiveness or carelessness are but examples.
Recently, when operating a golf car on a golf course my passenger exclaimed, “Hey, look at the deer”. At the time we were on a golf car path with a tricky downhill left turn coming up and a severe slope off to the left of the path. Fortunately, I didn’t take my attention off the path course before stopping the vehicle to see what my companion was pointing to. However, suppose I had looked up and to the right where he was pointing. What might have been the result? Fortunately, I didn’t primarily because golf car safety is a vocational interest of mine and I am paranoid about being cautious when operating a golf car.
Notwithstanding the external distractions on a golf course are less numerous than on a public street or trail, the internal distractions are the same. In recent times, I have become accustomed to both operators and passengers in golf cars checking their smart phones for messages, texts and other diversions, while the vehicle is in motion. This occurrence is likely common at golf courses which do not require cell phones to be turned off or placed in silent or “airplane” mode while playing golf and allowed to be used only upon an emergency.
The pundits tell us texting and making telephone calls while driving and having accidents are most prevalent among younger operators7. However, I play golf mostly with older men and am persuaded the problem exists across all ages and sexes. Indeed, one sampling indicates the problem exists about equally between men and women.8 Notwithstanding, NHTSA’s most recently available statistics show handheld cell phone use continued to be higher among female drivers than male drivers. It also found that handheld cell phone use continued to be highest among 16- to 24-year-old drivers and lowest among drivers 70 and older.9 Recently, I was gratified to find my very active adult daughter is now using a holder for her smart phone to receive calls while driving. My wife has a built in wifi in her automobile that enables her to converse on the phone hands free. I personally use a streamer connected to my hearing aids to eliminate handholding my cell phone. Voice activated apps are now available that allow messaging without needing to hold the phone or manually text the message.10
Other examples of forms of distraction while operating a golf car on the golf course include looking for where your or your companion’s golf ball is thought to be, engaging in conversation with your passenger, looking at movement or actions of the passenger, activities related to eating or drinking and focusing on an onboard computer screen. However, these forms of distraction have been with us for a awhile and likely are not to be stamped out by any course enforcement rules. Also, some onboard computer screens go dark during the vehicle’s movement.
One aspect of new trends among mostly young golfers is the use of headsets to listen to music or other media while playing golf. If this trend extends to a golfer operating a golf car, the distraction afforded by the media is apparent. Another late phenomenon is the acceptance by some golf courses of players using speakers playing media while engaged in playing golf. Perhaps these trends are the result of the “democratization” of golf, the one amateur sport other than tennis, lawn bowling and a few others traditionally played in a quiet environment. While some of us more traditional golfers much prefer quiet while playing golf, times may be changing.
The question remains whether the concern of NHTSA and others over distracted drivers on public roads causing injuries and death especially with the use of cell phones and other extrinsic media translates to increased accidents on golf courses remains unanswered by any statistical data. On board computer screens, head phones and cell phones themselves do not yet seem to be a major concern.
We submit the issue of cell or smart phone use while playing golf or operating a golf car presently is one addressed to golf course management. How do the owner, manager, club members and players perceive the issue? Is it perceived as a breach of etiquette11, rudeness, intrusion on the traditional quiet of a golf course or a genuine safety issue? We conclude the issue boils down to the particular economic and social model of the course or club in question and the prevailing expectation of players at the particular golf course venue.
1 The author of this article is Fred L. Somers, Jr., Esq., an Atlanta area attorney. Fred is General Counsel and Secretary of International Light Transportation Vehicles Association, Inc., (“ILTVA”), a 501(c)(6) trade association. Somers also serves as counsel and advisor to various private clubs. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of ILTVA or its members.
4 Overview of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Driver Distraction Program (DOT HS 811 299) https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/811650
5 A PTV is defined as A self-propelled vehicle with a minimum of 4 wheels, capable of a maximum level ground speed of less than 32 kph (20 mph), maximum rated pay load capacity of 545 kg (1200 lb), maximum gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 1,135 kg (2,500 lb) and capable of transporting not more than four persons,3 operating on designated roadways or property where permitted by law, or the applicable regulatory authority. See www.iltva/standards
6 LSV or low speed vehicle means a motor vehicle, (1) that is 4-wheeled, (2) whose speed attainable in 1.6 km (1 mile) is more than 32 kilometers per hour (20 miles per hour) and not more than 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) on a paved level surface, and (3) whose GVWR is less than 1,134 kilograms (2,500 pounds). https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2005-08-17/pdf/05-16323.pdf
7 The age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the under-20 age group – 16 percent of all drivers younger than 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/811379
11 Golf course etiquette requires “Respect for your fellow players – be sportsmanlike and polite, stay by the green to watch them hole out, and avoid distracting them. See https://www.randa.org/RulesEquipment/Etiquette/Behaviour-on-the-Course.