A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Playing golf can be hazardous to your health, especially when using a golf cart

According to statisticbrain.com, 9.6 percent of Americans (26 million people) have played 18 holes of golf at least once in the past 12 months.

A lot of business is conducted on a golf course, but the industry itself is enormous. According to a 2015 Forbes magazine article, it is estimated to be a nearly $70 billion industry, supporting two million jobs and $55.6 billion in annual wage income. Just in the state of Florida alone, the sport has a $7.5 billion direct economic output impact to the economy.

Golf Magazine estimated that the average golfer spent $2,776 per year on golf-related expenses and according to the National Golf Foundation, there are a total of 15,372 courses in the United States with 153 more in development.

That’s a lot of golf courses and as a risk management and safety professional, I translate that into 276,696 individual holes of golf in which a golfer can become injured, and in some situations killed, while swinging clubs on the links.

Golf is generally considered a safe sport with a low risk of injury, but what would you say if I told you that it is more dangerous than playing rugby?

According to an article in golfsupport.com, golfing is much more dangerous when you look at the number of injuries sustained while playing. Lower back injuries account for 34 percent of all those injuries, making it the No. 1 source for injuries to professional, amateur and casual golfers. It’s a real handicap for many and even took Tiger Woods out of competition for an extended period of time.

There are other real accidents sources that have injured or even killed plenty of golfers over the years. Each year an estimated 40,000 golfers seek emergency treatment due to injuries caused by errant golf balls and flying club heads.

Golf carts are responsible for as many as 15,000 injuries per year and on average nine golfers are killed by lightning strikes every year.

The most significant source for injuries in golf cart accidents is passenger ejection, which can lead to serious injuries, especially head injuries.

Based on Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics, roughly 40 percent of golf cart accidents involve a person falling out of the cart, and many of these accidents involve young children. In addition to ejection accidents, approximately 10 percent of golf cart accidents involve a rollover, and statistics indicate that such accidents are roughly twice as likely to lead to injuries requiring a hospital stay as non-rollover accidents.

A large portion of those passenger ejection injury statistics are resulting from children 16 or younger, which account for 40 percent of golf cart accidents, but it can also occur to adults as well.

Golf carts are typically not equipped with seatbelts because of their need to allow passengers to enter and exit the vehicle frequently with ease. As result, the American National Standards Institute golf cart safety standard, Z130.1, does not require seatbelts for golf carts.

To make up for this, golf carts are instead equipped with passive restraints that are designed to protect unbelted passengers from ejection. Golf cart standards require readily accessible handholds and body restraints that help prevent occupants from sliding to the outside of the vehicle. They are typically designed with rectangular or semicircular bars that rise up from each side of the cart’s bench seat and are designed to serve as both handholds and hip restraints.

In an article in technology-assoc.com, it is explained that this design is deficient because of the location of the handhold (i.e., at the outboard edge of the seat) and also the fulcrum that an ejected passenger will tend to rotate. Therefore, this type of handhold, even when used, does not provide the passenger with sufficient leverage to prevent ejection. Another possible deficiency is that the side restraint is often not large enough to prevent ejections.

However, safety experts suggest the addition of a centrally mounted handhold can be easily provided and would greatly reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection without interfering with convenient entry and exit from the passenger side of the seat.

Approximately 10 percent of these golf cart accidents involve a rollover. Golf carts are typically designed with brakes only on the rear axle, making them extremely unstable in a variety of different terrains. Golf cart rollovers are usually the result of a driver losing control of the cart while traveling downhill.

Engineers have proven that a braked vehicle with skidding rear tires and rolling front tires is directionally unstable, and the rear wheel-only brake design can easily lead to fishtailing or drifting. Golf cart drivers will often press harder on the brake pedal, which in turn leads to a locking of the rear-braked wheels and into an out-of-control skid.

This hazard is magnified on golf courses that integrate hilly terrain with steep, narrow golf cart paths and sharp turns. The fact is, excessive speed with descending grades adversely affects the stability of the cart and its ability to stop.

The problem is that industry standards for the design of golf carts contain minimal braking requirements that do not include tests for downhill braking.

There are no widely accepted standards for golf cart path design, and inadequate recommendations provided by cart manufacturers for maximum path slope and minimum turning radii are ambiguous with warnings that refer to “steep grades” and “sharp turns” without quantifying these terms.

Many of these golf carts are not designed for all types of terrain, but they are routinely driven on potentially dangerous terrain, which is not addressed by the ANSI golf cart standard.

ANSI standards require that a golf cart’s maximum speed should not exceed 15 mph on level ground, but that speed can easily be exceeded when traveling downhill. Currently, the ANSI standard does not address this safety hazard, but it can easily be fixed.

Golf course owners, clubs and management that operate courses with steep grades and sharp turns can greatly reduce and eliminate the risk of golf cart rollovers by making modifications to their existing golf carts. Equipping golf carts with front brakes (either by themselves only or in combination with rear brakes), will dramatically increase the braking efficiency and help keep the vehicle to deviate from a straight path travel.

In addition, here are some additional helpful safety precautions that could be taken to reduce golf cart accidents.

• Hazardous grades shall be identified with a suitable warning at a point preceding the initiation of the slope for example, “Warning, steep hill, slow down now.” Or “Void parking on steep hills.”

• Provide flat surface parking areas adjacent to golf cart paths on steep grades.

• Avoid turns on golf paths at the bottom of slopes that exceeds 10 percent (6 deg) on an unpaved surface of 20 percent (11 deg) on a paved surface.

• Slippery surfaces e.g., wet grass, should be chained or roped off to prevent golf cart operations or be identified by a suitable warning to operators not to operate golf carts in that area.

• If wet conditions are or become prevalent, consider limiting golf cart operation to paved paths.

• Curves should be properly banked to avoid negative super elevation.

• All turns shall be negotiated at a reduced speed and warning signs should be posted near all potentially hazardous areas.

• Loose terrain such as sand or gravel, can cause a golf cart to lose traction and may affect steering, braking and stability. Areas of loose terrain shall be repaired if possible, or closed off to prevent golf cart operation or identified by a suitable warning to operators not to operate golf carts in those areas.

• Areas where pedestrians and golf carts could interact should be avoided by rerouting the golf cart traffic or the pedestrian traffic. If avoidance of the interaction is not possible or is highly impractical, signs shall be erected warning pedestrians of the golf cart traffic.

• Signs shall also be erected warning golf cart operators of the pedestrian traffic and to drive slowly and with caution.

• Modifications made to golf carts that are not approved by the original equipment manufacturer may adversely affect the safe operation and performance of the vehicle and should be avoided. Whether or not modifications have been authorized by the original equipment manufacturer, if modifications are made, the controlling party making the modifications becomes the original equipment manufacturer of the modified vehicle and has the responsibility to ensure that capacity, operation, warning, maintenance instruction plates, tags, and/or decals are changed accordingly.

• The controlling party shall display the operation and safety instructions as recommended by the golf cart manufacturers and the golf course safety rules in a conspicuous place near the golf cart rental area or golf cart pick-up area or on each golf cart or both. It is also recommended that the warning, “Do not operate golf cart when under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” be posted in a conspicuous location.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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