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Golf-Cart DUI: What might seem funny—until it isn't

Have a few too many and take control of any motorized vehicle—boat, dirt bike, lawnmower—and you can get in a heap of trouble. Deep down, every good citizen knows this, but sometimes the arm of the law seems so far away.

July 2014

When it comes to drinking and operating machinery, America's golf courses feel about as free as its back yards. Four cup-holders is standard on a cart for two people; the staple of any busy public track is a roaming beverage attendant, as encouraging as she is convivial, with a full bar and tip jar in tow.

You can raise the claret jug to it: Boozing has always been part of the greatest game ever played. But what began as nips of whisky to keep upright against Scottish winds has evolved to coolers of light beer strapped to vehicles with hoods that crumple like eggshells. When unfortunate incidents happen—and they do; a Google search of "golf+cart+alcohol+death" yields 385,000 returns—questions are raised that can make you feel as if you're seeing double.

Is it legal to have an open container in the parking lot of a golf course? What's a public roadway, and what's a private cartpath? Does a guard inside a gated community have the authority to question my sobriety? What's an appropriate number of tequila and Clamato juices before lunch? Speaking of, where the heck is that beverage-cart girl hiding?

"Laws about alcohol vary some across states, but in Florida, if you do something stupid and cause damage to person or property, you could get the same DUI charge that you'd get while driving a car," says Tim Babiarz, a personal-injury attorney based in The Villages. The mega retirement community, which began as a small, golf-less mobile-home park northwest of Orlando, has grown to 51,000 residents, 32 executive courses, and crosses the borders of three counties. In the past six years there have been 13 golf-cart related fatalities. "Golf-Cart DUI" heads a prominent section on the website of another local law firm, Whittel & Melton.

"Normally we don't patrol the golf courses, but we've had calls about erratic driving behavior where we've had to come out to a course," says Lt. Niehemiah Wolfe of the Sumter County Sheriff's Office, which polices a section of The Villages. "Once we make our approach it doesn't matter if you're on a golf course or your own driveway, it's all fair game as far as open-container and DUI charges that may apply."

So read between the lines here. If your foursome can behave to the degree that authorities aren't compelled to come find you, these aren't arrests law enforcement is looking to make.

Golf-Cart DUI

Nevertheless, a golf-cart DUI on The Villages crime blotter is about a weekly occurrence. Judging by mug-shot attire and time of arrest, it's fair to surmise most offenders aren't returning from the 19th hole, but more likely the 23rd or 24th. "With the free entertainment in the town squares, it's a giant party every night, but everyone's usually home by 9," says one Villager who asked to remain nameless because she's technically just shy of the minimum age (55) to reside there. "There are bars that are open late, too, but it's mainly swinger types and people's kids visiting who go there."

With 100 miles of public cartpaths connecting regular roads, Peachtree City, Ga., is another unique example of civic engineering that enables a golf cart to be a primary mode of transportation. The city has 10,587 registered carts, and the positive effects, like curbed road rage and emissions, are obvious. What sometimes isn't so obvious is that next bend in the path if your cart's headlights are dim, or nonexistent. Last year 18 DUI convictions, or 12 percent of the city's total, were to drivers of golf carts.

"We do golf-cart checkpoints," says Sgt. Brad Williams of the Peachtree City Police Department. "People don't realize how dangerous it is. Carts are not designed to withstand collisions, especially at intersections where they're interacting with regular-size vehicles."

As for that half-empty Coors in your golf cart's dash, the Peachtree police cut some slack. "It's up to the officer's discretion," Williams says, "but typically we'll slap someone with violating the city ordinance against an open container rather than give them the full state charge." So violators pay a city fine of $320 and don't get any points on their license.

Though your chances of getting apprehended are much greater off course—late-night runs arouse suspicion even in communities that are accustomed to the presence of carts—that's no reason to let your wariness lapse while you're playing.

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