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Are golf carts on city streets dangerous? Are they even legal?

It's not news that seniors across the Sun Belt have given up their cars in favor of golf carts. Because of their lower cost and environmental friendliness, however, it's no longer just senior citizens who love driving them -- they seem to be everywhere these days.

Are golf carts really street legal? Do you need a driver's license to operate one?

When you pass a golf cart on a public street, you may well wonder whether it's legal. California does allow golf carts on some public streets, but it's important to know whether the vehicle you're looking at is really a golf cart. California's DMV website has two classifications for this type of vehicle: golf cart and NEV/LSV.

A golf cart is built to carry no more than two people, including the driver, and golf equipment. To qualify as a golf cart, it must weigh no more than 1,300 pounds when empty, be operated with no fewer than three wheels on the ground, and go no faster than 15 mph. You don't need to register a golf cart if you'll only be operating it at or just near a golf course.

If you plan any on-road use, you will need to register the cart and submit paperwork regarding its equipment and emissions. You don't need a driver's license to operate an unmodified golf cart with the appropriate equipment -- as long as you go no faster than 15 mph on roads where the speed limit does not exceed 25 mph.

Vehicles that carry more people, weigh more than 1,300 but less than 3,000 pounds, and can reach a speed of over 20 mph (but no more than 25 mph) are classified as "neighborhood electric vehicles" or "low-speed vehicles" under California law. NEVs and LSVs must be registered, must be certified to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and have 17-digit vehicle identification numbers like cars. You must have a driver's license to operate one.

Important note: Modifying either a golf cart or an NEV/LSV can result in its being considered a passenger vehicle, meaning that it would be required to meet the same vehicle safety standards as car.

NEVs and LSVs meet the FMVSS standards, so they're relatively safer than golf carts. Neither is especially safe, however. Out on the road, these vehicles provide about as much protection as a bicycle.

When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did a crash test between an LSV and a Smart Car -- a two-seat automobile -- the result would have been serious or even fatal injuries for the LSV driver. Things would probably have been even worse with a golf cart.

As an IIHS representative put it, "They are not crashworthy."

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