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Regulations of Low Speed Vehicles for Use in Gated and Retirement Communities

January 14, 1997

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in the U.S. Department of Transportation, is the federal agency responsible for regulating motor vehicle safety by setting manufacturing standards and enforcing the standards through recalls. NHTSA's governing statute authorizes it to regulate the manufacture of "motor vehicles," defined generally as vehicles manufactured primarily for use on the public roads. Historically, golf carts were not subject to federal regulation because they were, by and large, used primarily on golf courses and only incidentally on public roads.

If a vehicle is a "motor vehicle" and within NHTSA's jurisdiction, all federally required safety equipment -- from brakes to lights to airbags -- would be required. In the few cases in which manufacturers wanted to market golf-cart-like vehicles that were more likely to be used on public roads, NHTSA took the position that as long as they did not have the capacity to exceed 20 miles per hour, they were not subject to the federal standards. (Most golf carts have a top speed of 15 miles per hour.)

Last year, the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier, Inc. informed NHTSA that it would like to enter the market for a "new and growing segment of the transportation fleet: low-powered electric vehicles." It developed a stylish golf cart with a top speed of 25 mph for this market. It is promoting this vehicle as a means to provide a low cost, low speed, zero emissions mode of localized transportation to meet the special needs of retirees, older Americans and others living in gated communities for travel within their community or for limited activities such as local golfing and other recreation-related shopping, or short distance trips.

Bombardier had to ask NHTSA for a change in its interpretation because the vehicle it wants to market would exceed NHTSA's 20 mph limit. Bombardier cited the fact that in the last few years, some Sunbelt states have enacted legislation to allow greater use of golf carts or other low speed vehicles on the public streets and highways. (California, Arizona, and Florida have enacted new laws to liberalize the use of golf-cart-like vehicles on public roads.). Bombardier's application was supported by cities such as Palm Desert, California and utility interests such as California Edison and the Arizona Public Service Economic and Community Development office. In addition, commenters from a variety of disciplines supported the creation of a uniform standard for "low-speed, electric" vehicles. As one academic put it, NHTSA needed to "recognize that a major revolution in transportation is occurring with the increasing commercialization of zero emission vehicles."

As a result, after two public hearings and the receipt of comments from a wide variety of interest groups, NHTSA has proposed a change in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to create a new category of motor vehicles to be known as "Low Speed Vehicles" or LSV's. LSV's would include all motor vehicles, other than motorcycles (which are separately regulated), whose speed attainable in 1 mile does not exceed 25 mph, regardless of the vehicles size or weight. This would include golf carts whose maximum speed is between 15 mph and 25 mph. (If they exceed 15 mph they would now be known as "golf cars" and be regulated as LSVs. If they do not exceed 15 mph, the are "golf carts" and are unregulated as in the past).

Under NHTSA's proposed rule, LSV's would have to be equipped with headlamps, front and rear turn signal lamps, taillamps, stop lamps, rear reflex reflectors mounted on each side not less than 15 inches and not more than 60 inches above the road surface, and a driver's side exterior rear view mirror plus either an interior rear view mirror or an exterior mirror on the passenger side. They would have to have a windshield and seat belt assemblies which meet certain current federal standards. In addition, the agency would require LSV's to be equipped with a label warning that it must not be operated on the public roads at a speed more than 25 mph.

In summary, the primary responsibility for allowing greater use of low speed, electric type vehicles lies with the states. At least three have responded to the desires of residents in gated and retirement communities for greater flexibility in the use of such vehicles on public roads. The specifications for how such vehicles must be built lies with the federal government. The responsible agency, NHTSA, is now proposing to liberalize its previous standards, in effect, to allow greater use of "low speed vehicles" on public roads -- at speeds up to 25 mph instead of the current limit of 20 mph. However, vehicles that would travel between 15 and 25 mph would now have to have certain safety equipment not previously required on golf carts. Manufacturers, communities, and land developers interested in the implications of the increased use of low-speed vehicles need to participate at the federal, state, and local levels.

If a client is interested in commenting on (to support or oppose) the current proposal, or desires to make sure that the manufacturing standards for "low speed vehicles" are compatible with the needs of its residents and communities, it must file its comments on the proposed rule no later than February 24, 1997.

This GT ALERT is issued for informational purposes only and is not intended to be construed or used as general legal advice. Greenberg Traurig attorneys provide practical, result-oriented strategies and solutions tailored to meet our clients’ individual legal needs.