Tiffany Gibson and her husband, Jesse, started a golf cart rental business in 2020, during the midst of what she called an "explosion" of golf carts in Galveston. Beachin' Rides has rented out more than 10,000 of them, she said, and it is one of many such businesses that operate on the island.
There are about a dozen of those companies in all, according to Galveston Mayor Craig Brown, who said approximately 1,750 motorized carts are registered with the city for use by either residents or businesses that rent to visitors. Golf carts have become increasingly popular among tourists during the last two years, Brown said, because they provide convenient transportation, a sense of freedom and an open-air environment in a scenic, beach community.
Gibson said the proliferation of golf carts, made possible by city ordinances that allow them to be operated on public roadways, also has become a sensitive subject in Galveston. That is partly because of what she described as a lack of enforcement by the city regarding safe driving practices, seatbelt wearing and intoxicated driving.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight late Saturday night, when four people from the Houston suburb of Rosenberg – including two children – were killed while in a rented golf cart, according to multiple news reports. They were struck in a collision with an SUV operated by an alleged drunk driver, who also hit another vehicle in a crash that occurred a few blocks north of Seawall Boulevard.
"It's a whole big mess that's been going on for a while, a big struggle," Gibson said. "Here we are. I hate to say it, but it was almost inevitable."
The golf cart tragedy was the second in about a year in Galveston, with Brown saying a teenage girl died last summer after falling out of a cart that made a sharp turn on the island's West End. That same month, the Galveston City Council amended its decade-old ordinance related to golf carts, increasing the registration fee for rental businesses while expanding some of the regulations geared toward educating golf cart operators about safety and rules of the road.
The city council will discuss golf cart safety again at this Thursday's meeting, according to Brown, who called Saturday's fatal collision a "sad situation" for Galveston as well as a "wakeup call." He said the city council will examine its enforcement of both golf-cart driving and drunken driving, along with looking at potential improvements to traffic flow at certain intersections.
Brown said last weekend's tragedy also resonates beyond the island, with golf carts having become increasingly popular in neighborhoods throughout the Houston area and elsewhere. Electric bikes and scooters also have become more common modes of transportation, including in Galveston, Brown said.
"I think what's happening is that the technology is changing faster on providing alternative methods of travel than the laws really are keeping up with," Brown said. "It's something that we're wrestling with here and trying to get a handle on."
A Galveston ordinance that took effect in 2010 codified the use of golf carts on most public streets with a speed limit of 35 mph or less, along with outlining related traffic rules, procedures for registering the vehicles and required safety equipment such as headlamps, taillights, horns, parking brakes, rearview mirrors and seatbelts. The law states that golf carts "reduce overall emissions and their use is an eco-friendly or ‘green' alternative to traditional passenger vehicles."
A few years later, Gibson said, the city lowered the speed limit on the Seawall from 40 to 35 mph, making golf carts legal on the island's signature thoroughfare and creating a market for rental businesses such as hers.
The ordinance amendments in June 2021 were in response to the proliferation of golf cart rental businesses, Brown said, and added some specific regulations such as being required to drive in the right-hand lane on a street with at least two lanes of traffic in each direction. The 2021 law also increased the registration fee for rental carts – from $25, which is still the fee for residential golf carts, to $150.
At the time the law was passed, Gibson said Galveston's golf cart rental businesses were told by city officials that the additional revenue created by the increased fee would be used to ramp up enforcement of golf-cart traffic laws. She said she has not seen evidence of that happening, though, and would prefer for Galveston officials to recommit to increased enforcement before expanding regulations.
"I see people without seatbelts all the time, and they aren't doing anything about it," Gibson said. "I think the first step we need to take is enforcing the rules that we've got."
Brown agreed that increased enforcement could help, particularly when it comes to policing golf carts at night. He said it's illegal under Texas law to operate a golf cart on a public street after dark, although Galveston's ordinance does not include such a provision.
Gibson and the manager of another golf cart rental business in Galveston, who asked to remain anonymous, both said they were under the impression that it was legal to drive one at night, so they do not advise their customers of the aforementioned state law.
But a day after the fatal collision involving a golf cart, which occurred after 11 p.m., Gibson said she and her husband decided to implement a 10 p.m. curfew for their carts moving forward. They also are increasing the minimum rental age from 21 to 25, she said.
Gibson said she considers seatbelt use to be a critical factor in safely operating a golf cart, adding that they've prevented serious injuries in accidents involving her carts. Brown said he thinks restricting golf carts at night would "be one of the major steps forward in my mind."
"There is probably a happy medium we need to arrive at to allow regulation to maintain the safety as much as we can," Brown said, "but also have the golf carts available for our visitors."