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Golf cart owners teed off over Tennessee law

Golf carts have long been used throughout downtown Jonesborough as a way for some area residents to transport both people and equipment from here to there.
“When people stay here, we typically will run them up and down the hill in our golf cart,” said Nansee Williams, who owns Carriage House Bed & Breakfast at 215 E. Main St. “People are getting older that are staying with us. It’s a convenience for them. It’s really somewhat of a selling point that we can run people up and down the hill.”
According to Williams, she and her husband have owned their yellow golf cart for five years.
In addition to transporting their guests to and fro, Williams said the couple has given rides to people not staying with them during special events like the National Storytelling Festival and the annual Garden Gala.
The Williamses are among a handful of Jonesborough residents who own and use golf carts in a similar fashion. Those golf carts recently were sidelined, however, after authorities discovered it is against the law to operate them on public streets.
In a letter addressed to residents known to own golf carts, Jonesborough Police Chief Matt Hawkins explained the state “simply has no provision for golf carts, four-wheelers or ‘gator’ type vehicles to operate on public roadways and in fact, specifically prohibits them.”
According to Town Administrator Bob Browning, town leaders started looking into rules related to golf cart usage after several vendors taking part in Jonesborough Days earlier this year drove across Highway 11E, a four-lane state road, in their golf carts.
“They drove across 11E to Food City and other places that were totally inappropriate for a golf cart to be driving,” Browning said. “It was getting out of hand. We wanted to establish local criteria, but as we started looking at anything the state does to govern what we do, we saw there were some clear expectations related to golf carts on public streets.”
Since the town cannot pass an ordinance that supersedes state law, Browning said there isn’t much the town can do to accommodate those who use and own golf carts in Jonesborough.
“The fact that we have knowledge of those regulations puts us in a situation where we cannot plead ignorance. We have no choice but to say they can’t be on public streets,” Browning said. “The only way around it is if we were able to come up with criteria the state legislature felt comfortable with. That would probably be difficult for us to do. We’re looking at that, but I don’t think there’s something we can come up with that would be feasible.”
That leaves golf cart owners like Williams very concerned. According to Williams, in the past, town leaders gave individuals the go ahead to use the golf carts in Jonesborough. That, in turn, led to others thinking it was OK to use them.
“We didn’t know there was a law against them. None of us were aware,” she said. “It’s just been really frustrating. It’s an investment we made. We all even have insurance on them. So, now what do we do?”
It appears some retrofitting may be required to make the golf carts street legal.
State law allows people to operate “low-speed vehicles” on public streets. They are defined as having a top speed greater than 20 miles per hour but not more than 25 miles per hour. Low-speed vehicles are allowed only on streets where the posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour or less.
To classify as a low-speed vehicle, a vehicle must meet specific standards, which include safety features such as lights, mirrors and seat belts on the vehicle.
According to Billy Trout with the Tennessee Department of Revenue, a total of 623 low-speed vehicles are registered statewide, with 11 of them registered in Washington County.
While retrofitting may be a solution, Jonesborough Alderman Terry Countermine, who also owns and uses a golf cart in town, is looking to another possible answer to the problem. He wants the town to try to become a “golf cart friendly” community.
“There are communities all over the country that are golf cart communities. I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I am hoping we can explore how we can get our state representatives to go to the legislature and ask for an exception (for Jonesborough).”
Countermine said he uses his golf cart during festivals to give people rides as well as to transport equipment when the Jonesborough Novelty Band, of which he is a part, has a gig somewhere downtown. He said he would use it “a lot more” if the law allowed for it.
For now though, Countermine said he will respect the rules of the road when it comes to golf carts.
“I do understand and support our law enforcement,” he said. “If they ignore it, then we as a town are liable.”
Golf carts will still be allowed inside all festival grounds when the streets are closed to regular traffic.
Golf cart owners like Williams will be reserved a parking space for their golf carts within the National Storytelling Festival grounds this week. However, they will have to find a way to transport their carts to the grounds since they cannot be driven there from their homes.
“I don’t quite get it. It’s not like we’re drag racing with our golf carts,” Williams said. “We’re helping people out when we are using them. We don’t spend a great deal of time just tooling around on our golf cart through town. We’ve all used them without incident.”
According to Browning, that’s not exactly true.
“For the most part, the people that have them and use them downtown have done it in a safe manner. But that’s not always the case,” he said. “We have had a few issues with local people not using them the way they should be used. It’s an ongoing problem of determining what is an appropriate use and what is not.”