Golf-cart accidents rarely cause serious injury or death in Beaufort County -- only about a half-dozen have been documented in the past decade.
Yet a recent accident that killed a woman in Sun City Hilton Head has law enforcement officials, cart dealers and customers thinking more about safety.
Bruce Simmons, owner of Quality Golf Cars on Okatie Village Drive, said prospective cart owners and many Sun City residents who already have carts have asked about getting seat belts. Such inquiries spiked after a June 4 incident in which a Tennessee woman fell out of a cart's passenger seat and died while visiting her boyfriend's parents in Sun City.
"It's almost a daily question," Simmons said.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he supports the use of seat belts in golf carts and believes state lawmakers should require them for those who ride on public roads. However, Tanner also noted that in most of the serious cart accidents in the county, rules already in place weren't followed.
FEW SERIOUS ACCIDENTS
Anita Kay Bergeson, 37, of Knoxville, Tenn., was riding with her boyfriend in his parents' golf cart in Sun City at about 11 p.m. June 4. She had a beer in one hand and her feet propped on the dash, according to the Sheriff's Office report. When her boyfriend made a sharp left turn, she fell out, hit her head and died.
Investigators deemed it an accident but said the sharp turn and the fact that Bergeson was not holding onto the cart and did not have her feet planted on the floor contributed to her fall.
A similar incident occurred on Daufuskie Island in 2008.
Alex Yearick of Mount Pleasant fell off the passenger side of a cart one night when his friend turned left onto a paved road near Bloody Point, according to a Sheriff's Office report. He died the next day at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. A toxicology report indicated he had alcohol and cocaine in his system.
In 2004, golfer Brad Iles fell from a moving golf cart and hit his head on pavement after the final round of the Players Amateur at Belfair Golf Club in Bluffton. Iles, now 27, spent about a week in the critical care unit at Memorial University Medical Center and a year recuperating from the fall.
Iles said he was standing on the back of a moving cart with a beer in one hand and a cigar in another.
"We went around the corner, and I just came off of it and went straight into a raised curb," he said Wednesday. "It was my fault."
Aaron Crosby, chairman of the Daufuskie Island Council, an elected group that unofficially represents the island, said the majority of golf cart accidents on the island have involved visitors.
"They're happening with people who are not used to driving the carts. They underestimate what they're riding in," he said. Drinking is also often involved, he said.
Nonetheless, Tanner said his office gets only a few calls about golf cart accidents. He said he believes people fall off the carts more often on golf courses, but the incidents usually aren't reported if no one is injured.
"With all the thousands of golf cart riders, both on golf courses and within communities, the number of injuries and the percentage of accidents is extremely low," he said.
Simmons, who has sold about 3,000 golf carts to Sun City residents in the three years he has owned Quality Golf Cars, said carts are safe if operators and passengers follow safety rules.
"If you're cognizant of your surroundings and know what's happening, you're OK," Simmons said. "But some of the three worst things you can do are consume alcohol, have your feet up on the dash and drive late at night."
State law prohibits driving golf carts on public roads after daylight, and drivers are subject to driving-under-the-influence laws.
Eric Goldstein, manager of Ridgeland-based Lowcountry Golf Cars, said drivers should alert passengers if they are making a turn, especially at higher speeds.
"If you're not paying attention, you can fall out of a passenger seat pretty easily at 10 or 15 mph," he said. "You have to watch where you're going and lean with the turn."
Goldstein recommends seat belts, particularly for those who drive carts on public roads. Only about 25 percent of the company's customers choose to have them installed, he said. Costs start at about $25 per belt, depending on the cart model.
Tanner said lawmakers should consider requiring seat belts on golf carts driven on public roads.
"It would be helpful," Tanner said of the belts. "I know the General Assembly has had discussions about tightening and loosening regulations. If they continue the discussion, then I think they should talk to golf-cart retailers about safety measures."
Tanner said residents should use common sense when driving golf carts, and if they see someone operating a cart improperly, report the incident to the Sheriff's Office or their local security force.
Follow reporter Cassie Foss at Twitter.com/lcblotter.