Next time you visit a retirement community or upscale resort, you may notice people zipping around in golf carts to get from point A to point B and maybe tote their luggage in the process. The carts are indeed convenient — but as passengers and drivers are finding out, they're not necessarily as safe as they may look. In fact, as many as 13,000 people wind up in the ER each year with golf cart-related injuries.

“One reason is golf carts have become increasingly popular off the links,” says Gerald McGwin, MS, PhD, vice chairman of the department of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I wouldn’t say people view golf carts as toys, but many don’t think of them as cars either.” 

When McGwin analyzed data related to golf cart accidents, he found that riding in a golf cart involves risks not typically found on the road. Here’s how you can avoid five of the most common ones, on and off the course.

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Sit down and buckle up

“Ten years ago, restraints either weren’t required or weren’t common in golf carts,” says McGwin. Even in newer models that have seat belts, riders often don’t bother to use them. But because golf carts have open sides, a driver or passenger who’s not belted in can easily fall out if a cart makes a sharp turn.

People often get hurt on golf carts “because they were standing up on the back of the cart while it was in motion,” McGwin adds. Ride in a cart only if you can sit down in your own seat — and stay seated. If there’s a seat belt, wear it.

Watch the terrain

Golf carts were designed to be used on golf courses, which typically are well manicured and have gentle hills and curves — hardly rough riding. So in some ways it’s not surprising that, according to a review of recent injury data, nearly 30 percent of golf cart injuries occur when a cart is driven somewhere else.

Golf carts are not off-road vehicles. “Some models are top heavy and can tip over on an incline that’s not at all extreme,” warns McGwin. Never try to maneuver a golf cart on terrain that’s extremely hilly or bumpy.

Even on the links it’s important to use golf carts responsibly and know their limitations. Hitting a sharp turn at 10 miles per hour is enough to tip over a cart and send passengers tumbling out the side. And never overload a golf cart — with people or stuff. 

Related: 5 Golfing Hazards and How to Avoid Them

Learn local laws

Golf carts are increasingly being used on residential streets, forcing many states to create or modify laws in order to regulate their use. Some allow golf carts on streets and sidewalks, while others don’t.

This has led to confusion in some states, especially Florida. Golf carts are particularly popular there — you'll see roadways marked with signs alerting drivers to the fact that the road is shared with golf carts — but adjacent towns can have different rules about using them. And while most of the state bans golf carts at night, some towns grant exceptions if the cart is equipped with lights and a windshield.

The bottom line: It’s the user’s responsibility to be familiar with local laws. One of the most important laws is to drive only on approved roadways, so plan ahead. You’ll avoid a fine, but most important, you’ll be driving alongside motorists who are used to sharing the road with golf carts.

Don’t let kids drive

Most parents wouldn’t jump into the passenger seat of the family minivan with a 10-year-old at the wheel, but it seems some allow kids to operate golf carts. “These parents view allowing their child to drive down the street in a cart as innocuous,” says McGwin. “Sometimes they’re driving alongside full-sized cars on regular roads.”

McGwin’s study found that kids ages 10 to 19 were among the most likely to require emergency room visits as a result of golf-cart related injuries (though a child may not have been driving in every case).

Age restrictions for golf cart use often are set by a town counsel and can vary within a state. Even if your town doesn’t have a minimum driving age, nobody should be in a rush to let a child get behind the wheel of any vehicle.

Related: The Scary Truth About Teen Drivers, and How You Can Keep Them Safe

Talk to grandparents about safety

Planning to pack the kids off to visit their grandparents? Golf carts have long been popular in retirement areas and gated communities because they’re cheap and easy to maintain. And because most can go no faster than about 15 miles per hour, they seem like a safe alternative to cars. 

Not exactly, says McGwin. “Golf cart injuries and accidents closely mirror what we see in traditional cars,” he explains. “And although accident rates are highest among kids, there’s another sharp uptick for folks over eighty.”

If your parents or in-laws use a golf cart to get around town or to run errands, talk to them about safety. Point out that even if the cart has seat belts, it has open sides and no airbags. Although bike helmets aren't required by law, wearing one while in a golf cart can lower a child's risk of injury. You also might request that grandparents use a regular car for longer trips to the supermarket or into town, especially if kids are young enough to still need a booster or car seat. 

Paul Hope, a trained chef and DIY enthusiast, has restored two houses and writes about food and homes.