PEAKS ISLAND — Tales of drunken wedding guests careening down narrow roads and parents letting 5-year-olds take the wheel have prompted a move to crack down on golf cart use on Portland’s Casco Bay islands.
The seasonal problem has grown acute in recent years on Peaks Island, where two companies now lease golf carts for hourly or long-term rentals. It’s also not uncommon to see a dozen weddings on Peaks over the course of a summer weekend, adding to the number or golf carts and congestion, residents say.
Golf carts have been allowed to operate on island streets for decades with few restrictions, but safety concerns have grown along with the popularity of Peaks as a tourist destination that’s less than a half-hour ferry ride from Portland.
“We’ve been bombarded by residents who’ve seen all kinds of crazy things happening on golf carts,” said John Kiely, a year-round resident and member of the Peaks Island Council’s safety committee.
The Portland City Council is considering ordinance amendments that would require all golf cart operators to have a driver’s license and prohibit anyone from standing in a moving golf cart or riding in the lap of a golf cart driver or passenger, among other new restrictions aimed at bringing the regulations in line with typical motor vehicle laws. The changes are scheduled for a first reading at Monday’s council meeting.
Under a city ordinance passed in 1997, all golf carts on Peaks, Cliff and Great Diamond islands must be registered with the city and display a sticker.
But many carts are unregistered, Kiely said. While city records show 255 registered golf carts on all three islands, Peaks alone has about 200 carts, he said, and residents of the other islands have reported problems.
“There’s no way they could have foreseen how many golf carts we have now,” Kiely said. “People are here on vacation and they think they are toys. They don’t understand that they have to adhere to all of the laws that apply on the mainland.”
CARTS ‘PLAYING CHICKEN’
Peaks has a year-round population of about 860 that swells to more than 4,000 on summer weekends, including day-trippers and people attending weddings and other events at several popular venues and waterfront spots on the island.
Residents tell harrowing stories of golf carts loaded with party guests swerving down island roads or “playing chicken,” when the operators of two carts drive toward each other to see who veers off first. There have been several accidents, residents say, with damage to vehicles, a stone wall and other private property, at least one broken arm and the potential for much worse.
“Too many people are riding with little kids on their laps,” said year-round resident Jim Greenwell. “They’ll be driving with one hand and have an infant on their knee. That bothers me the most.”
Greenwell’s wife, Emily Magal, said she understands the sense of freedom that comes with escaping to an island, “but it’s so upsetting when we see the golf carts operated unsafely.”
The current ordinance requires golf cart operators to be over age 21 or have a valid driver’s license. The age restriction would be removed under the proposal before the council.
The current ordinance limits golf cart operation to daylight hours, unless equipped with headlights and taillights. The proposed changes would stipulate that headlights shine 200 feet ahead of golf carts in order to operate at night, with several added reflectors.
The current ordinance also requires golf carts to be equipped with a horn, a safety flag on a 6-foot whip antenna and “slow vehicle” markings – features that few, if any, golf carts on Peaks appeared to have Friday afternoon.
‘THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT’
Few golf carts have speedometers, either, so it was unclear to some islanders how operators would follow a new speed limit. Under the proposed changes, the speed limit for golf carts would increase from 10 mph to 20 mph to conform with the posted speed limit on island roads. The speed limit near the island school would be 15 mph.
“How are we supposed to know how fast we’re going? Maybe there’s an app for that,” joked Alix Bosch, a part-time resident who arrived Friday.
Kiely said most carts, which are typically gas- or battery-powered, have a governor that caps the top speed at 10-15 mph, but some people alter the carts so they can drive faster.
Employees at Mike’s Carts and Peaks Island Golf Carts said they already require all operators to have a driver’s license and inform renters of applicable city and state laws.
“We try to dispel the myth that there are no laws on Peaks,” said Robert O’Brien, manager of Peaks Island Golf Carts.
The rental agreement for Peaks Island Golf Carts spells out various prohibitions clearly at the top, including no drinking, no standing, no overloading the cart and no sitting in the driver’s lap. It also says in large, block letters: “Please respect the island and its residents.”
“We’re all residents of Peaks Island at this company,” said David Brooks, O’Brien’s co-worker. “We’re trying to make an honest living and we’re willing to work with our fellow islanders to resolve their concerns.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at: