The Honorable John R. Schroeder
House of Representatives
State of Delaware
Dover, DE 19901
Re: Applicability of Delaware's Motor Vehicle Code to Golf Carts
Dear Representative Schroeder:
In view of your observation that "golf carts have become an increasingly popular means of transportation in 'Country Club Communities' in the State," you have asked the following three questions:
1. Are golf carts classified as "Vehicles," Motor Vehicles" or OHVs" based upon the definitions contained in the Motor Vehicle Code?
2. Depending upon that classification, must golf cart owners register and insure them?
3. Again depending upon the classification, what rules of the road,
if any, are applicable to golf cart operators when operating golf carts
on a private roads?
For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that in Delaware, a golf cart is a motor vehicle lacking adequate equipment for registration and therefore is not required to be insured prior to registration. Additionally, as an unregistered motor vehicle, a golf cart may operate only on private property and, because of the provisions of 21 Del. C. § 4101 and the initiatives authorized for private property owners by § 4101, operators may be subject to the statutory rules of the road contained in § 4164 as well as Subchapters VIII and IX of Title 21.
Initially, we note that your questions assume that the applicability of the rules of the road to golf carts depends upon their classification. A vehicle's classification, however, does not determine whether a vehicle has to comply with the Motor Vehicle Code's requirements including registration, maintaining insurance or obeying the rules of the road. In order to determine the legal requirements applicable to the use of golf carts in Delaware, it is necessary to identify the location of the intended use of the vehicle. Of the two issues, classification and location, the critical issue is always the location of the vehicle. While classifying a golf cart is a logical way to begin considering the legal parameters of its operations, it is the location of its operation that determines the applicability of Title 21, including the rules of the road.
The classification of a golf cart in Delaware results from the definitions provided in the General Provisions of Title 21. Section 101(48) states:
"Vehicle" means every device in, upon or by which any person or property
is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, excepting devices
moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks
and excepting electric trackless trolley coaches and excepting OHVs.
Section 101 (20) states:
"Motor vehicle" includes every vehicle, as defined in this section,
which is self-propelled, except farm tractors and OHVs.
Since a golf cart is a "device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway," and a golf cart "is self-propelled," the golf cart is within the definition of motor vehicle. See, e.g., State v. Russell, Ia. Supr., 508 N.W.2d 697 (1993).
Although a golf cart falls within the definition of a "motor vehicle", and therefore is, subject to all the requirements of Title 21 applicable to motor vehicles traveling on public highways, a golf cart is not equipped to comply with the requirements for on-road operation. These equipment requirements are found in 21 Del. C. ch. 43 and are required by Federal regulation, Transportation 49 C.F.R. Thus, a golf cart could not pass the inspection required before registration, 21 Del. C. § 2143, and without registration, there is no requirement for insurance, 21 Del C. § 2118(a).(1)
The above stated conclusions essentially answer your first and second questions, but as you note in your request letter, another definition in Title 21 appears to apply to golf carts because they are normally used off the highway. An off highway vehicle (OHV) is defined in § 101(54) as:
[A] motor driven off-road vehicle capable of cross-country travel without
benefit of a road or trail, on or immediately over land, snow, ice, marsh,
swampland or other natural terrain. It includes, but is not limited to,
a multi-wheel drive or low pressure line vehicle, a motorcycle or related
2-wheel vehicle. . .
This definition differentiates between a vehicle that travels using a trail or a road and a vehicle that travels on the "natural terrain." A golf cart is not readily included within the definition of OHV, however, because it usually travels on golf courses or private roads, and neither location is within the usual meaning of "natural terrain."(2) The definition of "OHV," therefore, does not include a golf cart.
A golf cart is not specifically defined in Delaware law, and Delaware statutes determine only that regardless of what it is, a golf cart's use is limited to private land or off-highway operation. See Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co., Md. Ct. App, 665 A.2d 322, 326 (1994). (Golf cart not intended for highway use.) Unless the applicable Delaware statutes are amended specifically to state what a golf cart is and its proper use, the ambiguity in the law will remain.(3)
Your last question concerns which rules of the road contained in Chapter 41 of Title 21 apply to the operation of golf carts. Again, the answer to this inquiry depends upon the location where the golf cart is operated.
Chapter 41, Rules of the Road, applies "exclusively to the operation of vehicles upon highways" except in the four scenarios specified in § 4101(a). Since a golf cart cannot be operated on a highway(4) because it cannot be registered, 21 Del. C. § 2101, when it is operated on non-highway land, the only way the rules of the road apply is when one of the four exceptions of § 4101(a)(1)-(4) applies.
The first exception states that the rules of the road apply to the operation of a vehicle in a place different than a highway, if the statute refers to such a place. See e.g. § 4165, "Emerging from alley, driveway, private road or building." The second exception states that subchapter IX of chapter 41, (i.e. Reckless driving, careless driving and driving a vehicle while under the influence) "shall apply upon highways and elsewhere throughout the State." Violations of these sections are not limited to highways but may be enforced throughout the State. See State v. Hollobaugh, Del. Super., 297 A.2d 395 (1972) (Subchapter IX includes private property).
The third exception states that Subchapter VIII of Title 21 (Speed restrictions) and § 4164 (stop signs and yield signs) apply to the operation of a vehicle upon a highway and elsewhere throughout the State. This exception, however, limits the scope of the non-highway areas included within it by specifying that "elsewhere" means "only those areas regulated by traffic control devices which have been reviewed and approved as acceptable for the area by the Delaware Department of Transportation," and also that it does not apply to nonresidential, commercial property. Moreover, arrests in a non-highway, residential area must be made by off-duty, contract police officers unless some arrangement has been made with a police agency during the first three years of construction of a development. 21 Del. C. § 4101 (Revisor's Note Sec. 3 of 69 Del. Laws c.390 not codified).
The fourth exception makes Title 21 applicable to private property if the appropriate persons or entities request the Department of Public Safety to assume jurisdiction over private property, and the Department of Public Safety consents to do so. Such consent results in the installation of traffic control devices by the Department of Transportation. Unlike exceptions two and three, this exception neither limits the sections of Title 21 made applicable nor limits the area of private property where they apply.
Because a golf cart is inadequately equipped and unable to be registered, it cannot operate on a highway. In view of this prohibition, if a golf cart were to operate on a highway, the rules of the road apply making such operation a violation of the law. If a golf cart operates on private property, subchapter IX of Title 21 would always apply, subchapter VIII and § 4164 would apply if the private property complied with the language of 4101(a)(3), and Title 21 would apply prohibiting even the operation of a golf cart on the private roads, if the private property owners complied with the provisions of 4101(a)(4).
The specific answer to your third question, therefore, is that a golf cart operating on a private road is always subject to Subchapter IX of Chapter 21, may be subject to Subchapter VIII and § 4164, if the owners have complied with 4101(a)(3), and may be subject to all provisions of Title 21 including the rules of the road if "a majority of persons having a property interest in a private road," comply with § 4101(a)(4).
Please contact us if we may be of further assistance or if you have questions regarding this opinion.
Very truly yours,
James J. Hanley
Deputy Attorney General
Lawrence W. Lewis
Government Services Group Leader
Malcolm S. Cobin
1. Some state statutes exclude from the definition of motor vehicle any vehicle "not suitable for operation on the highway" and the courts have found that this language excludes golf carts because they are not "designed for such use." See, e.g., Kelly v. Bruedan Corp., Conn Supr., 2000 WL 739626 (May 24, 2000) (noting inability of golf cart to be registered).
2. In case law, "natural terrain" refers to the physical state of the land before alteration by man. Albright v. Carey, Del. Ch. 1978 WL 8396, Marvel, Ch. (July 19, 1978), Webster v. Town of Canada, N.H. Supr., 2001 WL 5315331, May 21, 2001) (Act contemplates that there is a certain basic beauty in natural terrain and vegetation unspoiled by man.) Hillside Development Co. v. Fields, Mo. Ct. App, 928 S.W.2d 886, 892 (October 1, 1996) (In each case the original owner made a deliberate alteration of the natural terrain by constructing a driveway. . .)
3. The Florida Supreme Court notes in Meister v. Fisher, Fla. Supr., 462 So.2d 1071, 1072 stated that:
A golf cart is clearly a motor vehicle. The legislature has recently specifically so defined it in section 316.003(68), Florida Statutes (1983, which states:
(68) GOLF CART.-- A motor vehicle designed and manufactured for operation on a golf course for sporting or recreational purposes.
The same definition of golf cart is also set forth in section 320.01(22), Florida Statutes (1983). Coincidentally the legislature has also enacted section 316.212, Florida Statutes (1983), which prohibits the use of golf carts on public streets unless designated by a city or county as permissible road for golf carts and only within a one-mile radius of a residence and the golf course. Other restrictions are also placed upon the use of golf carts on the public roads, such as the presence of adequate brakes, steering apparatus, safe tires, a rear view mirror and red reflectors on the front and rear.
4. 21 Del. C. § 101(12)
"Highway" means the entire width between boundary lines of every way
or place of whatever nature open to the use of the public as a matter of
right for purposes of vehicular travel, but does not include a road or
driveway upon grounds owned by private persons, colleges, universities
or other institutions.
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