By BRIAN BIENKOWSKI
Capital News Service
LANSING — At first glance, it looks like golfers from a world-class course took a wrong turn.
But those aren’t golf carts on the streets in Bay Harbor. Rather, they’re part of the world’s largest per-capita collection of low-speed vehicles.
The brownfield-turned- resort on Little Traverse Bay has a fleet of about 350 resident-owned low-speed vehicles, said Denny Brya, the general manager of Bay Harbor. Costing about $7,500 each, they don’t pump carbon dioxide and other contaminants into the atmosphere.
Bay Harbor underwent a massive facelift in the early 1990s when boutiques, equestrian clubs and golf courses replaced asbestos, coal and dust from a former cement plant. It has about about 550 homeowners now, Brya said.
The esidents like “green initiatives,” Brya said.
The community has 20 mph speed limits, said Candace Fitzsimmons, executive director of the Bay Harbor Foundation, and residents don’t take the cars outside of the approximately 1,200-acre community. Her foundation takes donations and distributes grants in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Slow-moving resort towns are a perfect fit for low speed-vehicles, said Katie Larsen, a doctoral candidate in engineering at the University of Texas who studies them.
Now researchers are looking into whether they could work in bigger towns such as Bellamar, N.J., Peachtree City, Ga. and several Los Angeles suburbs that want low-speed cars on their roads to reduce emissions.
Research show that use of low-speed electric vehicles produces documented air quality benefits.
For example, a program in suburban Los Angeles provided families with such vehicles but allowed them to also use their full-sized ones whenever they wanted. Preliminary data shows a 23 percent average dip in transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions per participating family.
There now are about 45,000 low-speed vehicles on U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
But widespread adoption of such vehicles must start with changing the road structure, Larsen said.
“I just don’t see low-speed vehicles operating on the same roads as full-sized highway vehicles,” said Larsen, who is researching how cities could make such a transition. “Ideally they’d be separate.”
Still, there’s a lot of potential in taking such cars outside of retirement communities and smaller towns, especially for short, non-highway trips in a city, she said. And to spur that change, it’s important to give low-speed cars the same access to roads as full-sized ones.
“If we can’t demonstrate to people that the performance of their transportation system will be better or equal to what they have now, they’re not going to switch,” she said.
But sharing the roads can be dangerous, safety experts warn.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established low-speed vehicle safety standards in 1998. They apply to such cars used for short trips and in retirement and planned communities.
However, individual states regulate their use on main roads.
Federal standards require four wheels, a top speed of 20-25 mph, headlamps, tail lights, stop lamps, reflectors, mirrors, a parking brake, a windshield and seat belts.
They usually don’t have airbags. And that, coupled with their diminutive size, is stoking fear that they’re unsafe.
David Zuby, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s chief research officer, said, “By allowing low-speed vehicles and mini-trucks on more and more kinds of roads, states are carving out exceptions to 40 years of auto safety regulations that save lives.”
The institute based in Arlington, Va., studies insurance data to determine economic and human losses from car crashes.
The institute’s crash-tests between low-speed and full-sized cars produced grim results. In one test, a sports utility vehicle traveling 31 mph crashed into a low-speed vehicle. The dummy’s head in the smaller car went almost through the windshield, and results indicated there would have been serious injury or death for human occupants.
The institute called those test results “devastating.”
As long as full-sized cars rule the roads, it may prove difficult for low-speed ones to break out of their current niche, according to the experts.
But the folks in Bay Harbor say they’re a perfect fit for a community proud of its propensity for tiny cars.
“Bay Harbor has environmentally conscious people, and these vehicles work well with that,” Fitzsimmons said.
And their tiny cars have garnered big attention.
“Three years ago we were in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ for having the most electric vehicles in one parade,” Fitzsimmons said: 218 of them.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
Great Lakes Low-Speed Vehicle laws
Great Lakes States
Where they’re are permitted
Top speed allowed for LSVs
|Minnesota||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|
|Wisconsin||Local option; roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|
|Indiana||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||35 mph|
|Michigan||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|
|Ohio||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|
|Illinois||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less; local ordinance can allow use on roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|
|Pennsylvania||No state law||None|
|New York||Roads with a posted limit of 35 mph or less||25 mph|