Galveston to revisit golf cart rules after deadly weekend crash

Galveston officials said changes are coming to city rules governing golf carts after a deadly weekend crash, including a reiteration of state laws that prohibit their use on public roads at night.

“Especially in light of this horrific accident, we’re going to be looking at some things,” Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said Monday. “We’re going to be talking about golf carts, the safety of them being on streets.”

Two adults and two children were killed late Saturday when a suspected drunk driver blew through a stop sign as he drove down Avenue R, slamming into another vehicle, which then struck the large golf cart holding six family members as they cruised along 33rd Street.

Galveston Police on Monday identified the victims, all from Rosenberg, as Felipe Bentancur, 49, Destiny Uvalle, 25, Brailyn Cantu, 14 and four-year-old Kaisyn Bentacur.

Two other family members were injured in the 11:35 pm crash, along with Miguel Espinoza, 45, of Rosenberg, who police suspect caused the crash as he traveled eastbound on Avenue R. Espinoza remains in the Galveston County Jail in lieu of $400,000 bail on four counts of intoxication manslaughter.

Although the crash is tied to suspected drunk driving, Galveston officials said they plan to tighten controls on golf carts, citing their prevalence on city streets and the risks they present.

“The way these golf carts are structured, they do not provide a lot of protection if you are in an accident,” Brown said.

Those risks, meanwhile, should be made clear to visitors renting them from a growing number of businesses, Councilwoman Marie Robb said.

Renters now are being left in the dark about some parts of state law, namely not driving golf carts at night. Three companies called Monday told the Houston Chronicle they do not advise drivers that they cannot operate the carts after nightfall, despite that being in state law.

“I think the golf cart companies should be fined, as well,” Robb said, noting her opposition last year when Galveston set its own rules for golf cart use. “We need to put an onus on the companies to explain the city and state laws.”

Robb opposed the rules at the time because she said the city was not charging enough for fines and fees, which in turn limited how much enforcement the city could do. City officials in June 2021 approved an ordinance that sets out rules for the city to permit golf carts — both those used by permanent residents and those available for rent.

The new rules, however, have led to confusion — even among city officials. In Galveston’s ordinance, city leaders declined to prohibit the use of golf carts at night, with City Attorney Donald Glywasky telling them it was not necessary because it was already in state law.

“You cannot drive a golf cart at night,” Glywasky said at the June 24, 2021 meeting. “That is the state law… The fact that we did not put it in the ordinance does not mean it is not in state law.”

Brown, however, said Monday the prohibition at the city level would be needed to pull the carts from Galveston streets. Robb also said — citing what she called confusing state codes — that a nighttime ban may be needed since so much of Galveston is a collection of master planned communities.

The limits of that, however, appear vague. While master planned communities are mentioned in state codes, the definition is not clear, and city-maintained streets would likely follow the same rules and regulations.

Glywasky confirmed Monday, with limited exceptions related to private roads or master planned communities, it is not legal to drive a golf cart on public roadways at night in Texas, and city police and any peace officer can issue a citation for it.

Under Texas laws, last amended in 2021, both golf carts and so-called neighborhood electric vehicles — the larger similar vehicles — can only be operated on streets with a speed limit of 35 mph or less and only “during the daytime.”

Renters — and even many residents — may not know that, however.

“We’ve never been informed of that,” said Annie Porter, office manager for Rick’s Beach Rental in Jamaica Beach, southwest of Galveston.

The city’s requirements detail how rental companies must post the ordinance, but not state regulations.

Rick’s, one of the nine city-approved cart companies doing inspections before a city permit is issued, does not rent carts in Galveston, Porter said, because of the risks of driving the carts in more dense parts of the city, popular with tourists.

“We’re being strict (about) where we can observe the person going,” she said.

More scrutiny is also likely in Galveston, officials said, as they prepare for their semi-monthly meeting on Thursday. Brown and Robb said they plan to discuss the regulations Thursday, although it would be uncommon for the council to approve changes in one meeting.

Other potential remedies could also result from that discussion, officials said, along with funding for whatever policing is needed. Any changes, meanwhile, cannot simply include more citations, Robb said.

“We can’t pull our police force to just focus on golf carts,” she said.

What officials can do, Robb said, is what she sought last year and banned them from Seawall Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest streets and the highway that divides the beach from the mainland. Saturday’s crash, five blocks from Seawall, demonstrates that the commotion around the highway is a factor.

“There’s just too many, and they should be on the seawall,” Robb said.

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