Who needs a car?
When Sherry and Mark Miller tied the knot in 2001, they received what has become one of their most prized possessions.
It wasn't fine china, crystal or silver. It was a 17-year-old purple golf cart.
"We called it Barney," Sherry Miller said with a laugh, adding it was handed down to them by her in-laws — Ed and Barb Miller, of Champaign — when they upgraded to a new low-speed vehicle.
At first, the younger couple only drove Barney — which they later had painted a more respectable black with orange flames — on the Lincolnshire Fields Country Club grounds in western Champaign. When they moved to Tolono in 2009, they were thrilled to learn the village had a newly adopted ordinance allowing them to drive it around town.
These days, the Millers — with son Andrew, 12, and daughter Lauren, 10, in tow — are frequently spotted in their "hot rod," heading down the street to the ballpark or up to the Dollar General or Casey's or tooling around the neighborhood.
"We use it so much," Sherry Miller said, adding it's easier having the kids hop on the cart than loading them and their sports equipment into her Buick Enclave.
It's also more sociable than her SUV, she said.
"Your vehicle is kind of closed off, and you wouldn't necessarily stop and visit with your neighbors," she explained. In the golf cart, "you drive around the neighborhood and say 'hi' to your friends. When we have parades in town, it's nice to drive up in it. Everyone kind of congregates around it."
Once restricted to golf courses and planned retirement communities, golf carts have grown in popularity as modes of transportation in small communities, and more municipalities — including in East Central Illinois — are adopting ordinances to accommodate them.
A majority of communities with populations of 10,000 or fewer in Champaign, Douglas, Piatt and Vermilion counties have an ordinance, with some on the books for as many as eight years.
Hoopeston and Rossville, two of the first golf cart-friendly communities in Vermilion County, adopted ordinances with reciprocal agreements — allowing residents from each community to drive their carts in the other town — in 2009.
"That was when gas prices were soaring to almost $4" a gallon, said police Chief Mark Drollinger, who helped draft the ordinance that was modeled after laws in established golf cart communities in Florida and Wisconsin. "They're electric, so some folks felt like they were saving a few bucks."
Seven years later, Drollinger said they've only grown in popularity. His department issued 90 permits this year.
"It's been a very positive program," said Drollinger, who initially had reservations from a safety standpoint, like many of his counterparts in other towns. "People are pretty cautious with them."
This year, Gifford, Monticello and Henning gave golf carts the green light. Henning's was adopted last week and goes into effect on Aug. 8.
Allerton may be next.
"It seems like a lot of towns have one," Allerton village President John Cutsinger said, adding he's had requests from three residents. "We may discuss the idea (at a future meeting). We want to take a look at ordinances from surrounding towns first."
Most local officials have noticed an increase in the number of permits they issue each year. When Gibson City passed its ordinance in 2010, the police department issued 34 permits. This year, it issued 100.
"Our community has a lot of activities going on — in the parks, at different churches," police Chief Steve Cushman said.
Arthur, which legalized golf carts the same year, issued 70 permits this year. But they're not creating a nuisance, said police Chief Michael Goodwin, who still sees more horse and buggies traveling the roads of the Amish town.
"I might see two or three on a daily basis," Goodwin said. "It just affords them some flexibility to go to the grocery store or out to the Subway without having to load up in their car."
Sales people have also noticed a demand.
Kyle Coker, manager of Battery Specialists & Golf Cars in Champaign, sells about 20 Club Car golf carts a month, or 250 to 300 a year. The business — which is owned by his father, Danny Coker, and has locations in Taylorville, Highland and Mount Vernon — has sold golf carts since the mid-1990s, has been a Club Car distributor since 1999 and is that brand's distributor for three-fourths of the state.
While Coker hasn't noticed a huge jump in sales — he said dealers refer to them as "cars" — he has noticed a change in his clientele. Ten years ago, they were mostly golfers who used them on the course. When country club and golf course memberships fell off, many facilities banned private carts to make up revenue on rentals. At the same time, more people began driving them around town.
"It's opened it up to a whole different group of people," Coker said, adding that business is especially fun now.
"They're a status symbol," said Coker, whose customers have requested chrome wheels and big tires, stereo systems and custom paint jobs to make them stand out. The business has detailed carts to have orange flames, blue lightning bolts, patriotic or breast cancer colors. Others have been made to look like a miniature 1968 Dodge Charger, 1970 Chevelle, Army Jeep and John Deere tractor.
"They're quiet, they're easy, they're social, and they're just a cool thing to have," Coker said of the reason for their popularity. "To get a really cool automobile, you have to spend $50,000. You can spend seven grand and get a really cool golf car. You can pay anywhere from $2,500 to $13,500 depending on what you want. That's an obtainable goal for people."
Coker said he's also sold the street-legal carts to University of Illinois students and a few in residential areas, including Lincolnshire Fields.
"In Lincolnshire, they can drive them up to a couple of restaurants," he said. "The kids on campus go to class. It's a cool thing to drive to the bars. Of course, they have to make sure they have a designated driver because they know the cops would really like to pull over a student who's drunk on an LSV."
They are so popular in Royal that they're not only driven to the annual Royal Days celebration, which will be held Aug. 28-29; they're one of the main attractions in the Saturday parade.
"Not all of (the entries) are golf carts," said resident Randall Grussing, who started selling Club Cars as a hobby after retiring three years ago. In that time, he's sold more than 100 and refurbished about half. "But about 65 percent are. People get a kick out of it."
"People decorate them," resident Kathy Waller added. She and her husband, Jason, plan to jazz up their plain white cart this year. "It's fun to see them, and fun to go around on them and see everyone."
But not everyone agrees. Some municipalities have seen them as a liability, mainly due to geography.
"We've had requests from two or three citizens," Mahomet village Administrator Patrick Brown said, adding village officials discussed the idea at length in 2011 and then more briefly in 2013 and 2014. He said the idea wasn't backed by local police, and ultimately trustees.
"Mahomet's problem is we're kind of separated by a river," Brown said, pointing out the Sangamon River divides residential areas from shopping and restaurants. While they're connected by a multi-purpose path, motorized vehicles are prohibited on it.
"Two of the people asking for them actually live in residential areas that are only accessible by state highways, and golf carts aren't allowed on them," Brown said. And "a lot of people don't want golf carts riding around on their residential streets either."
While Mahomet is a small town compared to Champaign-Urbana, Brown said it's densely populated with just shy of 8,000 residents in the village and another 5,500 in surrounding unincorporated areas.
"It would be difficult to implement within the village," he said. "We have a high traffic volume. ... That doesn't mean that a few years from now, a homeowner's association wouldn't try to incorporate golf cart paths in a new development."
Officials in St. Joseph, Ogden and Rankin also said they're not interested at this time.
St. Joseph Mayor B.J. Hackler pointed out that U.S. 150 runs through town, and that highway has a daily traffic volume of 7,200 vehicles. That's the only way for residents in the eastern subdivisions to access the downtown.
"Our problem would be enforcement," he said, given that the village contracts with the Champaign County sheriff's office for eight hours of patrolling a day. "If we allowed it, it would be a liability to the village."
Ogden leaders went so far as to adopt an ordinance banning golf carts — a precaution recommended by local police before the department was disbanded in 2010.
"I know a lot of villages do, but I think it's a liability," village Trustee Sonja Vickers said. "We are sitting between (Interstate) 74, (Illinois) 49 and U.S. 150. Those are three major roads, and we thought it would be hazardous to allow them."
Since Monticello's ordinance — which includes all-terrain and utility-terrain vehicles — went into effect June 1, the police department has issued seven stickers: for two city-owned John Deere Gators used for beautification projects, a school district-owned Gator used for buildings and grounds maintenance and four privately-owned golf carts.
Like Drollinger, police Chief John Carter initially had concerns about safety. But so far, so good.
"Honestly, I haven't even seen anyone driving them," Carter said, adding a few residents wanted to be able to drive their golf carts from their home to the local golf course.
Officials in other golf cart-friendly communities reported very few — if any — problems.
"We've had pretty good compliance," said Arthur's Goodwin, who has issued "maybe one or two" citations for unlicensed carts. He's also had to remind drivers they can only cross State Route 133, not drive down it.
Goodwin has also had "one or two very minor accidents," none with injuries. In one, "somebody parked a golf cart in a parking space, and a car in the space in front backed into it."
Paxton police Chief Bob Bane recalled one minor accident: A man backed his vehicle out of his driveway and bumped into a cart. No one was injured, and the damage to the cart was minimal.
Westville's Mike Weese also recalled one accident in his town, and it occurred in the last month or so. A vehicle pulled out and collided with a cart. Again, no injuries.
"That's what kind of scares me," he said. People in "cars don't pay attention to motorcycles. Golf carts are even harder to see."
"We've not had any accidents, which was my greatest fear in having the ordinance," Gibson City's Cushman said, pointing out "if there were an accident between a vehicle and golf cart, it would be devastating. There's no protection in a golf cart.
"I was kind of tense at first," he continued. "But (golf cart drivers) put me at peace. They've done really well. They're respectful of the rules and other vehicles. If someone comes up behind them, they'll pull off to the side and let them pass, so they don't hold up traffic."