The AAA Dilemma

I’ll be the first to admit that there have been moments in my life when I have been deeply thankful for Triple-A. Driving towards Buffalo one cold winter night, I blew a tire and found myself without a spare on the side of the superhighway—would have been a complete disaster without the AAA. Once, on Route 390, they helped me when my engine gave way and one time I went off the road during a whiteout and they called someone to give me a pull. But honestly, I—like most AAA members I assume—didn’t give the organization much thought when my car wasn’t trapped in a snowbank. Their card, which one sociologist I met described as “the membership card for the middle class,” sat innocently next to the ones from Blockbuster and Wegmans.

It’s funny how the most innocuous of objects can come to be so ominous when you come to understand it.

My first hint of trouble came when I was reading Hope, Human and Wild by Bill McKibben and he was talking about the crusading mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba. He was attempting to improve air quality and community involvement by promoting safe, clean public transportation and converting a major street into a pedestrian thoroughfare. His staunchest opponents were the members of the local car club, which I found peculiar. Suddenly, I remembered the little card in my wallet for the American Automobile Association, perhaps the world’s largest ‘car club,’ with over 46 million members.

To make a long story short, I went (like most young people today) to the Internet and had my worst suspicions confirmed. AAA’s critics run the gamut, from the guys on NPR's Car Talk, to the Sierra Club, to Harper’s Magazine. AAA, it seems, uses its members’ money and clout (46 million members is quite a statement) to oppose the Clean Air Act (the AAA claims that cars don’t contribute to smog)[1], public transportation, fuel efficiency standards and even bike paths![2] Ken Silverstein, writing for Harper’s Magazine, describes:
In 1999, AAA opposed new rules that required cleaner-burning exhaust systems for cars, trucks, and SUVs, and two years prior assailed an EPA proposal requiring states to reduce levels of smog and soot. In 1990, AAA even fought the strengthening of the Clean Air Act - a measure supported by three fourths of Americans - on the grounds that it would limit the "personal mobility" of motorists.
According to some reports, in the 70s, it opposed making seat belts and air bags standard in automobiles[3]. It is involved in the lobby groups for both the pavement and the automobile industries—bringing its wholesome image and millions of members dollars to their side. The worst part, in my opinion, is that the AAA never explains this openly to its membership. The NRA, for all their faults, is open about its orientation and what it does with member’s money; no-one joins the NRA thinking they’re just getting a magazine. AAA, however, claims to speak for its membership yet never reveals to those same people its motivations or actions. The board of the AAA is not elected, but a self-perpetuating group beholden to little but its own whims.

So, what are we to do about it? Trade in our membership cards and hope we don’t run off the road during one of this winter’s snowstorms? Well, there’s that choice, but there is another option. A group of environmentalists (oh no, not them!) has set up an organization called the Better World Club. Their website (http://www.betterworldclub.com/) claims:
Anyone who has competed with AAA has said, "we're just like AAA." Better World Club says "our roadside assistance mirrors AAA's, but we're nothing like them or other auto clubs. We have a unique policy agenda."
Better World offers similar services, with roadside assistance from 50,000 service stations, help unlocking your car, membership discounts, etc. They are a bit different though, as Better World attempts to utilize its members funding (openly) to decrease our dependence on both cars and oil.

Unlike AAA, you can get assistance not only for your car, but also for you bike if you have trouble. They offer special benefits for hybrid cars and donates 1% of their funds to environmental protection.

My mother always insisted on being practical and looking at the details, which I wholeheartedly support, so for a complete comparison (good and bad) between the two organizations, check: http://www.betterworldclub.com/competition/aaa_chart.htm.

So perhaps you’re ready to mail AAA your card along with an angry letter and perhaps not, but hopefully you’re a bit more aware of the options. Best of luck and happy driving.


PS: I know that this isn’t “Upstate specific,” I promise that my next article—on Upstate breweries and hops—will be much more so. -J

[1] “Don’t Blame Cars for Smog AAA says.” The Environmental News Agency, Sept. 29th, 1999 (http://www.betterworldclub.com/articles/ens1999sep29.htm)
[2] “AAA—Who knew?” The Sierra Club. (http://www.sierraclub.org/e-files/roadside_assistance.asp_
[3] “AAA Paves the Road to Hell” by Ken Silverstein. Harper’s Magazine, May 2002 (http://www.betterworldclub.com/articles/Harpers2002may.htm)


NYCO said...

Well, AAA had to give me a jumpstart Monday morning, because my car died from the cold. They're handy when there's no menfolk around to help.
(and I don't think my own jumper cables would have helped because the car next to me in the driveway was just as dead and I don't think anyone has the super-long cables that would have been required to reach my car).

The AAA guy was very nice and gave no hint that he was a tool of repressive smogmasters. Who knew? :-)

York Staters said...

They're tricksy fellows.

Actually, I was under the impression that the guy who comes to pull you out of the ditch, etc, is not a AAA employee, but a third party they contact. Maybe I'm wrong.

Who knew?

Simon St.Laurent said...

Not that insurance companies are ideal for this either, but GEICO offers a very cheap road-service plan, and gave me a 70-mile tow out of the Adirondacks a few years ago.

Both AAA and the other plans usually use third party tow trucks under contract.