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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > AAA: Friend of Big Business

Imagine an organization, at the state and national levels, composed of 29 million car owners who contribute over $1 billion a year in dues to “champion the rights of car owners.” Then imagine the directors and bureaucrats who autocratically run this organization siding with the auto manufacturers and the auto insurance industry on many issues or not challenging these

industries at all.

You don’t have to imagine. it is the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Not all of the over 100 affiliated AAA clubs are as anti‑ consumer as the national AAA headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. In the late Sixties, the Missouri AAA acquired alert leadership which, among other achievements, opened the first auto diagnostic centers for members (to ward off gouging repair bills). Missouri AAA also gathered auto defect complaint data which helped the U.S. Department of Transportation recall nearly 7 million CM cars with sticking throttle propensities.

Missouri AAA in those years was a rare light in a sea of darkness that made up the AAA clubs. Many clubs engage in obsessive secrecy, deny their members basic Club information, such as the Club bylaws and budget specifics, and block out members from any realistic participation or voting roles.

The AAA Clubs tout their emergency towing service, travel information and AAA approved motels. For most members, expectation levels hover around these services. And AAA makes sure to keep expectations at such low levels.

For example, in the Sixties, the Automobile Club of New York found out the hard highway way that their staff cars were equipped with defective tires that led to skidding. The manufacturer was notified and actually changed its rubber compounding. The company replaced these tires for the NY Club but did not notify the many thousands of their customers around the country. Neither did the Automobile Club of New York notify its own thousands of members about this Goodyear Double Eagle tire problem.

Consider the auto club’s recent behavior. AAA:

1. rarely if ever petitions the federal auto safety agency to issue, toughen or preserve standards requiring safer cars;

2. rarely if ever testifies before Congress on the side of motorists in these engineering safety matters;

3. even declined to initiate grass roots and Congressional lobbying to save the 5 mph bumper standard from being reduced to 2 1/2 mph by the Reaganites, even though AAA approved the more protective standard;

4. declined to really take on General Motors and Ford when they demanded and received exemptions for the past three years from the fuel efficiency standard and, worse, has not pressured the federal government to upgrade that standard to prepare for future energy price hikes and crises;

5. has been distinctly cool to mass transit proposals and effective enforcement of air pollution requirements;

6. rarely demands recalls of defective car models or alerts its members about such cars (such as the Audi 5000 sudden acceleration problem); and

7. for two decades has been almost indifferent to, when not deprecating, the automotive air bag now moving toward standard installation.

Why does AAA behave this way? Because it is primarily a business masquerading as a consumer group, AAA is a large seller of auto insurance–the largest single seller in California, for example, is the Southern California AAA Club. AAA sells travel tickets, tires, batteries and other services. It has a seller’s mind set, not a consumer protection attitude. Its boards of directors are closely allied with auto dealers and automobile industry personnel.

In the current controversy between consumers and auto insurance companies, the AAA is siding completely with the auto insurance industry of which it is a part. In California, the AAA Clubs are not only part of the insurance industry lobby to defeat pro-consumer insurance reforms on the ballot this November. These Clubs are major financiers of the huge slush fund against these referendums.

Using AAA members’ dues against their own interest in more reasonable premiums and less discriminatory territorial rating systems–to name just two reforms on the ballot–is not the worst of AAA’s callous behavior. That dishonor goes to an AAA policy statement calling for legislatures to limit the rights of injured victims (including their member motorists) to recover adequate compensation in court from the perpetrators of their harms, such as manufacturers of dangerously defective vehicles.

AAA members need to voice their concerns and demands for the national and state AAA bureaucrats to speak up for them or resign. Send copies of your letters about AAA to the AAA Reform Project, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, D.C., 20036.