Reflecting the importance of automobiles in the United States, the American Automobile Association has promoted good roads and traffic safety, offered its members help in roadside mechanical emergencies, noted fuel prices, published maps, and performed other services to enhance the motoring experience.
The American Automobile Association (AAA; pronounced “triple A”) was created at a meeting of nine automobile clubs in Chicago in 1902, with about fifteen hundred members–at a time when Americans relied much more on horses than on automobiles for transportation and when there were no roads for motorized vehicles.
The AAA campaigned initially for suitable roads, with a major accomplishment coming in the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The AAA also worked toward the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which began the system of interstate highways. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the AAA urged Congress not to divert the money collected from taxes and fees paid by drivers and airline passengers but to use it only for the maintenance and improvement of the infrastructure needed for ground and air transportation, respectively.
In addition to campaigning for good roads, the AAA has worked for the safety and convenience of drivers, their passengers, and pedestrians. The AAA sponsors the School Safety Patrol Program and educational programs for drivers. It advocates graduated driver licensing laws for adolescents and the use of seat belts and child-restraint systems. It offers insurance, travel planning, discounts at various businesses, hotel and restaurant ratings, and even cellular telephones.
The AAA, however, is best known for helping its members when they have car trouble, for reporting gasoline prices, and for publishing maps. Emergency Road Service is a program that began in St. Louis in 1915 and spread throughout the nation. Members of the AAA carry cards with toll-free numbers that they can call from almost anywhere if they need help. As for the price of gasoline, news agencies rely on the AAA’s record keeping for stories about financial stress at pumps. Furthermore, the AAA produces both standard road maps and detailed strip maps designed for specific trips.
President Calvin Coolidge (holding emblem) receives a membership in AAA from club representatives in 1923.
Despite designating some routes on maps as Scenic Byways and promoting the recycling of batteries and the efficient use of gasoline, the AAA has drawn criticism for being environmentally unfriendly because of its lobbying for better roads and bridges. According to its critics, it has allied itself with highway contractors, automobile manufacturers, and oil companies to promote suburban sprawl and the excessive use of road-clogging, air-polluting private automobiles at the expense of public transportation. The AAA, which has more than 50 million members, has replied that air pollution from automobiles has declined and that the organization tries to balance environmental concerns with its concern for the convenience and safety that Americans expect in their transportation.
Jackle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Motoring: The Highway Experience in America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. Lubove, Seth. “Drive-By Shooting.” Forbes, April 14, 2003, 66. Silverstein, Ken. “Smitten with a Club.” Harper’s Magazine, May, 2002, 52-53.
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