Just Build More Roads

Is the Auto Club working for you or for the auto industry?

Photo by Keith MayThere are few feelings worse than the loneliness and desperation that hit you like a crowbar on the head when you're standing on a freeway shoulder next to a broken car while hundreds of other motorists race by at 70 miles per hour. I've been there a couple of times, and each time, the same big white Auto Club tow truck rescued me.

Most, if not all, of the other 40 million-plus AAA members across the country have similar stories. They're what most people think of when someone mentions the Auto Club, and the organization's directors like it that way.

What most people don't know about AAA is that the $43 in dues collected from each member every year adds up to nearly $2 billion. And that means serious political power—exercised most often for the good of road builders, auto manufacturers and big oil rather than the environment or the driving consumer.

Not everything AAA advocates is bad: last year, the club supported an ultimately successful measure requiring mechanics to inform customers in writing whether they're installing generic, after-market parts rather than name-brand equipment. But typically, AAA takes the side of the auto industry, such as when the club opposed mandatory installation of airbags in cars, a pro-consumer standard that imposed a significant cost on manufacturers.

What follows is a brief list of some of the AAA political activities that did more to increase urban sprawl and air pollution than drivers.

1. In California, AAA opposed State Bill 1237—the Fair Insurance Responsibility Act—in July 1999. The club called it a "vote against consumers" when in fact the bill simply allowed accident victims to sue the insurance company of a bad driver when it refuses to pay the victim in a traffic accident. The bill died in Sacramento. Following a massive and deceptive insurance-industry-backed campaign, voters in March 2000 killed Proposition 30, which sought to implement SB 1237.

2. They opposed the 1990 Clean Air Act, which updated the original 1972 act's federal air-pollution standards. Following an industry lawsuit against the act, the usually contentious U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled 9-0 that it was in fact completely constitutional.

3. The club sent a letter dated June 15, 2000, "on behalf of more than 39 million AAA members" to then-Environmental Protection Agency director Carol Browner asking for "an immediate 90-day reprieve from your agency's current requirement that reformulated fuels (RFG-2) be offered as part of local clean-air-compliance programs." AAA's reasoning was that motorists needed a break from high gas prices. Reformulated gas does cost more per gallon, but it burns cleaner than traditional unleaded. Drivers are also breathers.

4. AAA supported Proposition 35, the Fair Competition and Taxpayer Savings Act. This measure, which passed in November 2000, privatized public-works projects—a boon to the state's nonunion builders and road pavers, who funded the measure's campaign.

5. The club says it works "on your behalf to ensure that state and local transportation laws are sensible and fair and promote safety and mobility," but it never spoke up during the summer of 2000 when poorly made Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorers lost their treads at high speed, causing hundreds of accidents that killed 148 people. Its only reference to highway safety was its annual "It's the Season for Hot Weather Vehicle Checks" release that told drivers to "check tires for uneven or excessive tread wear and make sure all tires, including the spare, are inflated properly."

6. The Auto Club also failed to denounce Firestone's plodding efforts to replace the dangerous Wilderness AT tires—many of which remain on the road to this day—even as drivers continued to die while on waiting lists for replacement tires.

7. They supported Governor Gray Davis' 2000 "Transportation Congestion Relief Program"—a monster $6 billion state bill that appeared to mollify mass transit advocates but was in fact a huge gift to road builders.

8. In late September 1999, as the EPA was getting ready to implement further auto-emissions standards, the club released a highly deceptive report called "Clearing the Air—1999." The report, which received very little media play, seemed to indicate that automobiles were no longer a major source of smog. In what was supposedly an analysis of 25 major U.S. cities, the club neglected to include Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami and the entire state of Texas—which includes Dallas and Houston, the nation's smoggiest cities.

9. AAA's study also neglected to mention that, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Statistics, nitrogen oxide emissions from cars have actually climbed since the 1960s. The statistics also show carbon monoxide emissions, although much higher in the late 1980s, are today pretty much where they were in the 1960s. The reason for this: a national explosion in the number of automobiles, from 61 million in 1960 to more than 130 million today.

10. When the U.S. Senate debated the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which, unlike previous highway bills, allowed local communities to use federal money for public transportation, AAA government affairs managing director John Archer testified that such a bill would "funnel too many highway dollars to mass transit," which would "disregard the value Americans place on automotive travel." His recommendation: just build more roads.

 
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