Almost immediately after the first horseless carriages appeared on America's roads, motorists began organizing automobile clubs. In 1902, only 23,000 cars were in operation in this country compared with 17 million horses. Yet, motoring enthusiasts had formed approximately 50 small auto clubs across the country.
Nine of those clubs met in Chicago on March 4, 1902, to create a national motoring organization, and the American Automobile Association was formed with 1,500 members.
Those clubs and their founding dates were: Automobile Club of America, 1899; Chicago Automobile Club, 1900; Automobile Club of New Jersey, 1900; Long Island Automobile Club, 1900; Rhode Island Automobile Club, 1900; Philadelphia Automobile Club, 1900; Princeton University Automobile Club, 1901; Automobile Club of Utica, 1901; Grand Rapids Automobile Club, 1902.
The first headquarters office was one shared with the Automobile Club of America, on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
One hundred and twelve years and 50 million members later, AAA's most basic premise remains the same: safe, efficient transportation is a fundamental underpinning of our society.
The Fight for Better Roads
At the turn of the century, existing roads had been designed for the horse and buggy—not the auto. Traveling on those dirt paths was often risky, and AAA's earliest goal was to lead a fight for improvements in the nation's roads to more safely accommodate automobile traffic.
Although there have been many roadblocks, AAA's successes—such as eliminating state barriers to interstate travel—have helped to make road travel easier and safer for all Americans.
In 1902, AAA began its long journey as a legislative advocate with the Brownlow-Latimer Bill, which called for the appropriation of federal funds for the improvement of national highways. It was followed in 1903 with the Good Roads Bill, which AAA also supported. That federal legislation established the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (now the Department of Transportation).
But it wasn't until 13 years later that President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which included portions of what was formerly the Good Roads Bill and Brownlow-Latimer Bill, requiring the federal government to appropriate funds for building and improving roads.
However, the most ambitious public works program in the nation's history didn't begin until passage of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, for which AAA was a leading advocate. It followed President Eisenhower's proposal to spend $50 billion on a 10-year highway construction program, the basis for the establishment of the Highway Trust Fund which Americans still support through gasoline and related taxes.
Unfortunately, revenues from that Trust Fund, as well as the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, were not always used for maintaining and improving the nation's transportation infrastructure. Due to years of inconsistent and insufficient investment, many roads and bridges have fallen into disrepair as capacity did not keep pace with demand.
Once again, AAA and its affiliated clubs worked with government at all levels to ensure the public's interests would be represented. AAA's nationwide campaign, "Crisis Ahead: America's Aging Highways and Airways," was launched in 1996 to focus attention on the nation's deteriorating transportation infrastructure.
Crisis Ahead called for increased spending of existing funds in the Highway Trust Fund and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund for badly needed improvements on the nation's highways, bridges, airports and air traffic control system.
In 1998 and 2000, AAA supported and helped shape two pieces of landmark legislation: the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21). Both laws embrace the principle that taxes and user fees charged to motorists and air travelers be fully invested in improving and modernizing the nation's surface and air transportation infrastructures.
Traffic Safety Endeavors
The rapidly increasing number of cars on the road in the early 1900s brought about a similar increase in motor vehicle crashes, and prevention of traffic mishaps became an early concern of AAA clubs.
Pedestrian safety was also a primary concern, and in 1917 AAA issued a resolution advocating that pedestrians abide by signals of traffic officers and cross streets only in designated places.
In keeping with its concern for pedestrians, the AAA School Safety Patrol Program -- which protects children from traffic dangers -- was established in 1920 at the Chicago Motor Club and soon expanded nationwide. Today, more than 500,000 safety patrol members are recognized annually, in more than 50,000 schools. This program was awarded the Presidential Citation for Private Sector Initiatives in 1985.
Later in the 1920s, AAA established a Traffic Safety department which published a safety education curriculum for teachers, drafted a safety responsibility bill, and pledged to continue an aggressive campaign for safety in both public and private schools.
AAA continues its support of safety initiatives for children with programs for bicycle, pedestrian and Halloween safety, and by reminding motorists of the importance of being alert for children when school is in session. AAA distributes more than five million pieces of literature annually addressing these topics.
AAA's "Responsible Driving" textbook, first published in the 1930s as "Sportsmanlike Driving," has become the most widely used book in its field. AAA's instructional materials also are used in commercial driving schools and fleet driver training.
AAA's Driver Improvement Programs help enhance driving skills for mature operators over age 55, minor traffic offenders and fleet drivers. AAA Driver Instructor Training courses provide AAA driving instructors with quality courses to give them the necessary tools to properly train new and experienced drivers to develop, maintain or improve their driving ability.
More recently, "Teaching Your Teen to Drive," a new driver's education program, was introduced in 1996 and focuses on parent involvement in teen driving instruction. In addition, AAA created "Licensed to Learn," a novice driver initiative that supports more supervised hands-on training, driver education course standards and uniform instructor qualifications.
True to the organization's long history as an advocate for motorist's safety, AAA led a nationwide effort to pass graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws to ensure teens get the practice and guidance they need to become safe drivers. Data show these laws help reduce the number of teen driver crashes and save lives. Since 1997, AAA has helped enact GDL laws in nearly 40 states.
AAA also has been actively involved for more than 40 years in combating impaired driving. Special AAA educational programs have been used by thousands of communities and schools to educate students and the public on the seriousness of drinking and driving.
These initiatives promote nonalcoholic drinks at celebrations; educate students through curriculum units on alcohol; inform hosts about the ramifications of serving alcohol to their guests; provide free rides home to those too impaired to drive; and encourage the use of designated drivers.
In 1985, AAA launched a campaign to promote seat belt and child restraint use, and in 2001 supported legislation or regulations that would mandate the use of safety belts and approved child restraint systems by all occupants of passenger vehicles. In addition, AAA trains and certifies instructors in the proper use and installation of child safety seats. These instructors teach others and conduct public safety seat inspections.
Automotive Issues and Assistance
Auto breakdowns have always been a source of frustration to car owners. In 1915, the Automobile Club of St. Louis was the first to introduce an emergency service for motorists. Their First Aid Corp -- a group of five motorcyclists -- would drive the streets of St. Louis on Sundays looking for stranded motorists and making minor engine and tire repairs.
This service was so successful that it became a nationwide program called Emergency Road Service (ERS) and has now become one of the most valued features of AAA membership. AAA ERS -- which responded to nearly 29 million calls in 2000 -- is coordinated through a network of more than 100 AAA telephone centers, 13,500 independently owned towing services, as well as club-owned towing operations.
In 1982, AAA established a toll-free ERS number, 1-800-AAA-HELP for traveling U.S. and Canadian members. AAA counselors handle ERS calls and respond to inquiries about travel-related subjects and Approved Auto Repair facilities. Hearing impaired members use the 1-800-955-4833 TDD number toll free.
To ensure members receive reliable and quality workmanship in auto repairs, AAA developed its Approved Auto Repair program in 1975, which identifies automotive repair facilities that have met AAA's stringent criteria in customer satisfaction, equipment requirements and trained technicians.
The AAA Approved Auto Repair program is now the largest independently inspected and approved network of repair facilities in North America with more than 7,000 participating service facilities. These facilities provide special benefits to AAA members including a courtesy safety inspection if the owner arranges to have maintenance or repairs performed on the vehicle and mediation by AAA if needed.
To combat a shortage of skilled auto mechanics, since 1984 AAA has co-sponsored an annual nationwide competition for students studying automotive repair.
The Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Contest encourages students enrolled in automotive shop courses to further their education in automotive repair. Contestants vie for approximately $9 million in scholarships and prizes through a written exam and hands-on competitions at the state and national level.
In addition, AAA piloted an online technician locator service in 2001 to assist students in finding employment with AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities, and to assist the facilities in locating qualified mechanics.
AAA's involvement in energy matters has a long and far-reaching history. As early as 1918 AAA was opposing federal gasoline taxes. In 1923, AAA charged that an increase in gasoline prices was due to manipulation. In 1933, AAA conducted tests on the blending of alcohol with gasoline, and in the 1940s, AAA encouraged a reduction in the legal speed for motor vehicles as a conservation measure made necessary by World War II.
During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, AAA initiated weekly Fuel Gauge Reports -- an overview of stations in more than 200 cities across the nation to advise motorists on gasoline availability, prices and station hours of operation.
After the embargo was over, these reports were issued during holidays through 1978. Beginning in 1979 the report became monthly and remained so until 2000 when a daily AAA Fuel Gauge Report was launched.
Last year, AAA published a revised Gas Watcher's Guide, which shows motorists how to save fuel while driving safely and protecting the environment. AAA also published the guide during the 1973-74 oil embargo and during the era of gas lines in 1979-80.
Through the years, AAA has played a leading role in the fight to make certain that federal excise taxes on gasoline are used exclusively for maintenance and improvements to the nation's transportation system. In addition, AAA has encouraged responsible approaches to environmental regulation while preserving Americans' freedom of mobility.
Geographic Information Systems
AAA issued its first map in 1905, a street map of Staten Island, N.Y. In 1911, AAA produced its first state map, a map of New York, and its first booklet of strip maps detailing a pathfinder's route from New York to Jacksonville. Pathfinders were early road reporters who even today keep AAA's map details up-to-date.
Those strip maps were the forerunners of AAA's famous TripTik® routings, which were trademarked in 1932. TripTik® routings—now available at triptik.aaa.com—include driving times, mileage, points of interest, current highway conditions, construction and detours, and are individually tailored for each trip. Since the early 1900s, AAA has been a leader in the development of maps and atlases of North America, Europe and many other areas of the world.
This position of leadership perhaps resulted in AAA's greatest cartographic contribution to the United States when, in 1942, AAA placed its mapping facilities at the disposal of the Department of the Army in support of the nation's war effort. This generous offer was made again in 1951 to the National Defense Department during the Korean War.
But times of war are not the only times that AAA has aided the government through its mapping resources. AAA frequently provides maps to support emergency service providers in times of natural disasters such as wildfires or hurricanes.
In 1983, AAA began designating scenic routes on its maps and in 1988, AAA became actively involved in a national effort for a scenic byway initiative. AAA brought technical support and travel-related expertise to various meetings and conventions that eventually led to the introduction of the Scenic Byways Study Act of 1989. This effort at assisting the government in beautifying highways has led to many more routes earning AAA's Scenic Byway designation.
As the Scenic Byways program illustrates, over the years AAA has recognized the need to care for the American landscape. A leader in the fight for good roads and improved travel facilities, AAA has long worked with state and local governments in the promotion and preservation of America's scenic heritage.
When private lumbering operations threatened extinction of giant redwoods in Humboldt County, Calif., in 1919, a California State Automobile Association board member mounted a major campaign to raise funds for the Save the Redwoods League. Within six months the AAA club had raised $100,000 to purchase 20,000 acres that were turned over to the government as a public trust. The land now comprises a portion of Humboldt Redwoods State Park which includes more than 17,000 acres of old-growth forest.
In addition to encouraging fuel efficiency and conservation, AAA initiated National Car Care month during the 1980s, recognizing that a poorly operating vehicle can contribute to excessive energy consumption and air pollution. The goal of this program is to help consumers understand vehicle maintenance and encourage motorists to service their cars when driving conditions, travel distance and temperature extremes could affect performance and safety.
In its 1993 "Freedom's Way" campaign, AAA helped educate motorists about the environmentally sound use of automobiles, and promoted environmentally responsible travel for vacationers. In its booklet, "Environmental Tips for World Trips," travelers are encouraged to balance the adventure of seeing different cities and countries with a sense of obligation to the inhabitants, culture and ecosystems of the places they visit.
Although 95 percent of vehicle batteries are recycled, millions of batteries each year are disposed of improperly, ending up in landfills, vacant lots, lakes and rivers, and become a source of water and soil pollution. To combat this problem, AAA promotes proper battery reclamation and disposal.
AAA clubs in many areas offer a battery testing and replacement service that includes recycling a failed battery for every new one sold to eliminate the possibility of improper disposal. In addition, on Earth Day 2000, AAA clubs collected 7,500 used batteries and properly disposed of them.
"Clearing the Air," a AAA-sponsored research study of EPA statistics on emission trends in major cities throughout the U.S., was originally published in 1994 and has been updated periodically.
The most recent report from 1999 shows that the negative effect of automobile emissions on air quality has decreased significantly since the original report was issued, despite the growing number of vehicles on the road.
Reasons cited for the decline include the production of cleaner cars, more stringent federal tailpipe emissions standards, cleaner burning gasoline and more effective state inspections.
Vigorous involvement in travel and motoring issues have been prime activities of AAA for more than 100 years. AAA will continue working to ensure travelers' interests are represented in highway and traffic safety, energy, transportation infrastructure and environmental policies.