A century of service
For 100 years, AAA has served as a source of advocacy, assistance and information for motorists and travelers

Published: Mar/Apr 2002
By Dennis R. Heinze
Regional Editor

Auto safety has been among AAA’s priorities since it was founded in 1902. During the 1930s it sponsored “Safety Lanes,” like this one in St. Louis, to inspect cars for safety.
Since the first horseless carriages rumbled and sputtered their way into American life, AAA has been there every mile of the way, paving the way for safe, efficient and reliable transportation.

In a century of service, AAA Missouri has been a stalwart source of information, assistance and advocacy for motorists and travelers. There is no other institution so closely linked with automobiles and travel than AAA. The AAA emblem is as familiar to motorists as road signs and traffic lights, and it conveys a sense of security.

Founded in 1902, the Club’s first members were true pioneers, blazing the way for today’s travelers, who can hop in the car, turn the key and travel wherever they like with ease. For early motorists, however, virtually every trip was a frustrating ordeal of bad roads, frequent breakdowns, loud-mouthed critics and oppressive legislation.

AAA not only brought about the notion of safety, security and peace of mind to the American road, the association also united to combat unfair traffic laws, petition for better roads and press manufacturers for more reliable vehicles. AAA also campaigned feverishly–and successfully–for car registration and driver licensing, traffic safety initiatives, road signs and for the construction of modern highways.

Infancy of automobiles

As America entered the 20th century, it was a time of remarkable discovery and innovation. Arguably, one of the most revolutionary inventions of the period was the automobile, but acceptance of the new contraptions wasn’t immediate.

In 1902, there were only 176 automobiles registered in St. Louis and just 23,000 cars in operation across the country, compared with 17 million horses. Hitching posts outnumbered street lights, and “roads” were merely dirt paths that would dissolve into mud after it rained.

Initially, there was a great deal of hostility toward automobile owners. The loud machines scared both man and beast and traveled through towns at speeds much faster than a horse and carriage. To keep horseless carriages off the road, many detractors buried empty bottles or strips of barbed wire in the road to pop their tires.

Early motorists also faced restrictive and sometimes absurd laws. Motorists had to register their vehicles from state to state, and sometimes even from county to county as they traveled. To tour the entire state of Missouri then, it cost $238 in fees alone. Also, some cities required motorists who happened upon a horse and buggy to get out and lead the horse past their car.

With these conditions, it became imperative for motorists to form an organization to help each other and protect the interests of all motorists. So on April 23, 1902, 16 prominent St. Louis businessmen met to form the Automobile Club of St. Louis, now known as AAA Missouri. It was then that the Club became a constant and trusted companion to motorists.

Untiring advocate

After the was established, it was quick to begin working to influence legislation affecting motorists. In fact, at the Club’s third meeting they decided to work to increase speed limits to the same as those applied to street cars and to repeal the existing license fee of $10 and replace it with a “just” sum.

AAA Missouri’s helped sponsor early driver’s education classes, including this one at Soldan High School in St. Louis
The Club soon joined other local and regional auto clubs in the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Since then, AAA has acted on behalf of motorists in the Midwest and across the country. AAA’s imprint is on dozens of laws that have made travel safer and more comfortable for millions.
In 1911, AAA Missouri prepared the Hull law and secured its passage. The law revised the 1907 State Motor Vehicle Act and established rules of the road and driving regulations. But more importantly, it placed the auto license fee on an annual basis to provide funds for the construction of a state road system.

AAA Missouri was also instrumental in passing two of the most important pieces of legislation for motorists in the state in 1921. The Motor Vehicle Law, drafted partially by the Club, created an effective system of vehicle regulation statewide, and the Good Roads Bill provided for the expenditure of $60 million in road bonds to construct 1,500 miles of highways throughout the state. A plaque at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia lauds the state highway system that was “made possible by the motoring public with the leadership of the Automobile Club of Missouri, 1932.”

The most ambitious public works project in the nation’s history began when Congress passed the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, with aggressive support from AAA Missouri and other AAA clubs. 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.

In addition to its focus on road building, the Club has helped draft dozens of other laws relating to vehicles and travel. Among other issues, AAA has opposed excessive registration fees and taxes; acted as a watchdog for highway spending; helped set safety standards for automobiles; campaigned against increases in big truck sizes; and opposed the use of toll road funds for non-motoring purposes.

More recently, AAA 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 fees charged to motorists and air travelers be fully invested in improving and modernizing air and surface transportation infrastructures.

Leading the way

While AAA worked to improve roads, it also set about providing directional assistance to motorists, one of AAA’s early hallmarks. Few road signs existed at the time, so the Club erected or donated thousands of signs in the region to guide motorists.

As motoring became more popular, the need for road maps and touring information grew, and AAA quickly earned a reputation as a reliable source for that information. AAA established a Touring Bureau in 1912, supplying up-to-date travel logs and other information. And the Club created its first map in 1915.

To gather information about roads, AAA Pathfinders were employed to blaze a trail across the region and the nation. From those pathfinding trips was born the AAA TripTik, strip maps that were combined to lead travelers from one point to another. Today, AAA Missouri produces more than 250,000 TripTiks a year, and now those travel routings can be accessed online at www.aaa.com.

Yet motorists didn’t just need to know what roads were suitable for cars, but what they could see and do on the way. The solution was the TourBook, a statewide travel guide that each AAA club produced containing information about attractions and accommodations. AAA began inspecting and recommending lodgings and restaurants in 1937 for the TourBooks as a way to help members traveling to unfamiliar areas.

By 1963, AAA recognized the need for standardized criteria for rating lodgings, a system that evolved into the highly respected Diamond rating categories that are still used today. Presently, AAA’s 24 TourBook guides rate more than 28,000 lodgings and nearly 13,000 restaurants in North America.

In addition to its publications, AAA’s travel experts have been assisting motorists for a century. As travelers began venturing on longer trips and vacations around the world, the need for comprehensive travel services became apparent. In 1946, the Club established its World Wide Travel Bureau, the forerunner of today’s AAA Travel Agency.

Your AAA Club has 20 AAA Travel Agency offices and is part of a network of more than 1,000 accredited AAA Travel Agency locations across the nation. Today, members can take advantage of an array of travel services, including airline, cruise and tour bookings, car rental, hotel reservations, travel planning and more.

Rescue and repairs

Ever since there were cars, there have been automobile breakdowns. Especially during the infancy of automobiles when they were relatively unreliable contraptions, drivers have needed someone to call on for help. AAA became that someone when it introduced its best-known product, Roadside Assistance, which is the reason cited most often by AAA’s 45 million members as the reason they joined.

The beginnings of Roadside Assistance began in St. Louis in 1915 when AAA Missouri launched its “First Aid Corps.” The Club sent mechanics on motorcycles to aid stranded motorists in the area each Sunday, assisting them with engine, tire and other problems for free. They even helped non-AAA members. If towing was required, the motorists had to arrange and pay for that on their own.

Within a few years, the service spread across the country. AAA began accepting Roadside Assistance calls from members, rather than just sending out the “First Aid Corps.” And the Club began staying open 24 hours a day to handle service calls, which were dispatched to garages under contract to handle towing services.

While early calls were recorded on paper and placed on a conveyor belt to a dispatcher who called in the tow trucks, today’s AAA call centers are technologically advanced. Computer-aided call-taking and dispatching systems speed the delivery of Roadside Assistance. Your Club’s two large call centers–one in St. Louis and one in New Orleans–remain open 24 hours a day year-round. The two centers handle more than 1 million calls each year.

In addition to helping motorists whose cars have broken down, AAA Missouri also has helped prevent breakdowns. In the 1930s, the Club sponsored “Safety Lanes” in St. Louis and Kansas City where motorists could stop to have a safety inspection performed on their car.

When motorists need vehicle repairs, they are often wary because they don’t know if they’re being overcharged or if the repairs are warranted. So AAA Missouri introduced the Approved Auto Repair program (AAR) in 1986. Through the program, members are guaranteed quality auto care service from facilities that have passed stringent AAA standards. More importantly, AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities have agreed, by contract, to accept AAA as an independent and final authority in case of a dispute over repairs.

Nationwide, the AAR program is now the largest independently inspected and approved network of repair facilities in North America with more than 7,000 participating service facilities, including approximately 200 in your Club’s seven-state territory. A list of those facilities is available online at www.aaa.com.

Coverage on the road

AAA Missouri helped draft legislation in 1931 that created the Missouri State Highway Patrol, seen here outside AAA headquarters
As members began having accidents and experiencing costly damage to their cars, the need for insurance became apparent. AAA formed an Insurance Committee in 1927 to determine whether offering insurance coverage to members would be feasible. Believing they could provide insurance at a lower rate than competing insurance agencies, the Club’s directors voted that year to offer auto insurance.

Within about six months, the Insurance Department reported that the Club surpassed the $100,000 mark in premiums received and the number of members insured through the Club was about 1,200. Today, the Automobile Club Inter-Insurance Exchange insures more than 100,000 motorists with different levels of coverage.

Because of the success of the auto insurance business, the Club decided in 1990 to begin offering homeowners insurance. Growth in the number of homeowners policies has been strong, as well, with more than 37,000 policies on record through early 2002.

Safety first

Perhaps it was Henry Bliss who made Americans realize that operating a horseless carriage had its safety drawbacks. Bliss was America’s first auto-related fatality. In 1899, he stepped from a carriage and was struck and killed by a passing motor vehicle in New York City.

And unfortunately, he was not the last.

The rapidly increasing number of cars on the road in the early 1900s brought about a similar increase in motor vehicle crashes. Few signs, no traffic signals and unreliable automobiles were a recipe for disaster. So when the Club was founded, safety became one of the its primary goals and has remained so ever since. AAA has played an influential role in reducing traffic crashes and fatalities.

The Club dispensed its advice and recommendations often during the early years to motorists and officials thirsty for knowledge about safe driving. For instance, President Herbert Hoover appointed AAA Missouri President Roy F. Britton as Chairman of the Traffic Control Committee of the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety in 1925.

But one of the AAA’s most visible and successful safety programs was the development of the AAA School Safety Patrol program in 1920. A rising number of student pedestrian injuries and deaths precipitated the creation of the program, in which students with bright orange belts direct fellow students across the street. Today, half a million Safety Patrol members from 50,000 schools across the nation help safeguard students.

In the 1930s, Amos Neyhart, the father of driver education and a AAA consultant, began teaching the first high-school driver education class in Pennsylvania. Around the same time, AAA printed “Sportsmanlike Driving,” the first course outline for teachers of driver education. Now renamed “Responsible Driving,” the book is the most widely used driver education resource.

To help maintain safe highways across Missouri, the Club prepared and caused bills to be introduced in the late 1920s and early 1930s for the establishment of the State Highway Patrol. AAA Missouri has worked with the Patrol and other law enforcement agencies over the years on a variety of safety initiatives.

In addition, AAA has worked tirelessly on an array of other safety issues. In the last century, AAA has fought DWI and other impaired driving; campaigned for mandatory seat belt use; helped motorists learn how to avert road rage; discouraged driver distractions; and encouraged bicycle and pedestrian safety.

Most recently, AAA lead a nationwide effort encouraging states to enact graduated driver licensing laws to reduce the tragic overrepresentation of teen drivers in traffic crashes. The laws, now in effect in nearly every state, require teens to graduate through levels of licensure with restrictions at each level before receiving an unrestricted license.

To help spread its messages about safety, AAA distributes more than 5 million pieces of literature annually, including pamphlets, books and teacher’s guides. The media also relies on AAA as an expert source on auto and travel-related topics.

Some of that literature is produced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which was founded in 1947. The organization, located in Washington, D.C., researches nearly any transportation topic that affects the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians and then promotes its findings to educate the public.

Another way that the Club found to spread its messages about safety was through film. The Club started a free-loan film library in 1961, offering a small selection of safety films. Since then, films have given way to videotapes and the selection of titles has grown. Today, the collection is one of the Midwest’s largest free-loan video libraries. The videos, which focus on an array of safety issues, are made available to schools, police agencies, community groups and individuals without charge.

Saving lives, reducing injuries and ensuring the safety of all travelers have always been part of AAA’s creed. From making sure early cars had lights to illuminating critical 21st century issues, AAA has served as a beacon for safety for 100 years.

Fulfilling a mission, past and future

By working to have roads built and maintained, advocating effective laws and educating the public about safe driving practices, the Club has paved the way for motorists for 100 years. Today, AAA’s original purpose remains as central to the Club as it ever was, to make travel and touring safer and more pleasant. It is gratifying to commemorate a century of unbroken, unequaled service to the traveling public.

Yet as members’ needs have changed, so has AAA.

No longer is AAA exclusively an automobile services organization. Although we remain active in every arena that touches motorists, we have expanded our core services beyond automobile travel and roadside assistance. The Club also provides a range of financial services and products, as well as exclusive discounts on a wide variety of retail products and services, including theme park tickets, prescriptions, film developing, hotel stays and much more.

Additionally, members can now access virtually all of AAA services online at www.aaa.com. With a few clicks and keystrokes, members can purchase airline tickets, access safety information, purchase automobile insurance, explore a world of travel information, print TripTiks and learn about a range of retail discounts.

AAA also is helping to develop an in-vehicle navigation system with portable terminals that provide driving directions, indicate to members the exact location of their vehicle on a map display, and allow members to access AAA TourBook guide information. Also, motorists will be able to request Roadside Assistance through the system. Simply by pressing a button, the coordinates of their vehicle’s location will be transmitted to the nearest AAA dispatch center.

For 100 years, the Club has worked hard to build trust, to find new and useful products and services to help members. Service–whether for a member with a Ford Model T or a 2002 Ford Taurus–has remained the impetus behind all we do. Even as we change, we will never lose sight of why we’re changing: to serve the needs of our members. It is an unwavering principle that will continue to shape and guide AAA’s efforts for another 100 years.


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