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Roadside Rescue

AAA has been helping stranded motorists for 100 years.

Shortly after the automobile was invented came another development: the breakdown. Ever since there have been cars, there has been car trouble–flat tires, dead batteries, blown engines, and more. Especially during the infancy of automobiles when cars were relatively unreliable contraptions, drivers have needed someone to call on for help.


Above: The original five “First Aid Corps” members in 1915, AAA’s first emergency road service providers.

Below: Mechanics on motorcycles provided roadside assistance for several years before AAA began contracting with tow operators. AAA file photos

road service

Your AAA club became that someone when it introduced its best-known product–roadside assistance service–100 years ago this spring.

Today, AAA is the largest provider of roadside assistance in the world, responding to more than 30 million calls for help each year, with AAA Missouri handling more than 660,000 of those in its seven-state region, which includes Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and a portion of eastern Kansas. Roadside assistance is now offered to AAA’s 54 million members across the United States and Canada.

“We’re proud of our place in history for coming to the aid of motorists for a century,” said Bret Golden, vice president of Member Services for AAA Missouri. “It’s remarkable how we began and how far we’ve come in helping our members on the side of the road.”

The beginnings of emergency road service for AAA clubs nationwide began in April of 1915 when the Automobile Club of St. Louis–as it was known before it became AAA Missouri–launched its “First Aid Corps.” The club sent mechanics on motorcycles to assist stranded motorists throughout St. Louis County each Sunday, assisting them with engine, tire, and other problems for free. They even assisted non-AAA members.

“This club’s service corps has been so helpful to motorists in trouble on Sundays,” said Edward M. Flesh, president of the club at the time, “that the club is seriously thinking of sending the first aid men out on Saturdays, too.”

On the first day, the group assisted 24 motorists, and by the end of the first month, they had helped 171. Some of those first drivers were so pleased with the new service that they wrote AAA to express their appreciation, including Carl Simons who was the manager of the St. Louis branch of the Studebaker Corp.

“I don’t know who was the originator of this service idea, but it is the most splendid feature we can call to the attention of prospective (AAA) members, and you may rest assured that every purchaser of a Studebaker car will be solicited by me personally to become a member of the St. Louis Automobile Club,” he wrote after his inner tube was repaired by one of the mechanics.

Motorists were enamored with the new service because prior to that, they often had to rely on kindly farmers willing to use their horses to pull their cars out of the mud or tow them back to town if the engine died, which was a frequent occurrence. Some farmers even planted glass or other sharp objects in the road so they could make some extra money from unsuspecting drivers who needed their “help.”


Soon after AAA Missouri introduced roadside service, other AAA clubs across the country realized the tremendous benefit of helping members on the road and began offering the services. AAA’s trusted network of emergency road service professionals was born. Eventually, offering roadside assistance became mandatory for all AAA clubs.

By the end of 1920, AAA Missouri had begun accepting emergency road service calls from members, rather than just sending out the “First Aid Corps.” And the club began staying open 24 hours a day to handle the service calls.

Around the same time, AAA Missouri began putting garages under contract for rendering towing service to members, a system that is used nationwide with more than 14,000 independently owned towing services coordinated through a network of more than 50 AAA call centers across the country.

Additionally, AAA Missouri has its own fleet of light service and heavy-duty trucks to handle any type of road service call. The goal of every call is to get the disabled vehicle on the go rather than tow it, which AAA is able to do 60 percent of the time.

One way AAA gets members on the go is through a mobile battery testing and replacement program, which has been one of AAA’s most convenient services in recent years. Now AAA is even selling batteries through select Approved Auto Repair shops, which are repair facilities recommended by AAA for their quality service.

Through the years, innovations in technology have sped the delivery of roadside assistance. 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 center is technologically advanced. AAA pioneered the use of radio dispatching immediately after World War II, and in recent years, AAA has implemented computer-based systems to communicate with drivers even more efficiently.

Call takers now enter information into a dispatching system that tracks each call and monitors the progress until the stranded motorist is assisted. Members receive calls or texts to keep them updated on the location of the tow driver, easing the member’s anxiety on the roadside.

Whether it’s replacing a battery, pulling a vehicle out of a snowy ditch, or towing a car for repairs, AAA is always there for members when they need help. Begun a century ago, providing fast, friendly, and trusted service is AAA’s mission.

“We strive to get to the scene as quickly as possible because we know that members feel vulnerable and frustrated when their cars stop running, even if it’s in their own driveway,” said Golden. “No matter the location or time of day or the weather conditions, we’re there for them, and we will be for the next 100 years and beyond.”

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of the AAA Midwest Traveler magazine.

March/April 2015 Issue


AAA rounds up used batteries

When AAA helps members through its mobile battery testing and replacement service, it is also helping the planet by recycling the batteries we replace at the roadside.

AAA takes that year-round collection a step further each spring with the AAA Great Battery Roundup® campaign, held this year April 20–24. The public is encouraged to round up the millions of used lead-acid batteries that are sitting in garages, basements, and sheds for recycling, including truck, car, motorcycle, and boat batteries.

A lead-acid battery contains 21 pounds of lead, three pounds of plastic, and one gallon of sulfuric acid, all of which can be recycled. These batteries can be hazardous to people and can pollute soil and groundwater.

During this week, bring your batteries to participating AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) facilities for recycling. For a list of participating AAR shops, call (800) 222-7623, ext. 8161.

battery service

AAA’s mobile battery testing and replacement service is one of its most convenient services.

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