Amicus Journal: Winter 2001: Feature Story: The Secret Life of AAA
I'm a member of AAA. I've belonged for years. They've towed me from the scene of a wreck. And jump-started the wrecks I usually drive. AAA -- it dropped the name American Automobile Association a couple of years ago -- is my friend on the road and the purported voice of all us American motorists, the self-styled "traveler's champion," the trusted folks 43 million people rely on for maps, insurance, and all things related to travel. It is the second largest membership organization in the country. The only thing bigger is the Catholic Church.
So why do I feel sheepish admitting that I belong?
Because, using its members as collateral, AAA, its local affiliates, and its partners work to influence national law and policy, and not to the good of the planet. AAA weighs in on highway funding, suburban sprawl, mass transit, car design and safety, air pollution, and global warming. Almost without exception, critics say, it advocates policies that damage the environment and endanger health.
"A lot of people belong to AAA because they think it's a nice place to get Triptiks and traveler's checks," says Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "What they don't know is that AAA is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution, and more gas guzzling."
When AAA was founded in 1902, its main business was putting up road signs. Then it started advocating construction of more and better roads. Eventually, it was lobbying in support of the interstate highway system. All the while, AAA was building its franchise, along with the insurance businesses operated by executives of many of the eighty-five independent clubs that make up the AAA federation.
But as America turned its attention to environmental problems, AAA started lobbying to keep the funds raised through gas taxes and tolls -- funds once used exclusively for highway construction -- from being stolen away for public transit or land conservation. Eventually, its mission expanded to the point where the organization was promoting a full-scale transportation policy agenda, one that brings it into direct and frequent conflict with environmentalists.
For example, AAA weighed in against the 1990 Clean Air Act, one of the most important environmental laws of the decade. A press release from its government and public affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., claimed that the bill would "threaten the personal mobility of millions of Americans and jeopardize needed funds for new highway construction and safety improvements."
When New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman proposed raising the state gasoline tax by 7 cents a gallon in 1998, in part for land conservation, the New Jersey AAA affiliate voiced opposition to any gas tax hike. Pamela Fischer, a spokeswoman, told the Associated Press, "Yeah, I'd like to preserve open spaces, but I'm a motorist."
On the subject of highway congestion, AAA can be found on the opposite side of the fence from both environmentalists and urban planners. In recent years, land-use planners have asserted that new roads actually worsen congestion because they open up more land to real estate development, which in turn puts still more cars on the roads. But AAA's position has not substantially changed from the late 1980s. It argues that bottlenecks are a major cause of automobile pollution -- so more roads must be built to eliminate them. Its 1988 "six-point strategy" for relieving congestion relied principally on new highways and outer loops around metropolitan areas. Twelve years and many miles of new road later, with congestion so bad that "road rage" is now part of the national vocabulary, AAA's byword is still "increased roadway capacity." Comments Paul Billings of the American Lung Association, "Building more roads to solve an air pollution problem is like buying a larger pair of pants to solve an obesity problem."
By D.C. standards, AAA and its affiliate clubs aren't movers and shakers. They don't fund TV ads, don't have a PAC, and don't make significant campaign contributions. At one point, the lobbying prowess of the D.C. public affairs office was renowned. After cutbacks a couple of years ago, however, its lobbying staff is small; there are now only twelve people in the entire D.C. office. But what AAA does do very effectively is lend its name, its middle-American respectability, and the moral weight of those 43 million members to its transportation causes.
AAA's critics charge that it takes positions on transportation and the environment largely without the knowledge or permission of its members. AAA does survey its members, both at the national and local level. According to a AAA public relations officer, this information is used to help determine national policy. But environmentalists say the "polls" are designed not to find out what the members are really thinking, but rather to yield results that will back up policy positions the organization has already adopted. These positions are formulated by AAA's public and government relations committee, made up of about twenty top-level executives from the clubs. Final approval is left to delegates from the clubs.
Environmental critics say this process has much to do with the content of AAA's policy agenda. The organization pursues anti-environmental goals, asserts the Sierra Club's Becker, because it has an "unseemly, incestuous relationship" with industry. In fact, though AAA often uses the rhetoric of consumer advocacy -- saying it opposes tailpipe pollution cuts, for instance, because cars will become more expensive -- it keeps unusual company for a consumer organization. The CEO of the national office sits on the boards of a forest products company and a high-tech manufacturing company. Other executives and directors of the national office and the clubs have similar links to big business.
As for the information shared with the rank-and-file members, it is minimal at best. When I told the public relations officer at my affiliate club that I was working on an article about AAA and transportation policy, the membership information she sent me was a booklet that includes a buried reference to AAA's work representing "the interests of motorists and other travelers" on the environment, taxation, and energy. There is no mention of AAA's positions on specific environmental issues.
But since the brochure is clearly far too expensive for mass mailing, most members likely learn even less. Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Air Trust, recalls that his welcome package from AAA Mid-Atlantic included no information about the lobbying work his family's name was being signed to. "We joined because my wife and I wanted to have an insurance policy for roadside travel protection," recalls O'Donnell. "I don't believe most people join AAA to become part of a political movement opposing clean air."
From his office in AAA's public affairs headquarters in D.C. -- an elegant suite appointed with tropical wood furniture and oriental rugs, and so spacious that its reception area alone is larger than the combined offices and work bays of my AAA-approved mechanics -- Stephen Hayes sounds as if he genuinely regrets the fact that most members don't know what he's doing. "In terms of government relations, the awareness is not as high as we would like it to be," says Hayes, who is AAA's managing director of public relations. He is a charming, forthright man, youthful-looking despite his graying hair, dressed with studied casualness in a blue gingham shirt and slacks. As he talks, he constantly clicks his red pen open and shut, though he never writes anything down. AAA, he assures me, tries hard to "represent the broad interests of the motoring public."
But John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City bike and pedestrian advocacy group, winces whenever he hears the affiliated New York Auto Club spokespeople say, "On behalf of our 1 million members."
"People don't join AAA for ideological reasons," says Kaehny. "My parents are AAA members, and when I tell them what the AAA national office does, they go, 'Oh my God, is that true?' And that's the reaction you get from almost everyone."
CLOUDING THE ISSUES
Despite the opposition of the auto and oil lobbies, both gasoline and car engines have become significantly cleaner over the past three decades. By the nineties, autos typically emitted 70 to 90 percent less pollution over their lifetimes than their 1970 counterparts. But there are now many more cars on the road, and an increasingly suburban population is driving longer and longer distances. As a result, cars remain major sources of the smog that still blankets virtually every large city in the United States. During recent summers, smog reached unhealthy levels in thirty-two states, and passenger vehicles were responsible for almost a third of it.
Nevertheless, AAA is on the record against virtually every proposal for cutting automobile pollution.
In 1989, AAA called vapor traps on gas tanks a safety hazard. In 1994, it opposed a move by smogbound eastern states to promote low-polluting cars.
In 1997, it came out against one of the biggest public health initiatives of recent years: new limits on the amount of smog and soot allowed in the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that every year the stricter limits would prevent 15,000 premature deaths, 350,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1 million cases of significantly decreased lung function in children. But at a "clean-air seminar" in Baltimore, Susan G. Pikrallidas, AAA's vice president of public and government relations, declared, "AAA is concerned that some cities might require unprecedented and unwarranted restrictions on motorists to meet the new ozone standard."
Most recently, AAA joined in the fray over EPA's "Tier 2" tailpipe standards, which were approved earlier this year. The Tier 2 Motor Vehicle Emission Standards and Gasoline Sulfur Control Requirements will dramatically reduce the legal limit on tailpipe pollution, including the carbon dioxide that is contributing to global warming.
Stephen Hayes tells me, without hesitation, that his organization supports the goals of the Clean Air Act and Tier 2. But the record says something different.
Last September, when the debate over the Tier 2 proposal was at its height, AAA invited a broad cross-section of the Washington press corps to the official release of its latest report, Clearing the Air. One of the attendees was the Clean Air Trust's Frank O'Donnell, who came uninvited-and quietly handed out his own press release on tailpipe pollution. He watched a parade of AAA speakers attack Tier 2 both implicitly and explicitly. Pikrallidas explained that Clearing the Air was designed to guide EPA's work on the standards. "This study confirms that smog produced by automobiles...does not contribute inordinately to ozone problems in our cities," she said. Most direct was Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic: "We're staring down the barrel at the new air quality standards and at Tier 2," he declared.
The report itself was evidently structured to support its claim that cars were "no longer a major contributor to ozone-causing emissions." It focused only on certain cities, some of which had no air pollution problems whatsoever. And it actually omitted Los Angeles and New York -- two places with some of the worst air pollution in the nation -- as well as Boston, Dallas, Houston, and many other large cities.
Observes Sierra Club's Becker, "it was like the emperor's new report: 'There's no problem here.'"
IN THE GUTTER
No assessment of AAA's environmental agenda is complete without a look at its participation in the American Highway Users Alliance.
For annual dues of somewhere between $25,000 and $49,999, AAA is a patron member of this powerful lobbying group. When Highway Users holds a meeting, it uses AAA's deluxe conference room, and around the table gathers an improbable group with a highly misleading name. AAA and several of its affiliate clubs are the only members of Highway Users with any serious claim to represent ordinary drivers. Among the other members are Ford, General Motors, Goodyear, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Portland Cement Association, the Associated General Contractors of America, and a gaggle of truck and bus companies. More than three-quarters of the group's funding comes from companies that build roads or supply the vehicles and fuels that ply them. The progressive organization Common Cause investigated the biggest PAC donors in the highway lobby during the period 1987-1997, and found that seven of the top ten were members of Highway Users.
When I inquire about AAA's membership in this industry-dominated group, Hayes admits that AAA supports most Highway Users programs. But he insists that it neither signs off on nor agrees with every position Highway Users takes.
Yet by joining the group, AAA has bought itself the services of William D. Fay, president and CEO of the group -- an immensely likable, intelligent, and charismatic Capitol Hill lobbying pro whom Environmental Defense's Michael Replogle describes as " an unrepentant apologist for sprawl and highway transportation. "
Fay, a slender man whose tanned, angular face is dominated by a prominent mustache, is a former conservative Republican congressional staffer. A decade ago, he led a coalition of dirty-air businesses trying to ensure that the provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act would be, he says, " affordable as well as strong. " In fact, says Roy Kienitz of the progressive Surface Transportation Policy Project, behind closed doors Fay fought the new act tooth and nail. In 1995 Fay came to Highway Users, and, with his aggressive approach, reinvigorated what was by all accounts a moribund group. " I don't mind getting in the gutter and battling people, " he says, in his trademark Western twang.
Where Stephen Hayes implies that AAA keeps Highway Users at arm's length, Fay tells a different story. AAA and its affiliate clubs, several of which are also members, " have been among our greatest supporters, because they just love the advocacy, " he tells me. " They love the aggressiveness we've brought to the debates. " According to Fay, the members of Highway Users are usually in agreement. And there has never been an issue in which he has had to pull back or modify his stance because AAA objected.
AAA's presence on Highway Users' roster gives Fay the invaluable ability to preface every statement he makes on Capitol Hill with the claim that he is speaking on behalf of millions of highway users. " AAA has a credibility level that far exceeds mine, " he admits. Comments Kienitz, " AAA is a big part of Highway Users' legitimacy. If you come in and say, 'I'm from the national concrete pavement association and I'm here to tell you what's good for America,' any fool is going to say, 'You're here to tell me what's good for concrete.' "
Highway Users' " freedom of mobility " philosophy is embodied in a 1999 radio commercial that evidently aspired to speak to the nation's soccer moms. " For me and most working mothers, " its voice-over declared, " driving's not an option -- it's a necessity. It's the only way I can work full-time, run errands, and still have time left for Michael's basketball games.... Maybe instead of telling us where and how to live, government should focus on improving roads and making driving easier. "
In Highway Users' view, new, improved, wider roads are safer roads. " Princess Diana died because of bad road design, " Fay tells me. Transportation money spent on anything but roads and road-going vehicles is wasted. (Highway Users does, however, enthusiastically support a road-dependent form of public transit: buses.)
Does AAA really believe its members support this agenda? When I ask Hayes about AAA's strange alliance with an industry lobbying group, he declines to comment.
But later in our conversation, Hayes starts talking about suburban sprawl in language that sounds somehow familiar. " Whatever is done with regard to the congestion-slash-sprawl issue, " he says, " should be done while at the same time trying to preserve mobility. And this is not just a case of the wealthy suburban person.... It's all of us, and a lot of it is the working poor, blue-collar America, the single mom with a couple of kids that has a job and she has to drop somebody off at day care and -- "
At this point, I remember where I've heard this line before. When I tell Hayes he's repeating the Highway Users radio spot, he simply nods.
ROADS TO RUIN
AAA's position on transit isn't monolithic. A small number of AAA affiliate clubs -- such as the Auto Club of New York, with many members from a transit-dependent area -- support funding for buses, subways, and trains. At one point, even Stephen Hayes tells me, "It might surprise people to know we're actually quite supportive of mass transit." But he adds quickly, "One of the harsh realities of American society right now is that the worldwide ridership of mass transit is pretty flat. So the system of highways and bridges and secondary roads is the workhorse of the system, and we feel it's vital that it be properly maintained."
In fact, the idea that roads must always trump transit is a AAA theme. When Kienitz's group issued a report in 1999 on the congestion caused by sprawl, AAA spokesman Bill Jackman commented, "Mass transit and bicycle paths aren't going to make a dent on congestion."
AAA makes these views known whenever Congress debates the law that allocates federal transportation funds to the states. This law was traditionally referred to as "the highway bill" because it sent enormous amounts of federal funding into the highway system. But in 1991, a different version passed -- called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA (pronounced "iced tea"). For the first time, it allowed states and communities to use some of the funds for transit if they wished, as well as urban quality-of-life projects such as bike paths and control of polluted runoff from highways. Pro-transit activists considered it a landmark.
When ISTEA was under debate, John Archer, then managing director of AAA's government affairs office, complained to the Senate that ISTEA would "funnel too many highway dollars to mass transit.... It disregards the value Americans place on automotive travel." Local clubs, including the Auto Club of New York and AAA Mid-Atlantic, spoke out against the bill, saying it would divert funds from safe roads
As for William Fay, he calls ISTEA "probably the lowest point in the highway lobby's history." He adds, "When I was hired, my chief responsibility was to turn that around. They were very clear about that." In 1997, when Congress began considering ISTEA's successor, Fay stepped up to the plate. In testimony before Representative Bud Shuster's (R-PA) committee on transportation and infrastructure, for instance, Fay claimed that without more highway funding, life would be harder for working parents, vacations more expensive, and "medical care less accessible for many rural Americans." Meanwhile, AAA's D.C. office kept up a stream of editorials on the need for highway funding, which it distributed to affiliate clubs for their magazines and newsletters.
When the new funding bill was signed into law in 1998, Fay was delighted. The new law retained the states' ability to fund transit. But it was among the largest infrastructure programs in American history, providing huge sums of new money -- most of it for roads
THE REAL AAA?
Critics see an essential hypocrisy at AAA's heart, for it poses as a consumer advocate yet opposes laws that would lead to cleaner air and a healthier environment for those same consumers. They also cite its history on safety. AAA says it promotes road construction and repair for the sake of its members' safety -- but when it comes to car safety, the story is different.
One of the most notorious examples was the airbag law. AAA came out against mandatory installation of airbags in cars. It released a nationwide survey showing that 67 percent of those questioned preferred laws mandating seat belt use, and started lobbying for those laws in state legislatures, weakening the airbag campaign.
When I ask Stephen Hayes about major safety issues AAA has supported over the years, he tells me all about AAA's school safety patrol. For seventy-five years, AAA has supplied the white sashes and silver badges (each stamped with the AAA logo) worn by 500,000 youngsters while conducting their classmates across the street. It's a laudable, media-friendly program. But it typifies AAA's one-sided approach to the traffic safety equation. When AAA emphasizes school crossings, driver education, and car maintenance, it makes the point that drivers are responsible for safe driving. But for decades, critics have complained that AAA rarely makes the point that manufacturers might be responsible for making safe cars.
The AAA clubs "wouldn't oppose the auto industry if it was the price of their first-born child," claims Ron M. Landsman, who investigated AAA for Ralph Nader in the early 1970s. Nader had noticed that the purported consumer group was absent from discussions on auto design, and he wanted to know why. What Landsman found was that AAA's "institutional history" wouldn't allow it. "They have the same interest in promoting automobiles as the industry does," he says.
This is the view held by the most cynical of AAA's critics: that the school crossing guards, the holiday travel forecasts, the gas price alerts, and all the rest of AAA's media-savvy public affairs advocacy are really one big sophisticated marketing program, designed to build its brand and sell its products.
AAA is big business. It is a not-for-profit organization (though it does pay taxes). Nevertheless, every year the association and its affiliated clubs sell $6 billion worth of insurance, $2.4 billion worth of traveler's checks, and $3.4 billion worth of travel agency services. They book 2 million car rentals and generate $4 billion in credit card transactions. By pursuing the same goals as the auto, oil, and roadbuilding industries, AAA benefits directly. The more cars there are on the roads, and the more roads there are for those cars to travel, the more revenue it earns.
And for this reason, suggests Clarence Ditlow, executive director of Nader's Center for Auto Safety, maybe AAA's dogged opposition to gas tax increases has nothing to do with saving its members money. Maybe it's just because higher gas prices will mean fewer cars on the roads. Maybe it's just business. And maybe that's the reason for AAA's entire political agenda.
Downstairs and around the corner from AAA's public and government affairs office in D.C. sits the commercial side of AAA -- a branch of AAA Mid-Atlantic displaying as much merchandising savvy as any storefront I've ever seen. In the window, cardboard cutouts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse promote Disney World package vacations. Behind a set of gold doors, the store is doing boffo business. There are model tow trucks, luggage, travel irons, thermoses, children's games. Part of it looks like a bank, another area like a travel agency. The place has nothing to do with road safety, and everything to do with marketing.
Nader, says Ron Landsman, was angry because AAA -- ideally positioned to lead the consumer battle for car safety and good transportation planning -- never joined in.
But Landsman thinks Nader simply misunderstood what he was dealing with. "There was never much of an opportunity" to work with AAA, he says. "It's always been a wolf in sheep's clothing."