Did You Know AAA Is Bad for the Environment? But You Can Get Green Roadside Assistance

When it comes to roadside assistance, most Americans don't even think twice before making a decision. AAA has been around since 1902 and is the leading auto club in the country. But AAA, who did well to focus on roadway safety reform through the 1940s, is isolating many consumers due to its stance on a more current safety issue: the environment. Now one company, with a business strategy built around being environmentally conscious, is hoping to entice American car owners by offering a greener form of roadside assistance.

Daniel Becker, Sierra Club's director of global warming and energy program, is worried that most AAA members don't know that the organization "is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution, and more gas guzzling." AAA is a member of the auto-industry backed American Highway Users Alliance, a group known for its love of laying new pavement. AAA's work with the AHUA isn't something it advertises with its members. Nor was the fact that AAA came out against the Clean Air Act back in 1990.

In fact most members don't know that AAA is involved in lobbying at all; but the group has a history of siding against everything from open-space measures, to public transportation funding, to the regulation of auto emissions.

In 2006 AAA's largest club, the Automobile Club of Southern California, worked against Prop. 87. The proposition would have established a "$4 billion program to reduce petroleum consumption (in California) by 25 percent, with research and production incentives for alternative energy, alternative energy vehicles, energy efficient technologies, and for education and training." The funding for the program would have been a gas tax, not on consumers at the pump, but on the "producers of oil extracted in California." Prop. 87 went on to specifically say that any additional costs would "not be passed on to consumers through higher prices for oil, gasoline or diesel fuel." Thomas McKernan, president and CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA), knew that but still did his best to scare voters by stating:

Gasoline prices in California are high enough already. Proposition 87 would just add insult to injury. This $4 billion oil tax would result in even higher gas prices at the pump. We recommend drivers vote: NO on 87.
Prop. 87 failed by a slim margin. And you can bet a lot of people that voted to pass it were card-carrying members of AAA who had no idea that their auto-club was campaigning against the proposition with their own membership dues.

Given AAA's lobbying record it was only a matter of time before someone started taking notice and offering an alternative. Better World Club started signing members in 2002, and although its membership of 25,000 people is small when compared with AAA's 46 million, it is the fastest growing auto club in the country. Mitch Rofsky, Better World Club's president, asks, "Is AAA's policy agenda your agenda? Did you even know that AAA had a policy agenda?" Rofsky believes that his company will be able to capture many of AAA's eco-conscious members by "balancing (Better World Club's) economic goals with social and environmental responsibility."

Putting their money where their mouth is
Better World Club donates 1 percent of its revenues, $10,000 to $15,000 annually, to organizations that take action and advocate on behalf of the environment. For example it recently donated money to fund motion-sensor lighting in Portland Oregon's public schools; the sensors will reduce energy use and cut utility prices. Just this month Better World Club made a donation to LiveNeutral, a group that fosters "education and action around the imminent problems of greenhouse gas emissions."

Offsetting carbon footprints, doesn't that sound like something your auto club should be concerned with? And keep in mind that this is all with only 25,000 members. Imagine the amount of money Better World Club would be donating if it captured just 1 percent (430,000) of AAA's membership. Now imagine 5, 10 or 15 percent. The potential is exciting.

The eco-aware business plan doesn't stop at the donations, though. Discounts are offered to hybrid vehicle owners, and carbon offsets are offered to all members. "Our pricing is based on the cost to the environment, not the cost of service," Rofsky is proud to say. It works out nicely that the pricing comes in at the same as, or in some cases cheaper than, AAA. That is unless you drive one of the 15 vehicles on Better World Club's "gas guzzlers" list. Owners of vehicles on that list, which is cumulatively compiled based on government reports for the three most gas inefficient automobiles, get a 20 percent surcharge (all of which goes to group donations). This year's inductees include the Bentley Azure, the Lamborghini Marcielago, and the Bentley Arange RL, as well as an honorary mention for the Hummer H2. The folks at Better World Club believe that the surcharge is a small price to pay for the owners of these cars (which get 9 to 11 miles per gallon) to sleep a little easier at night.

Better World Club encourages people that don't drive everywhere too, offering the nation's first and only bicycle roadside assistance plan. Members who bust a chain, pop a tire, or run into any other bicycle related mishap will be picked up and driven anywhere they want to go (home, nearest bike shop, a hotel, etc.) up to 30 miles away. Members can add the bicycle plan to their existing roadside service package, or individuals can sign up for the plan independent of the car service (which is great for those of us who don't have automobiles). The bicycle plan is more popular than Rofsky originally anticipated, with 10 percent of Better World Club's members signed up for the service. With two free service calls annually, the bicycle roadside assistance plan is perfect for pedal-pushing commuters or those who are planning a long bike trip.

All that forward thinking stuff aside, it should also be mentioned that the Better World Club's roadside assistance plan is just as good as AAA. To quote the gear-head hosts of NPR's popular show Car Talk: "Roadside assistance works something like medical insurance these days." Different roadside assistance providers (AAA, Better World Club) work with the same garages in the same geographical locations, just like different insurance providers work with the same hospitals and doctors. So Better World Club's network is extremely similar to AAA's. The guys at Car Talk have also endorsed Better World Club as an efficient roadside assistance alternative, stating: "Personally, we like Better World Club because, unlike AAA, it doesn't use your membership money to lobby for roadways and against mass transit."

So far Rofsky's business model seems to be working. With roadside assistance as good as AAA, new membership prices lower than or priced to match AAA, and a family plan that covers not just spouses and children but also domestic partners (AAA doesn't recognize domestic partners as members of the family), it's hard not to agree. Perhaps in the future we won't need auto clubs at all, but until then it's good to know that ecoconscious drivers have a Better World Club as an option.

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