Number 51 Night Editor: Mark Dillen
Sunday, November 7, 1971
By RON LANDSMAN
MENTION "TRIPLE-A" to most people and you
conjure up images of valiant tow-truck operat-
ors braving their way through frigid Vermont bliz-
zards to aid " helpless, flustered women stranded
on lonely, unlit country roads late at night.
Or, for others, it might mean sunny vacations
in Acapulco, or pleasant drives in the country, di-
rected by trusty AAA maps and tourbooks,
Or, for still others, it means fairly reliable, rela-
tively inexpensive auto insurance.
On the other hand, the AAA should also conjure up
images of hot, crowded, over-priced subways or
jammed, impassable freeways, because of its unre-
mitting opposition to financial aid for mass transit
that would help ease rush-hour crushes.
Or cities slashed by freeway after freeway because
of the AAA's leading role in the highway lobby and
its long-standing advocacy of the trust fund method
of highway financing, which has put road money be-
yond the reach of government and public alike.
Or over-priced, under-compensating auto insur-
ance, because of its previous indifference and now-
formal opposition to no-fault insurance.
THESE POLICIES, long-known and well-establish-
ed in Washington, were among the reasons Ralph
Nader decided to launch a study of the AAA this
But Nader, who made his name of course as an
advocate of building safety into cars was also put
off by the AAA's apparent lethargy in attacking the
auto safety problem.
With rare exceptions, the AAA and its affiliated
clubs were vocal members of what Nader called the
"Safety Establishment," which for years had blamed
drivers for all highway accidents and deaths, and
had followed ineffectual policies of trying to change
human nature through exhortation rather than alter
the technology itself.
But there were still other reasons to think the
AAA wasn't doing all it could for its more than 13
million members, and auto consumers generally.
Ron Landsman, a first-1-ear law student and for-
aer Daily managing editor, and Walter Shapiro, a
gradztate student in historl and former Daily asso-
(late editorial director, were memibers this suminme r
of a team set up by Ralph Nader to inestigate the
Aierican Automobile Association.
Two of the 235 AAA clubs, in Missouri and
in California, and some of the better European auto
clubs, in England and the Netherlands, offer their
members the kind of technical aid and advice they
need to cope with machines that are far beyond the
competence of the average car owner.
These few clubs have their own staffs of automo-
tive experts, competent to analyze mechanical prob-
lems, the quality of repairs, and the needs for main-
tenance, that auto owners could rely on when con-
fronted with claims of service stations and auto
dealers, unscrupulous, incompetent or otherwise.
Best lines from the AAA
Auto Club of Michigan general manager Fred
Rehm was asked about the possibility of setting
up an auto diagnostic clinic to help members with
their auto maintenance problems.
REHM) Oh, we could never do that, we couldn't
afford it. Why, we'd probably have to hire an ad-
ditional ten or twelve people to run a thing like
LANDSMAN: How many employes do you have
REHM: Three thousand.
AAA clubs have something of a reputation for
nepotism, as Don Ross, a part-time AAA project
worker in Connecticut, discovered. A club general
manager was approached about releasing certain
records as required by Connecticut law:
ROSS: Well, when can we arrange to see the
AAA OFFICIAL: Well, you'll have to talk to the
chairman of our board about that.
ROSS: And when can we see him?
AAA OFFICIAL: Not for a while. Daddy's out
of town right now.
The AAA is the nation's largest single travel
agency, with some $10 million in revenue. So
when environmental affairs director Richard
Curry spoke to AAA officials about the environ-
ment, he urged ". . . there is a definite connection
here between travel and environment ... the more
physically appealing we can make America-the
cleaner the air; the more usable the lakes, rivers
and ocean beaches; the more beautiful the land-
scape, the easier it will be to merchandise the
joys of family travel-by auto-under the benevo-
lent guidance of the AAA"
And more from Curry:
"A community action program in behalf of a
better environment .. . will give you a new mea-
sure of community respect, and a profitable op-
portunity to soft-sell AAA membership to many
of those who never before gave you a serious
FROM CHICAGO TO L.A.
By WALTER SHAPIRO
WHILE RON LANDSMAN was pri-
marily investigating the national
operations of the AAA headquartered
in Washington, I spent most of July
and August studying two of the AAA's
most important local affiliates - the
Chicago Motor Club and the Automobile
Club of Southern California.
Any doubts about the Nader style of
operation were eliminated shortly after
midnight on Sunday July 4 when the
silence of the first few minutes of a pa-
triotic holiday were shattered by the
unexpected jangling of the telephone.
"Hello, is this Walter Shapiro?"
"This is Ralph."
I did not ask "Ralph who?"
The first question was whether I
wanted to go to Chicago. The second
question gave me a pretty accurate in-
dication of my forthcoming expense
budget. Nader asked, "Do you know
anyone there you can stay with?"
Ten days later I found myself in a
somewhat less than lavish student
apartment - slightly off the campus
of the University of Chicago. Although
I had been given almost no specific in-
structions how to single-handedly take
on the 300,000 member Chicago Motor
Club, I was equipped with the names
of about a half dozen people who
"might be helpful" and a suggestion
from Nader to try and locate former
emnlovs nf the Motor Cl'uih
stammered a little, and finally volun-
teered that he "didn't see why anyone
couldn't see them." Fifteen minutes
later the public relations director re-
turned, solicitiously inquired about the
lighting where I was working, pro-
vided me with a typewriter and the
friendly request "to see me if you need
An hour later I was on the street,
without even the satisfaction of having
yelled, "I've been thrown out of better
places than this before." On orders
from Gerald W. Cavanagh, President
asked was whether the Motor Club
would answer the written questions. For
after I had lovingly prepared 111 writ-
ten questions (replete with "if so,
why?" and "if not, why not?" subsec-
tions), the Motor Club delayed until the
end of August before acknowledging
that they would not answer any of them
-even those as routine as the re-
quest for a copy of Club bylaws.
The rather contrived justification
used by the Motor Club for their policy
of total non-cooperation was that Na-
der and I had broken faith by revealing
to the press our squabble with the Chi-
cago Motor Club.
FROM CHICAGO, Nader instructed
me to fly to Los Angeles to under-
take a study of the Automobile Club of
Southern California-which with 1.6
million members is the largest AAA
affiliate. Again I was reminded that
travelling in the public interest does not
easily lend itself to plush hotels and ex-
pensive restaurants. When I-an East-
ern provincial who had never been west
of Chicago in my life-confessed that
I didn't know anyone to stay with in
Los Angeles, I was offered $100 to
cover hotel bills for a stay of two to
Luckily a couch was located for me
somewhere in the midst of the urban
sprawl which is Los Angeles and I was
spared the experience of spending three
weeks in the kind of hotel that pimps
their share of state gasoline tax money
on mass transit-instead of being obli-
gated by law to spend it only on high-
ways and highway repairs.
The AAA and their affiliated motor
clubs have always contended that in the
beginning God had decreed that gaso-
line tax money can only be used for
highways. It was not surprising that
when newspapermen uncovered a $200,-
000 fund designed to defeat the Propo-
sition, the automobile clubs of South-
ern and Northern California were
among the largest contributors.
The Automobile Club of Southern
California-which has historically been
linked with Los Angeles' conservative
business establishment-was reeling un-
der the first major barrage of criticism
in its history when I arrived. Already
facing a lawsuit and feeling that they
could not endure any more hostile pub-
licity, they felt they had no choice but
to cooperate fully with my investiga-
The next two weeks were spent in-
terviewing about 15 high officials of the
Automobile Club. Such a policy of com-
plete candor also has its drawbacks-
as I learned while trying to think of
probing, incisive questions while being
given a leisurely tour of the Automo-
bile Club's auto salvage lot.
'RAPPED IN Los Angeles without a
car and forced to improvise offices
in hotel lobby telephone booths, there
For example, almost every car owner at one time
or another has had the feeling a repair wasn't done
properly, or more was done than was necessary, or
guaranteed warranty work wasn't being done at all.
Where could he turn to for competent, impartial,
In Europe, he could turn to his auto club. Here,
there seemed to be no place to go. Could the AAA
fill that role, should it? It seemed that what the
AAA didn't do that it could was to actually go out
and help its members solve the serious problems they
have with their cars.
These were the policies and practices to be looked
into in a study of the AAA.
THE QUESTION WAS ASKED, often, why t h e
AAA should subject itself to such an investiga-
tion at all. A private, nonprofit organization, un-
touched by public monies, by what logic could any-
one claim the right to investigate it?
The answer is that the AAA is not just anybody,
but a membership corporation claiming to speak
on behalf of more than 13 million people. Is that
claim justified, does the AAA really "represent" all
those people in any realistic sense?
If the AAA were just another road service, travel
agency or insurance company, the issue would hardly
be so salient. But the AAA isn't just another busi-
ness, it is the recognized spokesman of the Amer-
ican auto-consuming public, both by its own claim
and its general reputation, whether that reputation
is deserved or not.
Despite its claim to speak for the American
motoring public, there is no functional way in which
AAA policies or its officials are chosen by its
members, except perhaps in the most cursory way.
The closest thing to representation occurs in some
few chapters where members have voting rights,
but where management holds a majority of those
votes by proxy, as with the Auto Club of New York.
There they make sure members never do much about
it by holding their annual membership meetings on
. , .TWhy should the AAA let itself
be subject to an investigation at
all? ... The AAA claims to speak
on behalf of more than 13 million
people. It is the recognized spokes-
man of the American auto-c o n -
suming public, both by its o w n
("him and by its general reputa-
tion, undeserved though that repu-
tation may be ,. ,
a weekday morning, in midtown Manhattan, during
the last week before Christmas. Even the club of-
ficials must have trouble getting to that meeting.
And there, all the club directors are paid officials
of the club, or retired officials.
Elsewhere, as in Michigan, the club directors just
appoint their own successors, without even the
formality of a vote by the membership. That system
is now under attack in a suit filed in Detroit earlier
first, a rather Quixotic venture - one lone research-
er looking at the 13-million member American Auto-
mobile Association, its 235 affiliated clubs and divi-
sions, thousands of directors and trustees, tens of
thousands of employes and billions of dollars in
The AAA first learned of the investigation when
I met with their national office's public relations,
J. Kay Aldous, whom I would get to know fairly
well as the summer wore on. I returned to Detroit
to spend a few weeks looking at the Auto Club of
Michigan, which with almost a million members is
the AAA's third largest affiliate,
What followed in the succeeding three months
included a number of mistakes on both sides that
led, in August, to their denouncing us and refusing
to continue all further cooperation, such as it was, 4
with the study.
The tough question is, did they feign cooperation at
first for public relations purposes, waiting to de-
nounce the study as soon as the ,opportunity arose,
or were they honestly willing to cooperate, only to
be put off by our techniques and practices to the
point where they honestly thought us dishonest 4
The one serious mistake I made early in the
summer was in not identifying myself as a Nader
investigator when I first went to see the Auto Club
of Michigan, which was silly, if not deceptive, since I
had already done so in Washington.
When they figured out who I was, I was asked to
leave, and no more cooperation was forthcoming.
BUT WHAT FOLLOWED soon after cast serious
doubt on the AAA's good faith in cooperating
with an investigation conducted by people who them-
selves were members of the AAA.
The AAA executive committee met in late June
to set "guidelines" for cooperation with the study.
The researchers, however, were not to be told what
those guidelines were.
The reason for this later became clear. What the
guidelines advised was a policy of apparent coopera-
tion, but actual resistance. Interviews were to be
allowed, but they were to be strictly monitored by
public relations officers. All interviews were to be
limited to one hour, and no tape recorders were to
be permitted. With no tape recorders, the AAA
guidelines said, the interviewers would be too busy
taking notes to be able to cover very much ground
in an hour's time.
It was these guidelines, more than anything else,
that convinced us the AAA would do all it could to
thwart the study. Long before we'd even had a
chance to do the other things they would accuse
us of, usually inaccurately, the AAA had settled on a
policy of opposition.
Aldous, a plodding, slow-moving man who had a
very hard time giving us good reasons why we
couldn't use tape recorders ("Don't you want to re-
cord the interviews yourself, to protect against mis-
quoting?" "I guess we'll just take our chances on
that") ended up being pretty proficient at delaying
most of our requests for interviews and documents.
House documents, speeches to other AAA officials
and internal publications are a great source of in-
formation about organizations. Unlike press releases
and public documents, they are often disingenuously
truthful, and the AAA wanted us to see as few as
The delaying tactic was played out in August.