Auto insurance is mandatory in most places in the United States. It seems obvious on the surface: when you’re driving a few thousand pounds of metal and glass around at several dozen miles per hour, it’s nice to be protected.
But what if you could offer more protection for your vehicle? And not just the monetary protection that auto insurance affords, but protection in the form of convenience and peace of mind when something, even something as small as a flat tire, inevitably goes wrong with your vehicle?
That’s where AAA – the American Automobile Association – comes in. AAA is a nationwide collective of motor clubs with over 55 million members across the country and has been a staple of the American automotive industry for over a century.
But if you’re not a member, you might not know exactly what AAA is, or what it offers. The organization has stayed relevant throughout the evolution of car travel and offers a lot of bang for the buck of modern drivers.
The history of AAA
AAA is synonymous with driving in America because the organization has been around for nearly as long as the horseless carriage – or, as you probably better know it, the car.
Founded in 1902, AAA has been about supporting drivers from the very beginning. As you can imagine, a lot of the travel infrastructure was centered around the horse and carriage at the time because there hadn’t been a need for roads to support anything else. One of AAA’s first tasks – after it was formed from the combination of several other motor clubs – was working to improve roads for automobiles.
Another early innovation that AAA helped usher in was the prominence of roadmaps. The organization was one of the first to make maps for automobilists.
In the first half of the 20th century, AAA showed a lot of support to America during wartimes. During World War I, AAA helped train drivers and mechanics and got road information, especially near coasts, for military purposes as "a measure of preparedness for any emergency that should arise."
That continued during World War II, when AAA played a big role in conservation efforts that swept the country. AAA urged people to conserve fuel by reducing their driving speed, and supported synthetic rubber and scrap rubber collection.
Even if you aren’t a AAA member (or weren’t alive during a World War) there’s a good chance you’ve been affected by them. AAA has participated in transportation legislation over the decades, helping shape the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, both passed in 1966. These acts set the stage for road and car safety standards that are still used today.
More recently, they’ve been involved in issues such as speed limits, toll amounts, and speed cameras and red light cameras. Regardless of how you feel about some of these (red light cameras went out of fashion nearly as quickly as they were installed thanks to issues like inefficiency and bribery), there’s no denying that AAA has shaped the way we drive for the past 100 years.
AAA has been important in a "laid the groundwork for modern automobile travel" kind of way. But it’s a membership organization. Do dues-paying citizens get anything by actually being a member?
Turns out, you get a whole lot, and typically for well under $100 per year.
(This is where we throw in the caveat that because AAA is a collection of regional branches, specific costs and membership benefits may change from place to place).
One of the most famous AAA perks is their roadside assistance services. Car died? Get free towing (for a limited number of miles – they’re not made of money). Battery need a jump? AAA will send someone your way. Blown tire? Someone will come change it for you (although that’s really a skill everyone should have). They’ll even deliver fuel to you so you can get your vehicle to where it needs to be. No matter how you find yourself stuck on the side of the road, AAA will typically be able to help out for free or for cheap.
Need a new battery? AAA will come to you to test your battery, replace it with a new warranty-protected battery, and recycle the old one, continuing those conservation efforts they demonstrated during wartime.
One of the most important – and hardest – things to find in life is a good mechanic. Finding someone you trust, who does good work, and who won’t rip you off is tough. Luckily for AAA members, their list of approved auto repair shops are vetted and rated so you have the best experience possible. Plus, you can get discounts at approved shops for certain work done on your vehicle.
If travel is your thing, AAA provides guides, information, and planning help, along with helpful resources like tickets and travel insurance.
In one of our favorite topics around here, AAA also offers various different insurance products. Auto insurance is the obvious offering, but you can also get insurance for other vehicles, as well as home insurance, pet insurance, and life insurance.
Even if you never use any of AAA’s car-related services, you still might be able to justify membership costs thanks to discounts you can get on other products. Event tickets, membership and entry to places like museums, and products such as Dell computers, Adidas apparel, and TurboTax software can all be had for a discount for AAA members.
So is AAA membership worth it? With a basic membership costing around $50-$75 annually (plus a discounted membership price for other members of your household), and with all of the benefits you get from being a member, it’s hard to argue that any car owner should opt out. Using a free tow one time during the year can practically make up for the membership cost itself.
But AAA, like auto (or any) insurance, shouldn’t be about recouping your cost. You wouldn’t buy auto insurance and hope you get into enough accidents to justify your premiums; you get insurance in case you get into an accident.
AAA should be looked at the same way. Will you use all of the membership perks? Maybe not. Maybe you won’t use any. But if you can get some peace of mind by knowing that you’re covered if something bad happens, it’s worth looking into.
Image: AAA Traffic Safety