AAA Emergency Road Service helped more than 3 million members in Northern California, Nevada, and Utah last year—an average of six per minute, 24 hours a day.
Flat tire? Dead battery? No problem. Emergency Road Service aims to have you on your way as quickly as possible. Park your car underwater? Wildlife in the dash? ERS does its best to rise to whatever challenge comes its way:
- One member complained of an infestation of mice, which had built nests beneath the dashboard. A team of ERS specialists exterminated the problem.
- A routine gasoline delivery took an odd turn when the member’s son took the fuel and doused his mother. The ERS operator called for help, then held the son in a full nelson until authorities arrived.
- A houseboat dweller whose car had inadvertently been parked underwater called for help in getting the car started. With the help of divers, the ERS operator did manage to get the car to shore—but starting it proved beyond even ERS.
Roadside service isn’t all submerged cars, ungrateful offspring, and wayward animals, however. Last year, ERS operators answered calls from 606,000 members stranded by dead batteries, 369,000 stopped by flat tires, and 573,000 who were locked out of their cars. They towed 1,248,000 vehicles. Necessity was the mother of ERS—the members needed it and so did the auto club.
In the Beginning
"Any institution that is progressing must constantlyembark upon new enterprises, otherwise it ceases to grow and becomes stale." That may sound like an also-ran in the annual Harvard Business School Cliché Festival, but it actually was reason number five in Clarke Cottrell’s 1923 report on why the CSAA should offer ERS.
The auto club had been doing very well since its incorporation in 1907. It had championed road improvement (Cottrell was head of the club’s Good Roads Bureau), created maps, given touring advice, and fought for just motoring laws. Auto insurance, the young club’s bread-and-butter service, had arrived in 1914.
Then, as now, high rates made auto insurance controversial. When motoring was new, insurance companies had no loss experience on which to base premiums, so they charged rates impressive even by modern standards. CSAA met the need for reasonably priced auto insurance by selling it at cost. People responded by becoming members in large numbers.
But as Cottrell noted, the club "had all its eggs in one basket" and danger of upset was at hand: The big insurance companies were threatening to rationalize their rates. Furthermore, a competing auto club that had both tow service and a smaller fee was being organized.
Cottrell found a silver lining. He suggested "the necessity of inaugurating, as quickly as practicable, some important new personal, ‘selfish’ direct service to members." ERS, he proposed, was the perfect answer.
"Increasing our service until no motorist can afford not to belong," said Cottrell, was the chief reason to initiate road service. Moreover, he concluded, ERS would "pay for itself in the way of increased membership income." In February 1924, the CSAA Board of Directors voted to offer ERS as a member benefit.
The Way We Were
ERS was not a new concept. Several other AAA-affiliated clubs already offered it. And, since 1922, CSAA itself had been operating a limited form of roadside assistance: free towing for members traveling to or from the Yosemite Valley on the Wawona and Big Oak Flat roads.
There were two tow camps at first, then, briefly, three. And they were camps—tow car operators lived in tents. The fleet consisted of tow cars converted from used Alco touring cars.
George "Doc" Bergst ran the Wawona tow camp. "Lots of people with big cars could get by all right," he recalled in a 1994 interview. "But people with smaller cars had trouble. It was coming down the mountain that was the problem. They were scared to drive it, so I had to hook them on the tow car and take them down." Bergst lived in two tents at the camp with his wife and daughter. "We were there mainly to help out," he remembered. "I loved it; we had a wonderful time."
April Fools’ Day, 1924
Limited, seasonal roadside assistance near Yosemite was a far cry from what Cottrell had in mind. He visited clubs that offered road service, analyzed their methods, and devised the rules for CSAA’s own version.
A crucial preliminary step was taken in February 1924, when the club hired 43-year-old Louis P. Signer, described in Motorland(VIA’s predecessor magazine) as a "well-known Pacific coast service expert," to organize and head the new service. His résumé included experience as a service executive with Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, and Lincoln. At CSAA, he moved quickly.
The next month, Motorland announced: "Taking the Grief Out of Motoring: Automobile Association Will Operate Free Emergency Road Service for Its Members." Motoring grief was scheduled for banishment on April 1.
Feeling Their Way
An early restriction that didn’t last was one that limited tire changing service to women "traveling unescorted" and to disabled men. This proved both unpopular and futile. "Men would hide in the bushes or behind a billboard, leaving the lady, who didn’t know how to drive, behind the wheel," recalls George Conway, who began his CSAA career in 1924. "If the tow car driver was feeling mischievous, he might decide to sit there and watch the lady try to drive the car." Gender equality arrived in March 1929, when CSAA’s Board voted to have ERS change tires for able-bodied men, too.
Despite hard times in the 1930s, ERS service was expanded worldwide and extended to small trucks. World War II brought restrictions on towing distance. After the war, service expanded again, and dispatching became faster with the advent of two-way radios.
A Day in the Life
Higinio Arao Jr.—a man called June—has been helping stranded auto club members for six years. This day, as he pulls out of the garage, heading for the center of his service territory in southeast San Francisco, the first call appears on the small, green Mentor computer screen on the dash. There’s an elderly Volvo in Noe Valley, code "T-5" (can’t start). After a brief conference with the owner, June sizes up the car, secures its rear wheels, and tows it to a garage.
Next: a Saturn with electrical problems. He finds it not stalled by the road, but home in its own garage. The owner wants it taken to a nearby Shell station. So June pushes it into the street and tows it away.
About 40 percent of ERS calls end up as tows. The rest are service calls—flat tires, lockouts, dead batteries, empty gas tanks—for problems that are fixed on the spot.
Mentor suddenly springs to life: gold Aerostar with a flat. June’s nearly there when Mentor delivers the news that the call has been canceled. The same happens with a white Astro van, followed by a call to help a purple Caddy. In each case, Mentor calls off the mission en route. Perhaps the member fixed the problem without help, or maybe another AAA truck got there first.
Then a Ford van with a "T-1" (flat tire) code. This one stays put. June confers briefly with the owner, jacks up the van and installs the spare with economy of movement that would charm a time-and-motion man. Then it’s off to jump- start a Toronado.
Operators get half an hour for lunch, unless a call comes in. Today, lunch ends with a call to tow a pickup.
A blue Nissan (flat tire) and a red pickup with transmission trouble round out the day. During the final half hour, he parks, waiting for Mentor to assign another call. The screen stays blank. So it’s back to the garage.
"What I learned from my predecessors," says CSAA’s current field operations manager, Jim LaCunha, "is that they selected stations not only on their ability to provide service, but on the basis of the quality and character of the people they contracted with. And that’s the way we still do it."
Stations serving rural areas tend to have fewer calls but much greater distances to send tow trucks and some special problems, like unpaved roads and getting a fix on where the stranded car is.
Alan Cain’s Pioneer Auto Body, Inc. serves Modoc County in northeast California and the neighboring area of Nevada. "Service calls can be 50 or 60 miles from here, half of it on dirt roads," he says. "I know every bit of this county, and I’m becoming familiar with Washoe County. But lots of times visitors have no idea where they are. It’s important to use a map and keep track of road numbers. Being able to cite nearby landmarks helps ERS find you."
Marlin and Kris Hanneman have been operating Hanneman’s Service in Fernley, Nevada, for more than 40 years. "It’s a long way between towns around here; a 100-mile tow is real common," Kris says. "Being stranded on the desert is no joke. One guy recently left his vehicle and set out to get to a phone. He couldn’t tell us where his car was, except that it was near a mountain. We looked for six hours before we found it."
Big Changes on the Way
New technology is making new ERS services possible. Some will be available this year, others within two to three years. It will be possible for a system to pinpoint your location and dispatch the nearest ERS truck when you push your cell phone’s AAA button. Remote accident detection will tell ERS when your car is in an accident and pinpoint the location so help can be dispatched. Remote theft detection will alert a system when your car is operated without the proper code having been entered, and it will pinpoint the car’s location. It will be possible to unlock cars remotely using satellite technology, and even monitor a vehicle’s performance—allowing ERS to warn a driver, via cell phone, of impending trouble with the vehicle. Navigation, weather, and traffic information also will be available to you as you drive.
Illustration by W. A. Sperry
This article was first published in May 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.