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Better World Club
January 14, 2003

AAA -- Who Knew?

AAA may be the first name in roadside assistance, but there's more to the century-old automobile association than meets the eye.

An early player in America's Good Roads movement, the organization is now a major force in pushing for more highway spending, fewer pollution controls and less money for mass transit. As investigative journalist Michael Rivlin has written, the 43-million-member-strong organization "is on the record against virtually every proposal for cutting automobile pollution."

This isn't exactly common knowledge. Even Tom Magliozzi, the co-host of NPR's Car Talk, confesses that he "had no idea that part of our AAA dues were being spent on lobbyists who oppose just about everything having to do with public transportation. If AAA thinks that it's a good idea for every single person to get to work in 3,000 pounds of iron, we sure don't want to help support such a silly idea."

A Cooler Alternative?
You don't have to sell your soul for roadside assistance. Better World Club is a Portland, Oregon-based company that offers the same type of services as AAA but with a different agenda. The company donates 1% of revenues to environmental clean-up programs, offers eco-friendly travel alternatives and even takes steps to offset the greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel.

Intrigued, we spoke to Better World's President, Mitchell Rofsky, over the phone from his offices near downtown Portland.

First of all, what's wrong with AAA in your view?

Well, AAA is essentially part of the highway lobby. If you look back at their track record over the last 50 years, they've consistently opposed funding any alternatives to highways and roads. They've never met a road they didn't like, and they've even opposed bicycle paths. At various times, they've also opposed clean air legislation.

And yet most AAA members have no idea that the organization has such a political agenda.

Almost nobody knows it. In fact, if you look at an article that ran in the Amicus Journal, you'll see that AAA goes out of its way not to publicize its political positions. AAA is constantly insisting that they're representing their motorists, but as far as I know they don't ever survey the membership to find out how they feel about the issues. But with 45 million members they have a fair amount of sway with legislators because they can say that they represent all these people. AAA has accused us of lying about their record, but people can go to the same sources we've seen, like the Amicus Journal and the article from Harper's called, "AAA Paves the Road to Hell."

Not to put too fine a point on it.

Yeah, exactly.

So let's talk about Better World and the genesis of the business. How did it start?

It really goes back to when I was working for Ralph Nader in the 70s and Nader at that time felt that AAA had not lived up to its mission of representing motorists. There were a whole bunch of things that Ralph was uncomfortable with. I should add that AAA does a very decent job in lots of areas, including roadside assistance. We're not saying that everything AAA does is horrible, but I believe Ralph felt that they promoted themselves in this "white hat" kind of way that they hadn't completely earned.

And so, from that realization, what was your entrée into the business?

I went from Nader's organization to the National Cooperative Bank where I was running the venture arm of the bank and I lent Working Assets the money to get started. Working Assets then hired me to be president of the mutual fund in 1991 and I was president for a couple of years, and, after they sold the mutual fund management company, I decided to take those socially responsible principles and start applying them to insurance. We launched an insurance agency in Boston in early 1996 where we were working with MassPIRG on group disounts and working to give people information on automobiles, etc., and we gave 1% of our gross to consumer and environmental causes.

Anyway, no sooner did I start that than the environmental community started reporting problems they were having trouble with AAA's lobbying efforts, and they were wondering whether there was anything that we could do. And I thought, gee, that's interesting, because not only did I think AAA's agenda was wrong, but I thought it equally interesting that AAA was this big, stodgy, 1950s-style monopoly, and that, if you could put together their same services, you might actually be able to compete against them. I felt that we could obtain roadside assistance, and I had a foothold in insurance. A friend of mine had been in the travel industry for a couple decades and had built a commercial travel agency up to more than a billion dollars before selling it. So I called him up and eventually we merged our businesses together.

So now that you're up and running, how do you compare? What can AAA do that Better World can't and vice versa?

What I encourage people to do is to go to our site and look at the section on member benefits. See the comparison to AAA? That will give you the most detail. The core services are essentially the same. There are some small differences that I just want to make sure you're aware of.

You won't bail me out of jail, I see.

No, we don't have bail bonds. Surveys indicated that was the least popular of their benefits. And then there's travel accident insurance, and those are about the only major differences between us in terms of roadside assistance.

Well, I think the bottom line question for everyone is, when the car breaks down at some inopportune time and place, will you be there?

The way that works is this: There are six national towing networks in the country, AAA being the most prominent of them. The important point is that these networks are non-exclusive for the most part. The service providers can sign up for any of them, so you're really dealing with the same service providers no matter which network you're with.

So, it shouldn't matter to me as a consumer then. No matter which card I have, the service is the same.

Right, and that's both the good news and the bad news: We're all reliant on the same people across the country. As we all know, sometimes you get good service, sometimes not.

In addition to roadside assistance, AAA also sells insurance…

Yes, and we sell insurance. The difference is that we offset carbon. Whenever anybody buys their auto insurance from us, we offset roughly the first 2,000 miles worth of greenhouse gas generated by their car -- depending on what kind of car it is -- and we give them the opportunity to offset the rest.

Can you explain carbon offsets for us?

Well, it's basically an anti-global warming program. Every time you fly, for example, you're putting almost a ton of greenhouse gas per passenger into the atmosphere. There's nothing we can do to prevent that, so we do the next best thing, which is to offset it. We look for projects that reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, we're giving money to the local school system to undertake various retrofitting projects such as replacing oil furnaces with natural gas furnaces. There's an $11 fee to offset a domestic round-trip ticket, $22 for an international flight, but, if you join the club and you use our agency to book the ticket, we'll offset the carbon for free. We did about 1500 offsets in the first year, and I believe we're the only travel agency certified by the Climate Neutral Network.

What else do you offer?

Well, you get a variety of discounts. We're working all the time to try to expand those, but our favorite discount right now is with EV Rental Car. With EV, not only do we have a standard 15 or 20% discount, but also, if you're a Better World member and you rent one weekend day from them, you get another weekend day free. So, really, if you've never test-driven a hybrid or electric vehicle, this is your opportunity. And it saves you $45, which is just about the price of a basic membership.

What else is in the works?

We're working on other things like a national bicycle pickup service.


Meaning that if you break down on your bike, we'll come get you wherever you are. We hope to announce that within the next month.

But I think the main thing people should remember is that our policy agenda is very different than AAA's. Not only do we not have the road-building agenda that they have but we're also trying to figure out exactly what kind of policies would lead to positive change. You know, we're in the transportation business - along with energy, probably one of the most destructive industries for the environment. The question is: How do we counter that?

One of the things we're trying to do is appeal to legislators here in Oregon to adopt the kind of legislation that just passed in California regarding global warming. As you know, the most far-reaching global warming measures yet taken in the U.S. were just passed in California. And AAA, as you may or may not know, sent letters telling legislators that they had concerns about that legislation. Well, of course, when somebody says they have concerns, that means they're …

They're dead set against it.

You got it.

One last question: If people want to switch over how do they do it?

They can sign up by phone or online. And what people should know is, if they want to cancel their AAA memberships, AAA will given them back their money for the remainder of the year. You can also sign up with us in advance. Let's say your expiration date is coming up in 75 days, you can go on our site and you can schedule it for 76 days from now.

Read the original article on www.sierraclub.org

The Secret Life of AAA, Michael Rivlin, Amicus Journal, Winter 2001.

AAA Paves the Road to Hell, by Ken Silverstein, Harper's, May 2002.

Better World Club/AAA Comparison Chart