- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

HEATHROW, Fla. Ours was a nation of dirt roads when the American Automobile Association formed a century ago.

Coast to coast, there were only about 23,000 automobiles bumping along at the time, and it would be another year before an engineer named Henry Ford would start his own company in Detroit with the goal of making motorcars accessible to every American.

As the AAA celebrated its 100th anniversary last Monday, the nonprofit group boasted 45 million members and an agenda far wider than the one it started with: improving the roadways of America.

AAA is involved in driver safety, insurance, road service, lobbying, tour books and road maps.

It operates the largest leisure-travel agency in the nation.

Later this month it will offer an improved Internet site for its members, who pay $34 to $74 a year in dues.

"It's an important source of comfort and reassurance for people using their cars," said Michael S. Flynn, associate director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

AAA was formed in Chicago by nine regional auto clubs in 1902. At the time, U.S. motorists 1,500 of them AAA members were clamoring for better roads.

State legislatures had appropriated money for road construction during the previous decade, "but these state roads didn't connect," said David Lewis, a business history professor at the University of Michigan. "They needed a national movement."

AAA championed the Good Roads Bill of 1903, which established the Bureau of Public Roads, currently the Department of Transportation, and later pushed for the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1916, which required the federal government to build and improve roads.

"Everyone realized … that with better roads everything else would follow. Cars could be used year-round. It would generate tourism and commerce," Mr. Lewis said.

"AAA can claim a lot of credit for having developed the tourism industry in the United States and promoting it."

Other services followed.

AAA issued its first map in 1905: the streets of Staten Island, N.Y., drawn in ink on linen.

In 1911, it produced its first booklet of strip maps a precursor to its famous TripTik routing guides detailing a route from New York to Jacksonville, Fla.

Emergency road service was started in 1915 in St. Louis, where mechanics on motorcycles went to the aid of stranded motorists.

AAA's first hotel directory was published in 1916, and its first camping book came out in 1920. The same year, AAA set up its first school safety patrol program.

"Those things we've done where we've enabled people to avoid a tragic accident, I would consider to be the most important things we do," said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA's president and CEO.

The AAA's inspections of lodgings and restaurants were started in 1937.

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