Automobile associations evolved in the early 1900s to provide advocacy, assistance and information for motorists in an era when good drivable roads were rare, maps and travel information were scarce and "the infernal contraption" which would become the motorcar was being targeted with ever-increasing government regulation lest it frighten the horses or kill pedestrians.
The AAA (United States of America) and AA (United Kingdom) were founded in 1902 and 1905 respectively, at a time when the motorcar was a novelty and good roads were rare. The AAA was founded by a group of individual local city motor clubs in response to a lack of roads and highways suitable for motorcars. The AA was founded in response to the 1903 Motor Car Act's harsh penalties for motorists, which included possible jail terms for speeding and other driving offences. Most early automobile associations began not as for-profit companies but as groups created to provide services to their members.
Their early tasks included publishing the first road maps, marking highways and implementing road safety programs. AA introduced a Members' Special Handbook with a list of nationwide agents and mechanics in 1908; they introduced ratings for restaurants and lodging in 1912. AAA began printing hotel guides in 1917. Automobile associations also provided vehicle inspections or lists of approved repair garages.
After World War II, roadside assistance (such as a night-time breakdown and recovery service launched by AA in London in 1949) became one of the most important core functions of the auto clubs. The AA began selling insurance in 1967; many auto clubs are also full-fledged travel agencies selling everything from luggage to air travel.
While many of the original motor leagues are (or were) not-for-profit service organisations, companies which sell roadside assistance plans on a for-profit basis (such as the Dominion Automobile Association in Canada) do compete directly with the motor clubs. In some cases (RAC Motoring Services in the UK in particular) what was once a not-for-profit service club has been demutualised or its core functions sold to become a for-profit corporation.
While services provided by individual motor clubs vary, most offer roadside assistance and provide printed road maps and guidebooks to their members at no additional cost.
An automobile association is usually the first place to enquire for information on obtaining a Carnet de Passages or an international drivers' license. Other common services include a travel agency and passport photos, travellers cheques and currency exchange, advocacy for safer roads and discounts at motor inns and lodges. Driver training and vehicle inspection may be provided, or membership may allow the motorist a discount on these services from approved vendors.
Some sell luggage or clothing for travel, some sell insurance or financial services; in the United States of America the AAA may provide a bail bondsman for members charged with minor out-of-state traffic offences, while in Germany the ADAC provides medical evacuation (by aircraft, if necessary) to members in an emergency. An automobile association may also produce a list of inspected, approved repair facilities; this effort is usually independent of the motor club's inspection and rating of the hotels and restaurants in its guidebooks.
Various motor clubs or automobile associations provide roadside assistance to members:
- Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC) in Germany
- The Automobile Association (AA) in the United Kingdom and AA in Ireland
- Royal Automobile Association or Royal Automobile Club (RAA, RAC) in individual Australian states, AA in New Zealand
- Canadian Automobile Association and American Automobile Association in North America
A membership card is issued for an annual fee. If you break down, call the number provided by the automobile association (such as *CAA or +1-800-AAA-HELP for CAA/AAA members); the motoring club usually has some existing arrangement with a local tow company at a station rate which is cheaper than what a tow company would charge if you (or worse, the police) call them directly while you are stranded at roadside.
Roadside assistance services may include jump-starting or towing a vehicle, installing a spare tyre, providing a small amount of fuel when a vehicle runs dry, extricating a vehicle that is stuck in snow or assisting motorists who inadvertently lock their keys in the vehicle.
Often, members of one automobile association can obtain roadside assistance from a partner organisation in another country if a vehicle breaks down while abroad; for instance, an ADAC member could obtain AA assistance in the UK or CAA/AAA assistance in North America. Where the coverage applies to the driver (and not a specific vehicle), the roadside assistance remains available when behind the wheel of a hire or rental car.
Limits on exactly what is covered vary between roadside assistance plans; most include a limited number of tow calls at no charge over a limited distance at no extra cost. A higher (more expensive) level of coverage will usually relax these limits.
Recreational vehicles and caravans
Obtaining roadside assistance for "motor caravan" or "recreational vehicle" (RV) campers may be awkward; while a small camping trailer is relatively easy to separate from its tow vehicle in the event of roadside breakdown, a truck-sized motorhome is a one-piece rig which requires specialised equipment to tow and recover. Not all caravan clubs or associations can provide roadside assistance, although a few (like the Motor Caravan Club of Ireland, Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA) or the Caravan Club in the United Kingdom) resell commercial insurance from third-party underwriters. In the USA, the for-profit Good Sam Club provides roadside assistance for RV'ers. Even if your vehicle can be detached from a trailer-style camper, not all roadside assistance plans provide a tow vehicle for both the disabled vehicle and the trailer; if you don't have the extra coverage, your camper might be left behind at roadside until the main vehicle is drivable again.
In some countries more than one automobile association exists. This is often due to the political efforts of automobile associations that have been construed as being "lobbying" for cars, roads and fossil dependency. Therefore motorist-clubs of this vein tend to market themselves as "green" and de-emphasize the word "car" in their name. One example is the Verkehrsclub Deutschland. Similarly named associations exist throughout Europe, as well as the Better World Club in the United States. While their services are often similar to those of "traditional" automobile associations, they may be cheaper if you drive less or have a more eco-friendly car. Furthermore they offer more resources geared towards alternatives to cars, e.g. maps for cycling trips. Some also offer assistance for cyclists but, if you are an avid cyclist, membership in a cyclist association might be a better idea.