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Youíre driving along the highway when without warning you feel the steering wheel shake, a weird hissing noise follows, and then the wheel cover on your front tire breaks loose. The wheel cover rolls ahead of your car while you slow down due to a quickly deflating tire. Once you are safely to the side of the road you have a couple of options: get the spare out, jack the car up and change it yourself, or call a tow truck out and have them perform this errand of mercy--for a price of course.

If you are fortunate enough to be carrying a membership card to one of the companies that offers emergency roadside service, a call for a tow truck and someone to help you change the tire would seem a lot easier than doing it yourself. And in the long run, it might even be less expensive than paying for the services of a person you donít know, and more than likely, will never see again.

Motorists organizations offering roadside emergency services have been around almost since the day the first cars were out on the highways. A lot has changed in the past hundred years, and today there are several major companies out there for motorists to turn to in case of a breakdown or other minor motoring mishap. As a side benefit, some of the groups offer a wide variety of other incentives. Some clubs offer to handle registration and renewal problems, planning a trip with maps, trip outlines, and free or reduced rate travelers checks.

Without a doubt, the largest and best known organization in the United States to help stranded motorists is the AAA. Officially known as the American Automobile Association, this giant corporation offers not only assistance when a crisis arises, but also a number of previously mentioned services and many more such as providing passport photos and special insurance programs. Useful services such as trip planning or free tour books and maps are other benefits that make being a member of "Triple-A" worthwhile.

As large and comprehensive as the AAA is, there are competitors out there. The United States Auto Club-Motoring Division offers many services in addition to its roadside aid. Where the AAA depends on a number of locally run "clubs" or "exchanges", the USAC-MD people rely on marketing their services through major retail outlets such as oil companies or large chain department stores.

J.C. Penney offers a plan called the Motoring Plus Program through its hundreds of retail outlets. In addition to roadside services, Penneyís program also offers travel help, map books and numerous other benefits for its members.

Another program is available through Mobil Oil Co. Called the Mobil Auto Club, it is actually administered by the Montgomery Ward Auto Club. Many manufacturer and roadside assistance programs are also administered by other companies. For a listing of other clubs see the sidebar in this article.

Buyer Beware

Ok, we know the advantages of being a protection plan member, but what should we look out for? What are some of the drawbacks?

There are some pitfalls you will want to be aware of when looking for a roadside emergency program. Some of the plans have restrictions where services will be rendered. Make sure
your area has contracted service providers. Many of the national auto clubs have policies in which services differ from state to state.

Triple-A, while a nationwide organization, is actually comprised of a number of local or regional exchanges. While your Triple-A benefits are usually accepted universally in the United States, and even in parts of Canada, there can be different charges and limitations.

In Southern California, for instance, Triple-A members can be towed either to the repair shop where the truck was dispatched from (regardless of the mileage), or up to seven miles at the memberís request, before extra charges apply. However, in North and South Carolina, this same Triple-A feature is limited to just three miles of free towing before additional charges apply. In some cases where the local service organization may not offer the same services as your home group, there may be a reimbursement clause in your plan. Before traveling, check with your home agency to be sure you understand what is and isnít covered on your trip.

Some of these programs have limits as to the number of times (in a given period) you can use their services before additional charges apply. Generally this number is no less than four times per year, per paid household member. That means you can have one need for a tow, a flat tire change, and two lockouts per year, and your spouse or child can have the same with their cars if they are covered on the policy.

So be sure you understand just what duties the program you sign up with is under contractual obligation to perform, and what limitations and/or restrictions accompany those services. For instance, if you live in an area where nasty winter storms can cause major driving problems, be aware that some of these services restrict the amount of equipment that can be used in pulling your car out of a snow drift or back up onto the road. If a second person or truck is required, you may have to pay for those services. All of this should be clearly spelled out in application or the member services agreement, so read it carefully. And donít be afraid to ask questions.


These plans would not be so lastingly popular with the motoring public unless they offered some real value, and delivered on their primary mission: emergency roadside service.

If you own a new car or a late model used vehicle with the manufacturerís supplied on-call roadside service available, you might not think it is necessary to carry a membership in one of these programs. One may think that the auto manufacturerís warranty might be sufficient.  But what happens if youíre not in your own car when trouble pops up?

Many of these "clubs" programs actually follow the member regardless of what vehicle they are driving, or are even a passenger in. This can be helpful when you have to ride to work
with your neighbor who unlike yourself, leaves the lights on all day long. Even if he doesnít have his own "club" card, you can use yours to get a jump start on his dead battery.

Most of these services offer fuel service where they will bring you gasoline, but you still have to pay for the fuel and it is usually premium gas at the full-serve price. Tire changing is one of the most common troubles motorists will find, but to take advantage of these plans you must have a road-worthy spare tire, as these trucks do not carry repair kits or air compressors.

Many of these plans offer trip interruption protection. We found plans that offered between $250 to $1,000 reimbursement for such things as rental cars, lodging, and food, should a trip be derailed due to an accident, mechanical breakdown, or an on-the-road illness.

Another point to consider with some of these plans, are "premium" or "plus" packages. For additional cost, sometimes up to twice as much as the basic cost, they will offer more extensive benefits when traveling and premium services for those unexpected emergencies, such as up to 100 miles of free towing. With the premium plan trip interruption packages, benefits can also be increased, in some cases by up to 400%.

Most motor clubs or associations allow for spouses and children under 21 living at home to be covered at a reduced rate. (Some plans even allow for children who are students to be
covered up to age 25.) Again, rates and benefits may differ from plan to plan. For parents with dependent children who are driving, these plans are a relatively inexpensive bit of insurance. Roadside assistance plans are there to benefit all motorists in trouble. Because of this, companies that provide services to you often require that their contract stations use the latest in modern equipment. Late-model emergency response trucks are now fitted with flatbeds and special sling units, required equipment due to the undercarriage and/or bumper design of many newer vehicles.

It is easy to see that even with a new or late model used car factory road-side emergency service policy in place, having a back-up plan that can fill in where the auto makerís policy
is lacking can be well worth the cost of your annual membership dues.

As with any purchase, the more knowledgeable you are about the product, the more likely you will be able to enjoy all of its benefits.


A MUST When Buying A Used Car