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A New Old-Fashioned Automobile Club

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McHenry County, Illinois Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

A New Old-Fashioned Automobile Club

Bill Crittenden
November 10, 2014

The Past

With a foundation based party on political advocacy for the new class of road users, automobile clubs in the first decades of the motor car often had a group with a name such as "Good Roads Committee." This was at the height of the "Good Roads Movement," with entire statewide organizations dedicated just to that topic, which saw thousands band together in advocating for better roads and a connected highway system that motorists could travel on from coast to coast.

They also spent a great deal of time working on standardizing road ordnances, as basic rules of the road varied wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. One of the crazier examples of this were in anti-glare headlight lenses, prompting some interstate travelers to have to change their headlights when traveling from state to state.

Then there was the issue where you might need a driver's license in multiple states because universal reciprocity hadn't been granted. Before legal recognition, a Washington D.C. driver's license wasn't valid in Maryland. Imagine if THAT hadn't been resolved!

As these issues were resolved and driving became more mundane, car clubs moved on to focus on auto enthusiasts: drivers of classic or modified or specialty vehicles like 4x4's.

The Present

Decades later, the most well known of these original clubs, the AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association (apparently it found the full name too limiting?), is still providing roadside assistance and is still involved in government lobbying on the state and national level, but it's local influence has dwindled down to just 69 clubs, most in the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania region.

Locally, in the rest of the country not served by an active local AAA affiliate, people are still having a hard time keeping track of what's going on with their commute. Every county still has multiple active "car clubs," but these are primarily geared now towards show cars, or they cater to classic car enthusiasts or owners of a particular type of car. The Centerville Antique Auto Touring Society, Northern Illinois Streeters (a friendly group that attends car shows together), Kroozers of Northern Illinoiz (a hot rod club), Cruisin' Tigers GTO Club, and Chicagoland Area Modern Mopars come to mind. I'm sure if I were more into the scene I could name a low rider or import club or 4x4 club or two, and then there are the ubiquitous motorcycle clubs of which I really know little about as a 4-wheeler.

So while every county, particularly McHenry, is chock-full of clubs full of people that love cars, most members of the non-enthusiast public still don't have any easy way to find out about upcoming road construction projects until the signs go up in the spring telling them which parts of their commute will be a living hell for the duration of the sunny weather. (Near Chicago, there are just two seasons for commuters: Construction and Winter, and they're both miserable for commuters)

Occasionally controversial issues will pop up and people will write letters to editors, and even fewer actually generate political attention, but that's really only for those who pick up a local paper and don't skip from the front page stories right to the sports section.

In my area of Illinois, the Route 53 extension being debated a decade ago, and more recently a potential Route 47 bypass of my home town of Woodstock, have been the notable exceptions where a few people did get informed and get involved. There were even bright "Build 53" stickers printed several years back, and you can occasionally still see them on a few old work trucks that haven't changed hands over since then.

We're on the very outskirts of the Chicago suburbs, and that Route 47 I mentioned seems to be a fine line dividing a land of strip malls & subdivisions to the east and "paddle faster, I hear banjos" country to the west. We get a lot of traffic for the limited number of routes we have in many directions, most of those being two lanes for a lot of miles between towns.

(in case you were wondering, The Crittenden Automotive Library is based just about a third of a mile east of Route 47)

When a major north-south route like Route 31 gets demolished at Route 176 for the better part of a year, it becomes a problem. And the residents of McHenry who drive (or crawl) through there aren't going to be popping into the City of Crystal Lake website often for the weekly updates, nor are Crystal Lake residents going to necessarily know about the website that McHenry set up for the Route 120/Route 32 improvement project just up the road.

Our local paper is the Northwest Herald, and it's website's "Wheels" section is just a framed link to AutoTrader.com. There's no link or mention of road projects on the home page nor does searching Route 31 immediately bring up anything of use.

The Future?

What's needed in most local areas is a new old-fashioned automobile club to collect information, inform the public, and return the public's reactions and opinions to elected officials who decide on these projects.

Using McHenry County as a model, here's how I'd organize a club for the regular motorist:

Membership - Personally, I like the free membership model of the Streeters. Thanks to the internet, nobody has to pay to print and mail a newsletter again, and running a decent website costs less than $20 a month. A few donations or a sponsorship can cover that. The only other resource needed is peoples' time, and it's easier to ask for that when you're also not hitting them up for $20 a year. Also, this boosts membership count, a critical figure when approaching government officials with requests (I represent an organization with X number of members in your constituency...)

Good Roads Committee - okay, I'm a big fan of historical references. This key committee would send a representative to all of the County Transportation Division meetings that are open to the public, as well as perhaps attending the board meetings of local towns when transportation issues are on the agenda. Summaries of upcoming road work projects, budget issues, and proposals would be put into a newsletter emailed out to all members. The committee would also deliver member petitions for or against certain projects to the government agencies they follow. A library of the collected documents and information could be made available for anyone who could find use for it. If republishing is allowed, it can be on the club website, if not, an officer (Club Librarian) could be responsible for storage and access.

Outreach Committee - this group of friendly faces would go out and sign up new members, take surveys of public opinion for the club to use and present to public officials and, if the organization takes a particular stand for or against a government action, to collect petition signatures. A booth could be set up at community events at MCC or at local classic car shows. This group would also be responsible for the club's social media accounts.

Law Enforcement Committee - this group, hopefully filled by people with and without law enforcement experience together, would serve as a liaison between the motoring public and local law enforcement agencies, notifying the public of new road ordinances and serving as a collective voice for the community to the Sheriff and local police departments. And, when a law enforcement agency doesn't cooperate and tries to fund their operations on traffic tickets (I'm specifically thinking of Bull Valley, for any locals reading this...), warnings about driving through such areas could be issued. Woodstock has a "Coffee with the Chief" meeting where members of the public can meet the Chief of Police and hear about the occasional traffic enforcement initiatives. A member could attend those meetings (and other town & village meetings across the county) and report back to the club for inclusion in a newsletter.

Enthusiast Committee - this group would compile a schedule of events in the area and be points of contact between traditional classic car or enthusiast clubs and the motoring organization, preferably made up of people who are members of both the county motorists' organization and one or more enthusiast clubs.

Services Committee - sort of a local Angie's List-type collection of reviews and complaints by members regarding local automobile services: dealerships, repair shops, and towing companies, among others. If enough information is compiled, it can be made into an online guidebook for members consisting of a directory with star ratings.

I feel that these are what's missing in a local automobile club. The information is available, but it's not organized in any way that it can be accessible to all residents. In this way, I'm a bit jealous of the old days, where people managed to keep track of all of this when telephones were a new thing.

Most importantly, there is occasionally real political will on a road issue, and there would be even more if the public were more informed, but there's no way for the public to express that back to the county government through their votes in a one-party county where board members run unopposed.

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