November 30-December 6, 2005

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Better World

Better World Club's shtick is my shtick: You might need to drive, but you're not happy about it, so let's try to drive as lightly as possible

By Novella Carpenter

HERE IS a philosophical question: If broken down on the side of the road with a flat tire, would you rather a hippie saved you or a right-winger? Toughie, huh. On one hand, the hippie would arrive via hippie dust and with good vibes, but there is the potential that the Crusty One would get sidetracked by some killer buds and you'd be waiting all night for them. On the other hand, the Republican would arrive on time, that's for certain, but then you'd have to listen to Rush Limbaugh on the ride to the repair shop.

Sadly, this isn't a theoretical decision; it is the reality of roadside service. The Republican roadside-service provider would be AAA. Triple A, I didn't know until I started spending a bunch of time in Berkeley (can you go finish your cigarette a half-mile from this door?), isn't the most earth-friendly company around. According to the National Resources Defense Council, AAA didn't support the Clean Air Act of 1990, dragged its feet on air-bag-safety mandates and is part of a powerful lobbying group called the American Highway Users Alliance. This group, made up of automobile executives, cement companies and truck companies, is pro-sprawl. But, what are you going to do? Almost 50 million members of AAA, including myself, depend on its roadside service, its maps and its relatively inexpensive auto insurance.

Which company embodies the hippie roadside-service end of things? Better World Club ( Many people have never heard of Better World—until recently BWC only served four states, but it now provides services to 16.

Better World Club's shtick is my shtick: You might need to drive, but you're not happy about it, so let's try to drive as lightly as possible. Better World offers a bevy of cool features to add to its roadside assistance plan, which starts at $54 per year. These include bicycle roadside assistance, a carbon-offset program like that of TerraPass and a discount for hybrid owners.

Better World Club also donates 1 percent of its profits to environmental cleanup efforts. "Kicking Asphalt," its E-newsletter, is brilliant and funny. It apprises readers of what's going on in the auto-lobby world and in conservation and activist circles.

In short, BWC is the anti-AAA. Sounds great, right? Well, I hope so, too. I polled my many eco-conscious friends and discovered that many of them use Better World. The majority of them heard about the service on Car Talk. Almost none of them had occasion to use Better World services, though. But one couple had and was disappointed by the experience.

Roger and Maia signed up for the service because they wanted to support a company that supports public transportation, fuel efficiency and environmental legislation. Alas, they described their BWC experience as being similar to a Lemony Snicket tale—a Series of Unfortunate Events, that is. The maps they ordered two weeks before their trip arrived the day after they left for the road trip. A service call made when the car had problems while crossing the Hoover Dam mysteriously became disconnected. Roger's eyes rolled every time they went to check into a hotel and the clerk asked if they were eligible for a AAA discount. BWC didn't send a renewal notice, and Roger and Maia drove around without roadside assistance for months until they actually needed it. I asked Maia if they'll stick with BWC and got the sense if there was one more mistake, they'd have to bail, but not happily.

Perhaps it's just growing pains. After all, AAA's been in business for more than 100 years. Let's see what a few more years will do for BWC. In the meantime, you'll have to weigh the options.

CORRECTION: Last week's column about air bags got me letters from both the NHTSA and SafetyBeltSafe USA! I misunderstood the mechanism for how air bags kill babies. They don't suffocate the little things. The bags hit them with enough force to kill them. And this is only if the child has moved out of the restraints of his or her seat belt.

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.