Automobile Club of Seattle, predecessor of AAA Washington, forms on September 23, 1904.

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 7/21/2004
  • Essay 5718

On September 23, 1904, the Automobile Club of Seattle, predecessor of AAA Washington, is founded with 46 members plus officers. A social club for people with autos and automobile-related interests, this organization collaborated with Sam Hill’s Good Roads Association (est. 1899) to improve and promote the construction of public highways, to promote association between automobile owners and vendors, and to study and promote legislation to curb dangerous and reckless driving.

Roads and Road Safety

In 1904 there were only about 23,000 automobiles in operation in the entire United States. The roads had been built for horses and horse-drawn vehicles, not for cars. Most had deep ruts and huge mudpuddles. Smooth pavement, lane markings, entry and exit ramps, directional signs, and call boxes did not exist. A good road in those days was graveled.

The first automobile to arrive in Seattle, a Wood’s Electric, was a hard-tired buggy with a rudimentary electric motor. It arrived in July 1900. By 1907, about 300 gasoline-powered vehicles were puttering around Seattle. Local businessmen and developers were automobile owners and members of the auto club, and these influential men had no trouble influencing legislation.

One of the Automobile Club's first actions was to help draft the first traffic code law, which Washington state adopted on March 8, 1905, and which became law on March 11. This law stipulated that drivers must register their vehicle and display on it a license number. The auto must have at least one lighted lamp, a muffler, “good and efficient” brakes, and a horn to be blown when in danger of collision. The speed limit was 12 mph in cities and towns and 24 mph on the open road, though many cars had difficulty reaching such speeds. When approaching other vehicles, the driver was to turn to the right. When approaching horses, the driver was to note whether or not the horses were becoming frightened, and if so, to cut the power until they had passed.

In 1906 the Automobile Club of Seattle donated and placed 500 directional signs to be placed within a 30-mile radius of the city.

Regional Roads and Travel Promotion

In 1910, the club published its first tour book, which provided reliable information on good hotels and mechanic garages along the way. A meeting of automobile club representatives from Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Victoria met to discuss and promote a highway between Vancouver B.C. and Los Angeles, thus laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Pacific Highways Association. The highway they discussed became Highway 99.

In 1913, the Automobile Club of Seattle began keeping a lobbyist at Washington state legislative sessions. In 1914, it affiliated with the national American Automobile Association (founded in Chicago in 1902). In 1916, the club established a road sign-posting department, and it made and posted all road signs up until 1945, when the legislature made state and local governments responsible for signs.

Further unity was achieved in 1917, when all automobile clubs west of the Cascade Mountains joined under the name the Automobile Club of Western Washington. In 1923 this organization was incorporated under the name The Automobile Club of Washington.

Safety and Emergency Services

The Automobile Club of Washington was instrumental in establishing the State Highway Patrol in 1926, which helped to ensure uniform enforcement methods and policies. The club was a pioneer in traffic safety, furnishing equipment to patrols, funding traffic studies for cities and towns, and fighting to introduce driver training in Washington high schools. In 1926 the club began its emergency road services -- creating a list of “reputable garages” to assist stranded members. In 1927 the club assisted 2,100 members with vehicular problems.

The club began offering personal injury insurance in 1927, and that same year bought its first media time – a 15-minute weekly radio program. Travel agency and trip-planning services began in 1930. These were shut down during the Depression, but were resurrected in the 1950s. In 1952 the auto club supported the construction of the Tacoma/Seattle/Everett freeway (Interstate 5).
In 1981, the AAA Approved Auto Repair program began, and in 1993, AAA started selling long-term-care insurance, complementing a full range of insurance options. AAA went online in 1997.

In 2002 the name AAA Washington/Inland was adopted after a merger between AAA Washington (serving Western and Central Washington) and the Inland Automobile Club (serving Eastern Washington and north Idaho). On June 23, 2006, the name was officially changed from AAA Washington/Inland to AAA Washington.

Today AAA Washington has nearly 850,000 members who use the organization for travel and automobile-related discounts and services, for breakdown towing, and for emergency car service. AAA Washington/Inland also offers its members vehicle financing, and its own Visa credit card.


James Warren, Speech for the American Automobile Association of Washington, September 30, 1989, in possession of HistoryLink, Seattle, Washington; AAA News Releases, 1979 and 1989, in possession of HistoryLink, Seattle, Washington; "100 Years of Service: 1904-2004," brochure, AAA Washington/Inland, 2004.
Note: This essay was updated on September 12, 2008.

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