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Post Your Problems
Lawrence Walsh: AAA service breaks down in Mercer County

Friday, August 25, 2000

Mark Meighen of Greenville, Mercer County, was so upset about his "horrid experience" with the local office of the American Automobile Association that he wrote a headline for the e-mail he sent me:

"AAA Roadside Service Deserves FFF Grade."

Chris Unger and Melanie Alexander, who live in Greenville and vicinity, agreed with Meighen's assessment.

So did several other AAA members from that area.

After making numerous phone calls, including several to AAA officials in Pittsburgh, I confirmed what Meighen and the others suspected: The association has what it calls "a coverage problem" in the Greenville area.

Fortunately, the association, which prides itself on rescuing stranded motorists within an hour, including me on a few occasions, is correcting the problem. The coverage should be reinstated by the end of September -- at the latest.

Because Meighen's July 20 problem with AAA was the most recent of those from the people I've interviewed and because his five-hour wait was the longest, let's hear from him first:

Meighen, 34, a spokesman for Westminster College in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, was on his way home to Greenville -- a 25-mile commute -- and looking forward to helping his oldest daughter, Jenna, celebrate her 8th birthday. He was 3.6 miles from home when his 1990 black, two-door Pontiac Grand Prix with 128,000 miles on it died on Route 58. Remember that route number.

He shouldered it off the road, walked about 70 yards to a pay phone near a Citco service station and Perry's restaurant, and asked his wife, Jacquelyn, to call AAA.

"I said I'd be home within the hour and asked her not to light the candles on Jenna's cake until I got there," he said. It was about 6:30 p.m.

A few minutes later he was surprised to see his mother, Nancy Meighen, drive up. She was at his home when he called his wife. She told him AAA wouldn't take any information from his wife because she wasn't the stranded party.

Meighen was annoyed, but assured his mother he would be home soon. He called AAA from the pay phone. Unfortunately, it was a pay phone that didn't take incoming calls and the AAA dispatcher couldn't call him back. It was 6:57 p.m.

When a tow truck hadn't appeared by 8 p.m., Meighen called again. He was told it was a "busy night" and that the truck would be there in about 20 minutes. It was 8:07 p.m.

He found out later a truck was dispatched at 7:25 p.m., but was sent to the wrong place. It had been directed to look for a car near a Citco station on Route 358 -- a road that runs through Greenville toward Interstate 79 -- and not on Route 58 where Meighen was. When the tow truck driver couldn't find anyone, he called AAA and reported the stranded motorist was "GOA" -- gone on arrival.

Meanwhile, Meighen, who was sitting on the trunk of his car "watching the world go by," counted three tow trucks go by but wasn't able to attract the drivers' attention.

Because the pay phone was in constant use from about 9 to 10 p.m., Meighen wasn't able to make another call to AAA until 10:03 p.m. The dispatcher promised to get someone "right there." When he called back at 11:07, he was told the tow truck had broken down.

Finally, at 11:35 p.m., long after his daughter's birthday party had ended, a tow truck showed up from Leonard's Auto Service in Cochranton, about 25 miles north in Crawford County.

Meighen called AAA the next day and described in detail his unhappiness with its operation. AAA officials apologized and offered him two years of membership benefits. He rejected the offer, called the benefits "worthless" and canceled his membership.

"I'm just thankful it wasn't my wife and three daughters stranded by the road for five hours," he told me.

Chris Unger, 35, of Greenville, a friend of Meighen's wife, related a similar story:

In spring 1999, Unger, a nurse's assistant at Greenville Hospital, and Melanie Alexander, 28, of nearby Jamestown, a registered nurse, decided to do some early morning sale shopping at Kaufmann's in Shenango Valley Mall after completing the overnight shift. The doors opened at 8 a.m.

Unfortunately, Unger left the car lights on and the battery was dead when they returned to the parking lot about 10 a.m.

"No problem," Unger recalled assuring Alexander. "I'll just call AAA." She told the dispatcher to tell the tow truck driver to look for a red 1988 Toyota Corolla with the hood up.

When she called AAA again about 11:30 a.m., she was told the driver couldn't find them. She said she repeated the same explicit directions she had given the first time and was assured someone would be "right out."

Unger and Alexander were still waiting about 1 p.m. when a woman in a nearby car asked if something was wrong. Unger explained, the woman pulled out a pair of jumper cables, and Unger and Alexander finally got home about 1:30 p.m.

Steve Popovich, director of automotive services for AAA, said the association does have coverage problems in the Greenville area. He said one towing company didn't meet the association's standards and the operator of another company died a few weeks ago.

He said the local AAA has contracts with about 305 towing companies to handle more than 650,000 calls a year in its region -- Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and south-central Ohio.

"We have very few complaints -- less than one-half of 1 percent. But that's still several thousand complaints and we do everything humanly possible to satisfy our customers," he said.

Popovich recalled speaking to Meighen.

"I'm sorry we couldn't satisfy him," he said. "So we refunded the $55 he paid us for this year's membership benefits."

Popovich said Leonard's Auto Service in Cochranton, the company that rode to Meighen's rescue, will open a towing service in Greenville, perhaps in time for the always busy Labor Day weekend.

Ron Leonard, who owns the company, said he'd open the Greenville operation "as soon as possible, certainly by the end of September. I've already bought two tow trucks at $50,000 each, but I'm having a problem finding suitable people. If any of your readers know of a suitable building that's available in that area, ask them to give me a call at (814) 425-3887."

No problem, Ron.

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at 412-263-1895. His e-mail address is lwalsh@post-gazette.com.

Post Your Problems appears Tuesday through Friday, addressing questions and problems from readers. Yvonne Zanos from KDKA-TV looks into consumer-related issues, including difficulties with products and services. Post-Gazette Staff Writer Lawrence Walsh helps sort through bureaucratic problems.

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at 412-263-1895. His e-mail address is lwalsh@post-gazette.com.

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