Drivers left out in the cold 

Dead batteries and frozen fuel pumps kept scores of motorists off Missoula’s streets through the holiday season. With towing crews and repair shops overwhelmed, some motorists seeking the benefits of American Automobile Association (AAA) membership found themselves out in the cold.

Jeff Wulf, manager of automotive repair at AAA MountainWest, says the severe weather punctuating the last weeks of December prompted AAA to prioritize roadside calls over motorists stranded at home. As calls flooded in, AAA response crews became backed up and the association ceased placing motorists on the response list.

“The last week to 10 days have been pretty unique,” Wulf says. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had weather systems that have affected our entire service area.”

AAA MountainWest covers Montana, Wyoming and Alaska, roughly one-fourth of the nation’s geography.

Only three towing companies and two automotive repair shops in Missoula are AAA affiliated, servicing roughly 20,000 area AAA members. Nathan Haitt, a mechanic at Whalen Tire, says he doesn’t see many AAA jobs roll in, until the weather gets bad.

“I’ve seen a lot coming in on the hook,” Haitt says. “People are definitely calling AAA.”

Haitt says the combination of sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall compound demand at auto shops. Employees at Whalen Tire mounted snow tires until 9 p.m. or worked on frozen engines past 6 p.m. for over a week leading up to the holidays.

“Everybody needs everything done right now,” Haitt says. “Even with snow tires, we’ve had to push a lot of people away. Just not enough time.”

Randy Mineer, president of V-Tec Services, says the situation has subsided for now. But V-Tec was slammed before Christmas, their average daily load soaring to 30 cars. About 10 percent of V-Tec’s clients are AAA members, though AAA tows often take “second seat” to serious wrecks, Mineer says.

Wulf says severe weather reveals how unprepared some motorists are for harsh seasons. While AAA will go out “one way or another,” there’s only so much service crews can do. And with winter weather just beginning, the danger isn’t over.

“When it gets down to 15 or 20 below, we can only get half those cars started,” Wulf says. “All of this is inconvenient.”
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