Originally created 05/01/06

Taxpayer costs raise questions about free roadside assistance



MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - Some are questioning whether the state should be in the business of providing stranded motorists free help with flat tires or free gasoline when they run out.

The state's Incident Response Teams are intended to keep traffic flowing by helping to clear disabled cars from the road.

Last year, the program cost South Carolina taxpayers a record $4.1 million.

Organizations such as the auto club AAA Carolinas say the state should pay for better roads and leave the helping of stranded motorists to private businesses.

For a fee, AAA provides many of the services the state is giving motorists for free.

"Should the state be responsible if you run out of gas or your battery isn't charged?" asked Tom Crosby, a AAA Carolinas spokesman. "Getting help to people on the road is a good thing, but I'm not sure it's better than fixing all the roads that need repaving."

Police and emergency officials say the Incident Response Teams help direct traffic after accidents and in times of crisis, such as a hurricane evacuation.

"They do phenomenal work," said Sonny Collins, a Highway Patrol spokesman. "We can certainly use our time better patrolling than waiting with someone on the side of the road."

According to state Transportation Department statistics, however, in more than three-quarters of teams' responses last year, vehicles had already been moved off the road or were in the median when the teams arrived.

Another primary goal of the teams is traffic control.

But that was a factor in only 5 percent of responses statewide last year, according to Transportation Department statistics.

Critics say the service is available to drivers on only a few primary roads in metro areas and only during daytime hours - locations and times when private help also is readily available.

"Whenever there's an opportunity for the private sector to respond, I'm all for it," said Clint Whitehurst, a transportation expert with the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University. "The private sector has proven to be more efficient than government since time immemorial."

Gary Loftus, the director of the Center for Economic and Community Development at Coastal Carolina University and a former state highway commissioner, said the teams are needed for traffic control, but they might want to rethink the free gas and tire changes.

However, he said the argument that the response teams' budget would be better spent on improving highways won't quite wash.

"That $4.1 million would pay for less than a quarter-mile of a highway," he said.

In Florida, State Farm Insurance has a contract to provide 14 roadside assistance trucks for use on the 309-mile Florida Turnpike.

"State Farm felt it was good advertising for them and it provided a good service to motorists," said Joanne Hurley, a spokeswoman for Florida's Turnpike.

The turnpike also struck a deal with Martin Petroleum Corp., allowing the fuel company exclusive rights to provide gas to service stations along the highway in exchange for trucks, equipment and employees for the Florida Department of Transportation's Road Ranger program.