The story that reporter John Stancavage wrote in the Aug. 24 edition of the Tulsa World doesn’t particularly qualify as investigative journalism. AAA, the national travel-and-gas authority, was predicting a very slight increase in travel over the Labor Day weekend, wrote Stancavage. The piece passed along the findings of a survey by AAA indicating that 34.5 million Americans would travel at least 50 miles from home over the three-day break, an uptick of 0.9 percent from last year.
Yet as he eyeballed the numbers, Stancavage wondered about their reliability. “I’ve never had an occasion when I’ve wanted to question it before, but this time, with the price [of gas] going up…you wonder if people say, ‘Gee, I’ll just stick closer to home,” recalls Stancavage.
So the reporter called Oklahoma State University economist Mark Snead, who was quoted in Stancavage’s piece: “That forecast may not materialize….I think we’ve finally hit the point where prices are causing consumers to make different decisions. We will have to wait and see what happens this holiday.”
OK, so a quote or two from an economist doesn’t make for a thorough debunking. But by merely citing a competing viewpoint, the World went a step further than the thousands of media outlets that seasonally regurgitate AAA travel projections.
The pattern is every bit as inevitable as the big-travel federal holidays themselves. Just before the five traffic events of the year—Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/New Year’s Eve—AAA announces the results of its traffic-projection polls, which it produces in partnership with the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). The “news” comes via a press release from AAA that touts a rigorous survey.
And the press eats it up. The pickup rate is especially high among small regional papers that struggle each day to fill their news hole—papers such as South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach Sun-News, the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), and the Star Press (Muncie, Ind.).
“I guess it gives the readers some ideas” about traffic levels, says Michael McBride, a business reporter for the Star Press, which ran AAA’s Labor Day projections last Friday.
The Star Press and its brethren run the AAA traffic data for much the same reasons that they run Nielsen ratings for TV and Arbitron ratings for radio: AAA has a monopoly on this segment of infrastructural arcana. If there are any competitors in the business of charting holiday-travel trends, they’re doing a good job of keeping their projections secret. And AAA backs it all up with impressive science: Each traffic-volume estimate is based in part on a telephone survey of 1,300 U.S. adults and in part on a “proprietary forecasting model developed by TIA,” according to AAA spokesperson Justin McNaull.
Says McBride: “I’m sure that they have some way to figure it out.”
Whatever the integrity of the Secret Traffic Prediction Machine, it’s an enormous PR success for AAA, an organization that’s had a busy media summer with another of its specialties: monitoring gas prices. Since last week, the travel projections have surfaced in at least 60 newspaper stories around the country, with plenty more to hit the streets before the rubber hits the road this Friday.
Credit for AAA’s market-cornering projections goes in part to Jerry Cheske, an association lifer who retired in 2003. Cheske started with AAA Michigan in 1969. When he moved to the national office in 1988, the outfit had been doing the traffic projections for four years, but the package needed an upgrade in substance and presentation.
So Cheske decided to get some folks together. He partnered with TIA so that the organization could offer an overall summer-travel projection along with its weekend projections. And he held a summer-travel-season-kickoff press conference in 1990 in Orlando. It could have been the first executive-level meeting devoted to bitching about beach traffic. But the event eventually became a big hit, and an institution was born. These days, the summer-kickoff presser takes place at the District’s National Press Club.
“I think the media loves that kind of thing, love surveys, loves something that quantifies what’s going to happen,” says Cheske.
The AAA-TIA axis has played a leadership role over recent years in minting the great travel clichés that stalk Americans every time a holiday approaches. An unofficial list has to include the following classics:
•Leave early, stay late.
•Allow at least two hours to navigate busy airports.
•Higher gas prices are not expected to curb travel.
•Keep your automobile’s tires inflated.
•Plan your route.
Despite their predictability, the AAA press releases come just when the media needs them most—when there’s not a lot of regular news to report.
And let’s be frank—there’s no intrinsic news value in the surveys themselves. Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, what have you: Holiday traffic is a nightmare, regardless of whether it’s up or down 1 percent from last year.
This year’s Labor Day survey, for instance, foresees 28.8 million travelers taking to the road, up from 28.7 million for Labor Day 2004. Consider that there are roughly 4 million miles of highway in the United States. On average, then, there’ll be about one-fortieth more automobile—say, a bumper or quarter panel—on each mile of highway.
And who’s to say the projections ever bear out? AAA, after all, doesn’t call back survey respondents after the holiday to see if its projections were accurate. “There’s just not sufficient need or interest to warrant it on the budget side,” says McNaull.
Those who rule the road know what to do with the AAA numbers. “I don’t really pay much attention to them because you got a job to do,” says Al Parrish, who drives a truck in the Southwest.—Erik Wemple