Suppose you are driving, alone and at night, and your car breaks down. You are a woman. You are scared.
That was a situation that Judy Miller, a Los Angeles public-relations executive, had prepared her three daughters for. Call me, she told them. Call the Automobile Club. Then return to the car, lock the doors, close the windows and wait.
So when Colleen Miller’s 1980 Pontiac Phoenix broke down just before 11 p.m. on a deserted stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, she did as her mother had told her--except for one thing. She waited in the street, near the phone stand just 200 feet from her car, because the operator at the Automobile Club of Southern California told her to.
“I told (the operator) that I was alone, frightened,” Colleen Miller recalled. “I wanted to go back to the car. But she said I had to wait there by the phone because the tow-truck driver needed an address. She told me that the tow-truck driver wouldn’t come if he didn’t have an address or some sort of landmark.”
After waiting about 15 minutes for the tow truck, Miller, then 18 years old, was abducted and raped at gunpoint on that November night in 1984. Her attacker was never apprehended.
Today, still recovering emotionally from the assault, Miller is angry. She has filed a lawsuit, set for trial next month, seeking what could be about $2 million in punitive damages from the Automobile Club for alleged negligence in instructing her to wait by the telephone stand.
In the meantime, Judy Miller has turned her own outrage over her daughter’s rape into a pressure campaign she hopes will reduce the likelihood that other women will disregard their own safety simply for the convenience of a tow-truck operator.
She has met with law-enforcement officials, other women and the press. And two weeks ago, Miller and 48 other prominent Southern California women formally asked the Automobile Club to train all its operators in procedures designed to put members’ safety first.
Operators should ask all women if they are alone, a letter from the women said, and if they are, law-enforcement officers should be alerted.
“Under no circumstances should representatives of the Automobile Club instruct a female to stand alone on a public street or stand at an exposed public telephone at night,” the letter said, read aloud from the floor at the Automobile Club’s annual membership meeting in downtown Los Angeles.
The Automobile Club of Southern California, the largest of AAA’s affiliated clubs with 3.4-million members, has agreed to review the women’s concerns. But because of the pending lawsuit, representatives of the club have limited their comments on the situation that led to Colleen Miller’s rape.
“We have a general (unwritten) practice that applies to all members, men and women, that whenever a member expresses concern for his or her safety, that is evaluated on a case-by-case basis and given a priority on responding to a call,” said Jennifer Nicholson, the Automobile Club’s communications manager.
“In the almost 3-million calls that we service a year, this is the only lawsuit we have on this particular issue, telling people the wrong advice where to wait for the call,” she said. "(The dispatcher’s) prime service is to get the location from the member and get the tow truck out there as quickly as possible. They make every effort to assist them.”
Dispatchers and operators, Nicholson added, “treat each member as if it were their daughter or their mother. (But) it is impossible to give the same blanket advice to each situation.”
Within moments after receiving Colleen’s call on that November night, Judy Miller left her home in Glendale to meet her daughter at the service station where the Pontiac was to have been towed.
“I was on the (San Diego) freeway, and I had a funny feeling,” Judy Miller said, “so I got off on the exit near where Colleen had broken down. I could see her car, with the emergency lights flashing. But Colleen wasn’t there.”
Judy Miller had begun driving down Wilshire Boulevard in search of her daughter when she saw a figure running toward her.
“It was Colleen,” Miller said, her eyes rimming with tears. “She had already been raped. She was running, trying to put her clothes back on. She was coming back to the phone.”
The next day, Judy Miller called the Automobile Club to ask what their procedure was for handling an emergency call from a woman alone. When the club did not get back to her as they said they would, Miller called a week later.
This time her conversation ended in an argument with a club official who Miller said told her, “You know, people have to be responsible for their own safety.”
The signatories of the letter to the Automobile Club do not argue that point, but suggest that more sensitivity may be needed when dealing with women or others who feel especially vulnerable, who are stranded on the roadways.
“Triple A may not be as sensitive about women being vulnerable just because we are women,” said Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women and a signatory of the letter to the Automobile Club.
“What we are trying to do is mediate that a bit, make them a bit more sensitive,” she said. “Instead of getting into an argument over the phone, they should be a little more flexible. We have to make wise choices for ourselves.”
Colleen Miller’s experience with the Automobile Club was not the only one where a woman member was told to wait in an unsafe area for a tow-truck driver.
Karen Strickholm, a Los Angeles public-relations executive and signatory of the letter to the club, recalled a time when her car would not start after she went to a UCLA parking lot at 3 a.m. in late 1986.
“I called the Auto Club and they insisted that I go down to the road and wait for the tow truck,” Strickholm said. “I fought with (the operator) and finally insisted on talking to a supervisor. I ended up getting them to come up to the parking lot, but I had to call two more times. It was 4:30 a.m. before they came.”
Louise Wesner, a real-estate broker and private pilot, said that when her car wouldn’t start in a parking lot near the Long Beach airport last month, she too was forced to argue with an Automobile Club operator before she would dispatch a tow truck.
“I asked (the Automobile Club) to come and help and they refused to come and help me,” Wesner said. “The operator said the only place that they have a pick-up point would be at the terminal. I told her that I was a long distance away and that it was dark out.”
Wesner added that she waited alone on the street before the tow truck arrived an hour later.
Unsafe Place to Wait
And Terry McKinnon, an executive secretary who works at Los Angeles City Hall, said that several years ago an Automobile Club operator demanded that she wait for a tow truck outside City Hall until a building security guard got on the phone and convinced the operator that it was an unsafe place to wait.
More recently, McKinnon said, she waited in vain for 1 1/2 hours outside City Hall for an Automobile Club tow truck to show up.
“Women feel so vulnerable where cars and where mechanics are concerned,” said McKinnon, a 21-year Automobile Club member. “And then, for this to be compounded by the Auto Club’s attitude. . . . It’s such an irony that so many women I know buy their daughters memberships thinking that this is going to make them safe on the road.”
Gilbert Lomeli, director of emergency road service for the Automobile Club, said that it is up to the motorist to alert the operator to a potentially dangerous situation, in which case steps will be taken to speed the arrival of a tow truck.
“We do rely on the member advising us of their situation,” he said. “Sometimes, the member is told to stay where they are calling from. We work with the member. Sometimes, if a member feels afraid, we’ve gone to the extreme of staying on the phone with her.”
Lomeli said he did not know how many times club operators have told women to stand on the street to await a tow truck, but that operators “try to work out a pick-up point” with the caller.
Added Bob Wright, the director of the Automobile Club’s legal division: “Out of the nearly 3 million service calls, some problems are bound to happen. We try to follow up on those.”
J. Kay Aldous, vice president for public and government policy at AAA headquarters in Falls Church, Va., said there is no standard procedure at Triple A’s 156 clubs in the United States and Canada--serving about 30-million motorists--that dictates how operators and dispatchers respond to calls from members.
“It would be up to the individual clubs responding,” he said. “They would have to consider the nature of the call, where and when it was placed. (But) I don’t see why it would be different for a man or for a woman.
“You cannot lay out a formula,” he added. “It depends on the area, the type of road or highway, and what the environment is like. The safest thing would be, if possible, to stay in the car, with the doors locked, flashers on, and pull over to the side of the road. I think you have to use common sense.”
(Representatives of the Allstate Motor Club, the Montgomery Ward Auto Club and the National Automobile Club also said that operators and dispatchers rely on motorists to mention any special circumstances. The dispatchers, in turn, are told to rely on their common sense when handling those special circumstances.)
Because assault statistics are not broken down by location, law enforcement officials said they have no figures on the number of women who have been attacked while stranded on the roadways.
“It certainly has happened,” said Officer Jill Angel, spokeswoman for California Highway Patrol. “A female (stranded) at nighttime is obviously very vulnerable. With the CHP, it’s a priority call.”
Law-enforcement officials said the standard, and generally best, advice for a woman stranded alone is to stay inside her locked car with the emergency flashers on. They said that if the woman feels she can safely walk to a telephone or highway call box, she should do so and then return to her car.
Beware of Strangers
And Detective Jim Bisetti of the Long Beach Police Department’s sexual-assault unit added that under no circumstances should women open their car for a stranger offering assistance on the roadway.
Bisetti handled three apparently related sexual-assault cases in December, 1987; January, 1988, and March, 1988, in which a man offered assistance to stranded women motorists, then attacked them. A similar case, believed committed by the same man, occurred in Irvine in January of last year.
“Certainly when you are talking about tough areas of town--and it’s not only women, but anybody who is in a vulnerable position--the best thing that the woman could do would be to put the hood up, and put her flashers on,” Bisetti said.
“And if she has given him the location of the car, unless the tow-truck driver is blind or stupid, he should be able to figure it out,” he said. “I certainly would advise against standing on the street corner.”