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Send help. On the double.

Winter is a big sign-up period for the nation's auto clubs, as motorists fret over the possibility of being stranded by the roadside in bad weather.With so much talk about crime, a toll-free, 24-hour assistance number is nice protection. The fact the average motorist's car is now more than 7 years old adds to the probability of mechanical woes.

Competition has never been more heated, in part because a number of manufacturers such as Oldsmobile, Chrysler and BMW offer their own free emergency roadside services.

Eighteen nationwide clubs go head-to-head with distinctive services and discounts. Membership fees range from $22 to $69, depending on the club, and most also offer premium membership plans with expanded coverage.

Primary concerns of drivers are towing, jump-starts and the fixing of flat tires. With the best plans, a tow truck will take you wherever you wish, rather than to a specific garage. It's also preferable to "sign and drive" rather than pay your own money and seek reimbursement. Always find out the mileage or dollar limits on how far your car can be towed.

Another consideration is coverage for "trip interruption," in which members are reimbursed from $300 to $1,000 for lodging, meals and alternate transportation after an accident 50 or 100 miles from home. Maps, trip routing and magazines are other popular features. So are arrest and bail bond protection. Discounts are often available for club members on hotels, restaurants and car rentals.

Regrettably, there are many services club members don't know about because they haven't taken the time to look at plan literature.

When deciding whether you wish to join a club and which would be best for your needs, talk first with club members in your area to determine the quality of service they've received. Then gather all the information you can from several clubs to see which gives you the most for your dollar.

Among the big clubs, the American Automobile Association is the granddaddy of them all with 36 million members. Because it's a federation of affiliated clubs, the cost of membership for one driver runs from $22 to $69 annually depending on the region. There are added fees for additional drivers, including a spouse. It's known for fast "sign and drive" service.

"We haven't found the manufacturers' roadside assistance plans to have much impact on our business, since we gained 1 million new members this year and loyalty remains a big reason for keeping existing members," said Jerry Cheske, a spokesman for AAA in Heathrow, Fla., who notes that most families have more than one car and many cars are not covered by the new manufacturer plans.

"We're upgrading our technology to speed roadside service, and in some cases we can now trace where a member is stranded based on where the call's coming from - even if the member doesn't know the exact location."

Amoco Motor Club, with 3 million members, charges $49.95 for regular membership that includes two drivers, and it also runs the AARP plan for $39.95. It features reimbursement for locksmith services. "The biggest mistake motorists make is joining a club without really understanding the benefits or how to access the emergency service," said Rudy Marcinko, director of marketing for Amoco in Des Moines.

Allstate Motor Club, with 3 million members, charges $49.95 for its standard plan that includes a spouse and also runs the Sears Motorist Plan for that same price. It's well known for quality trip routing. "Not all clubs are national, so it's important to make sure your club is national in scope when you're taking long trips," said Karen Burns, spokeswoman for Allstate in Northbrook, Ill.

Montgomery Ward Auto Club, with 2.8 million members, charges $52 to cover two drivers in the household and also runs the Signature Auto Club marketed through credit card promotions. "We have a generous $1,000 reimbursement ceiling for trip interruption within 72 hours of the occurrence over 50 miles from home," said Sarina Butler, spokeswoman for Montgomery Ward in Chicago.