When fuel costs (and tempers) rise, official looks for whys

You've probably wanted to yell at Michael Geeser.

But we assure you, it's not his fault.

When AAA releases fresh data on fuel prices, Geeser serves as the organization's Nevada face, the spokesman (and occasional punching bag) who puts the numbers in context and helps the public understand what the figures mean. When he's not explaining the minutiae that determine fuel costs, Geeser lobbies the Nevada Legislature for safer driving laws, distributes details on AAA's hotel and restaurant Diamond ratings and promotes the group's ventures in everything from roadside service to car insurance to travel planning.

If you've lived in Las Vegas a while, you might also remember Geeser from his earlier days as a local television news reporter and anchor -- a position that brought him the Walter Cronkite Award for Political Reporting.

Question: You worked as a television news reporter in Las Vegas for a decade. What were some of your favorite local stories?

Answer: Back in the mid '90s, there was a synagogue in town that didn't have enough room in its building to hold its Passover seder, so it rented a ballroom at a hotel. The hotel they rented the room at was the Luxor. I remember saying to the news staff, "Does anyone see the irony to this?" My story that night was, "Tonight, Jews around the world will celebrate Passover, but here in Las Vegas, one group is going back to Egypt." Only in Las Vegas would you ever find that story.

I think the most meaningful series I ever did was a series we called "Truth Watch." I took political ads that were on the air and researched their sources and facts to determine if they were really accurate, then I would put a graphic on the ad saying whether it was true, false or spin. I received a lot of comments on that. I think people genuinely enjoyed and respected the fact that somebody was actually looking at the ads. You never really know if they're true.

Question: How and why did you end up going to work for AAA?

Answer: I was looking for something a little more secure than TV news. The truth is, I had a really good job at (KLAS-TV,) Channel 8, and it's a really good station with great people. I just didn't feel so secure (because of the industry). And when you have a family, you start to think of those things. I thought it would be a really good time to step off into another industry, and I was trying to find something I thought would be a really good fit. Then lo and behold, this position at AAA came along. I thought it made sense for me, my skills sets and experience. It incorporates a lot of the things I had learned as a journalist, the first of which was handling the media. The other hat I wear is lobbying. I thought those two things were jobs I have the skills sets for.

Question: Do you miss the fast pace and the excitement of TV reporting?

Answer: On one night in particular: election night. For a political reporter, election night is like the Super Bowl. Other than that, I can't say I have regretted (leaving TV).

Question: What's most interesting about working for AAA?

Answer: For me, the most interesting part is being able to write, sponsor and carry forward legislation that we think will help Nevadans. I was able to experience all of that in the past legislative session when AAA brought a bill forward and got it passed into law. The bill allows tow trucks to transport vehicles off the road with passengers inside the vehicle. That's important, because we heard from disabled groups that some people couldn't physically get into tow cabs when we'd go on a call for service. We'd have to stay with them on the side of the road until another vehicle came, when we could have just secured them in their car and got them off the road, where they could wait in a diner, convenience store or somewhere comfortable. The bill truly, in my opinion, will make life better for three groups. It's better for us, because we don't have to stay with the motorists, we can instead get them to a safe location; it's better for law enforcement, because they want both the stranded motorist and the tow truck off the road as fast as possible; and most importantly, it's better for people who are physically disabled, because they can get relief and comfort much quicker than in the past.

Question: It seems like lobbying on changes in driving laws in Nevada would be fairly difficult. Consider resistance to reclassifying failure to wear a seat belt as a primary offense for which police could stop a motorist. Why do people here press back against these kinds of changes?

Answer: I think people are slow to change when it comes to things they are used to. People are used to driving a car a certain way and are slow to give up that behavior, even if it can be shown that the behavior is dangerous. Traffic safety in Nevada is a work in progress, but we are making huge strides toward making our roads safer. As an example, Nevada now has a really strong graduated-driver's license law regarding the stages people have to go through before they become licensed to drive. Today, our law in Nevada is among the five best in the country, and up until just six years ago, we didn't have a graduated-license law. So that's an example of how slowly the culture in Nevada is changing. There's still a lot of work to do.

Question: AAA is perhaps better-known to the public for the gasoline-pricing information it distributes. Do people ever yell at you about fuel prices, the way they yell at weather forecasters about the weather?

Answer: Yes, sometimes. They think AAA sells gas because we talk about it so much. But we really are understood as being the voice of the motorist. The company has been around for 100 years, and it is fairly well-known, so most people understand what AAA does, at least in the way of roadside service. They may not know about everything we do when it comes to offering car insurance and booking travel, but I think they understand who AAA is. I get more compliments when gas prices go down than grief when they go up. When people do complain, I usually say, "I understand, but we don't sell gas, so we'll keep working on getting you the best information we can."

Question: We're all familiar with the AAA advice on getting the best gasoline mileage, including keeping your tires inflated and driving the speed limit. What's your personal favorite tip that you've discovered really makes a difference?

Answer: The one thing I do now more than ever is have directions to where I'm going. It sounds really simple, but the fact that you know where you're going cuts down on driving and saves money.

Question: When prices hit $4.25 a gallon here in 2008, how did that change your life, both professionally and personally?

Answer: Professionally, it required a lot of time and attention to answer the media's questions about why gas prices were so high. It became a real front-burner issue for me and AAA. Personally, like everyone else, it hurt my bottom line. I'm in the same boat as most people in the Las Vegas Valley, in that I'm married to the car, and I need it to get to work. In that regard, it's easy to sympathize with consumers and be their voice when you're a consumer yourself.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.