It's enough to give anyone a breakdown

The explosion in the number of vehicle-recovery outfits has caused a confusion of driver choices
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The police, fire and ambulance are the core emergency services we rely on in a crisis, but up there with them must be plumbers and vehicle-recovery companies.

The police, fire and ambulance are the core emergency services we rely on in a crisis, but up there with them must be plumbers and vehicle-recovery companies.

Although we can probably cope for a bit with a broken boiler, being stranded miles from a home in a car that does not work can really ruin your day. That is probably why the AA managed to style themselves, for a while, as the fourth emergency service. To have a "very nice man", to use another of their campaigns, rescue you at the roadside was a reassuring and powerful image.

In the past few years, the vehicle rescue/recovery market has changed hugely. The handful of motoring organisations has multiplied to dozens of competing companies, all offering a range of products, which can be confusing.

Yet the need to belong to a rescue/recovery company is greater because surveys and reports from the Consumers' Association and Warranty Direct indicate many models are more likely than ever to break down. And the complexity of modern cars means a roadside fix is not always the answer as it will be taken to specialist garage staffed by boffins in white coats.

Having the right rescue/recovery package at a price you can afford is more important, as is understanding exactly what is on offer.

The first approach is to log on to www.cheapest-breakdown-cover.co.uk which does exactly what it says, giving you a list and links to the best deals, but it is not all about price you need to work out the level of service you need.

The most basic "Roadside" service will cover you at the roadside. A mechanic will try to fix the problem, and, if unsuccessful, they may tow you to the nearest garage or home. A Recovery package will transport you, your vehicle, and a certain number passengers home or any other mainland destination.

Then there are the "Home" packages where a mechanic will come to your home if your vehicle breaks down. At the most comprehensive level, there will be additional benefits such as a replacement car; overnight accommodation or onward travel arrangements. And if you travel regularly to Europe it is important that you pay extra for that cover. To confuse matters further, just as there are levels of cover there are also levels of membership.

So "Single or Personal" membership covers you as the driver or passenger in any vehicle. "Joint" will cover you and another person, living at the same address and "Family", which is obvious. With prices starting at £25 and rising to more than £200 it still does not come down to a simple price and service comparison.

You may prefer to go with a national name, which means uniforms, liveried vehicles and the reassurance of dealing with a household name. The alternative is being rescued by a local recovery service that may take the vehicle to their own garage for repair.

Unfortunately, you will still have to plough through the small print, because there are conditions. Break down within a mile of home without homestart cover and you will not get help. Ditto locking your keys in.

You might face extra charges if the repair takes more than an hour of labour. Oh yes, try to fix the car yourself then ask for a proper recovery mechanic to sort out the bodge and they may refuse. Probably the most important criterion when choosing a rescue/recovery service is how long they will take to reach you.

Many give priority to families and women travelling alone and they may even quote an average response time, but who can you really trust? The most exhaustive assessment is done by Which? magazine and the last survey was in late 2002.

They found the AA outperformed its car-rescue competitors in almost every area, being quicker to arrive and more likely to repair a car on the spot. The RAC struggled and some customers had problems getting through to call centres. The RAC's estimated arrival times were way out, and its patrols were among the slowest in the survey. The AA proved to be the most likely service to arrive within half an hour. It reached 53 per cent of breakdowns within 30 minutes of a call. By contrast, only 36 per cent of RAC patrols arrived within half an hour of the call-out whilst more than one in five RAC members had to wait more than an hour.

The remaining rescue companies fell between the AA and the RAC. Britannia Rescue rivalled the AA for quick call-answering and the courtesy of telephone staff, but it could not compete for roadside repair. The survey also found the RAC and Britannia were repairing fewer breakdowns by the roadside than they were in 1999. The RAC slipped by 11 per cent, down to 62 per cent and Britannia down 9 per cent to 52 per cent. The AA repaired 74 per cent of breakdowns on the spot.

Interestingly, the RAC now claim an 83 per cent roadside fix rate. The trouble is that trying to compare prices and services is becoming more difficult with subtle differences in what is on offer.

There is also a reluctance by some companies to have fixed prices because they would rather quote individually. Like insurers, they prefer to assess each risk based on your circumstances and vehicle, which means when you are shopping for quotes you can play one company against another. The choice of rescue/recovery service is certainly huge, but in the panel on the left is a brief guide to the major companies and what they have to offer.

FOUR OF THE BREAKDOWN OPTIONS

There are four breakdown options and cover starts from £26 with discounts when you buy online www.morethan.com

* AA has the largest dedicated patrol force in the UK, with 3,600 patrols, apparently more than twice that of any other UK breakdown organisation. Prices go from £41 to £218. www.theaa.com

* RAC do not impose charges for a roadside fix, no matter how long it takes. Prices start at £39 to £199 and you save £5 by booking online. www.rac.co.uk

* Norwich Union Rescue costs from £22 with a £5 saving when you buy online. Norwich Union Rescue rescue/ recovery/at home and onward travel is £52. www.norwichunion.com

* Direct Line Rescue say you can save up to 20 per cent on AA or RAC costs and they prefer you to get a quote online. Their equivalent of AA Option 100 at £46 and RAC Roadside £45 Direct Line Rescue is £35. www.directline.com

* Green Flag claim a 39-minute average callout time. They offer a rapid-response pledge, where you can claim £10 if they do not. Green Flag tailor a package to your circumstances. www.greenflag.co.uk

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