Motoring: Call-outs swamp 'very nice men'

Car makers would have us believe their products have never been more reliable. This message is reinforced by breakdown companies' advertising campaigns, which stress peace of mind rather than freedom from mechanical grief.

The AA, it would seem, is no longer just a 'very nice man' who fixes cars, but has become 'the fourth emergency service', working alongside the police, fire and ambulance crews at accidents. The RAC, to judge by its ads, now busies itself with rescuing lone female motorists who run out of fuel and - in a poignant sign of the times - coming to the aid of middle-class couples whose cars fall victim to petty crime.

Far from struggling to attract the owners of today's almost trouble-free cars, however, the UK's big three motoring organisations - the AA, RAC and National Breakdown - report big increases in membership figures over the past decade; what's more, the number of call-outs per subscriber stands at record levels.

So why, if cars really are becoming more reliable, is the number of breakdowns increasing? On the other hand, if vehicles are getting more troublesome, why do breakdown organisations side-step this fact in advertising campaigns?

'Today's cars are engineered to finer tolerances than those of 10 to 15 years ago,' explains Phil Webb, senior AA training officer. 'Correctly looked after, they should be a lot more reliable. The problem is that, in a recession, drivers don't have their cars properly serviced. And modern designs are less able to survive neglect.'

Examples of how recent cars' greater efficiency renders them more vulnerable if maintenance is skipped centre on the electrics - the prime cause of breakdowns.

Engines now run leaner air-to-fuel mixtures, requiring spark plugs to produce a stronger spark to ignite the fuel, thus demanding more of the electrics. A below-par plug, HT lead or coil which a decade ago might have enabled a car to limp along, is no match for the tougher demands of today's leaner, greener machinery.

Call-outs due to flat batteries are also on the increase. As manufacturers strive to build safer cars, vehicles get bigger and heavier. So smaller batteries which hold less charge in reserve are more prone to run flat in stop-start use or if the lights are accidentally left on.

Improved engine oils have enabled manufacturers to stretch the recommended intervals between scheduled services. A decade ago, almost every car needed attention every 6,000 miles; today, most petrol vehicles go 9,000, 10,000 or even 12,000 miles between services - about a year's private use. The danger with extending preventive maintenance is that a single skipped service can mean up to two years without attention, during which time a car can develop serious faults.

Such is the effect of regular maintenance on the reliability of modern cars that motoring organisations are working on ways to encourage members to look after vehicles better.

At present, the emphasis is on deterring subscribers who make 'excess use' of a service. In the RAC's case, drivers who exceed a threshold number of call-outs - which can-be as low as four a year, depending on the membership class - are threatened with a doubled premium on renewal and, two breakdowns later, asked to transfer to a pounds 63-per-call policy.

The AA and National Breakdown operate less draconian guidelines, but both reserve the right to suspend the membership of drivers who break down too often. However, the AA is now piloting a scheme which will address the underlying cause of modern breakdowns: lack of maintenance. At call-outs in Sussex and Greater Manchester, patrols will give motorists a form stating what went wrong with the car, and why. This can then be presented to a garage for the fault to be fixed. Only if the member fails to rectify problems that patrols have highlighted are repeated call-outs likely to lead to further action. Another idea is opening-up its regional breakdown depots to members with troublesome cars, with mechanics to show them what is wrong.

In the meantime, motoring organisations will continue to press ahead with advertisements which side-step the issue of unreliability. Said one marketing director, 'the last thing breakdown companies want to do is attract people whose cars keep breaking down'.


1 Faulty battery 8.3 %

2 Flat battery (driver error) 5.8 %

3 Carburation and/or throttle body problem 5.4 %

4 Distributor 3.9 %

5 Wheel change 3.3 %

Source: The Automobile Association

6 Starter motor/solenoid

3.3 %

7 Wet electrics 3.2 %

8 Other electrical fault 3.1 %

9 Clutch (cable, linkage or hydraulics) 2.9 %

10 Keys locked in car 2.8 %


1 Keep strictly to the manufacturer's reconmended service schedule.

2 If you have any doubts about the thoroughness of your garage, check in advance which items should be replaced at a service, marking them with a dab of paint so you can later spot if they've been renewed.

3 Check oil, coolant, battery distilled water and tyre pressure levels once a week. Make sure the alternator belt is taut and does not slip.

4 Make sure all leads and hoses are undamaged and nothing has pierced the tyres or the side walls.

5 Invest in a trickle-charger to boost the battery overnight, at least once a week.

6 Switch off the heated rear window as soon as possible - it can drain the battery.

7 Make sure your car's radiator contains sufficient anti-freeze in winter.

8 Don't leave a wet car in an airless garage. Humidity and damp are major causes of poor starting.

9 If you sense a fault developing, get it fixed before it gets worse or causes damage to other parts of the car.

10 Drive sympathetically. Do not rev or stress a cold engine.

11 Do not dismiss human error. Almost 1 in 10 cars is stranded by lights left on or keys locked in the vehicle.

(Photograph omitted)

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas