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'.

WHY CARS BREAK 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 %

HOW TO STAY TROUBLE-FREE

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)

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