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)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    IT Support Technician - URGENT - Graduate, Windows, MS Office

    £30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: My client, a researcher of investment idea...

    MQ Unix / Linux Systems Engineer - URGENT - Unix, Linux, MQ

    £63000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A market leading provider of technology dr...

    Service Desk Analyst - ITIL, Windows, Active Directory

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading brokerage is looking for a...

    Trade Desk Specialist - FIX, Linux, UNIX, Windows,SQL, Graduate

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading global exchange is look...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game