THE WOMAN with salt-and-pepper hair peered at the gnarled lump of metal on the table. 'It's the alternator isn't it? My washing machine's got one.' She was right, unlike the wag who answered 'part of a man's brain - dead' when confronted by the windscreen-wiper motor.

'Name the part' proved to be a revelation for those attending the AA's Women on Wheels evening course in Crawley, West Sussex at the end of March. Few of them had ever looked under the bonnet. 'I've been driving for 25 years, but I've never even changed the oil. I leave it up to my husband,' admitted Maureen Abbott.

The AA has been running ad hoc women-only sessions for about three years, but now it has teamed up with Honda UK to provide a national programme of Women on Wheels courses for the catchment areas served by the manufacturer's dealers. And if Crawley is anything to go by - the first session at Southern Counties showroom was heavily over-subscribed and a second evening hurriedly added - there should be no shortage of takers.

According to the AA, female drivers make up 38 per cent of Britain's 21 million motorists. Thirty five of them rolled up at Southern Counties in their battered Allegros and spanking new Fiestas. They wanted practical advice; if the car breaks down on the motorway do I get out and search for a phone, do I accept male driver's offer of help, should I stay in the car and wait? The AA was keen to play down the risk of random attack and in his chunky jumper, Julian Fenton, one of its patrolmen, cut a reassuring figure. However, his assertion that drivers are more likely to be injured in a traffic accident than by a knife-wielding maniac didn't convince everyone. 'I'm almost neurotic about driving alone,' confided Jan Daykin, a computer operations executive.

The case of Marie Wilkes, murdered on the M25 in 1988 after calling for help on a motorway telephone, is still fresh in the minds of many women. And Sergeant Larry Culver from the Sussex traffic police had barely started his crime prevention spiel when one woman brought up an incident last year in which a woman was attacked as she waited for the traffic lights to change at a busy junction in Finchley, north London. Add to this the murders of Penny Bell and Jean Bradley, both recently stabbed to death within sight of their cars, and the women's concern becomes understandable.

Sgt Culver didn't suggest that women carry weapons Dirty Harry-style, but he did point out diplomatically that a 'fire extinguisher or an umbrella could be useful' if the unthinkable should happen. And if a woman suspects she is being followed, he advised pulling into a petrol station with horn blaring and hazard warning lights flashing.

Much of Sgt Culver's advice was fairly obvious; park in a spot that is safe to return to at night, have car keys at the ready, keep doors locked and windows wound up in built-up areas, invest in an effective car alarm. One woman, unhappy with the poorly-lit parking facilities attached to her block of flats, wanted specific advice on safer alternatives. The sergeant was surprisingly evasive. 'It's really up to you to decide where to park; if you're not happy with the garage, park somewhere else,' he suggested. 'In that case, if I get a ticket can I call you?' the woman asked tartly.

And what if smoke starts billowing out of the exhaust or a tyre bursts on the M1? A breakdown confirms not only the vulnerability of women behind the wheel, but in many cases their reliance on men to do the dirty work. When Sue Stass broke down on the motorway, two fishermen miraculously appeared on the hard shoulder and offered to help. 'I had two children in the car and I was grateful, but I was also lucky; it could have been anyone.' But few women would flag down a passing motorist after a blow out: 'I used to get a fella to give me a hand, but now I'd drag the tools out myself,' one middle-aged woman said.

According to Sgt Culver, the first priority is to get the vehicle off the road. or motorway. After that it's up to the driver to make choices. He recommended a thick coat and hat for those women who decide to walk to the motorway phone - 'to hide those mini skirts and high heels' - and advised them to pass on the registration numbers of suspicious-looking vehicles. 'But should I wait inside or outside the car?' wondered one woman. Again, it all depends on particular circumstances. Sitting by a busy roadside in daylight could be safer than cowering on the back seat where there is a danger of being shunted by other traffic. If anyone approaches the car, cautioned Sgt Culver, open the window slightly and ask them to call the police. And if they claim to be police, check their identification.

Based on the AA's philosophy of prevention being better than cure, the second part of the course covered basic mechanics. Regular checks of oil, petrol, water, tyre pressure and electrics keep trouble at bay. The AA even quotes a fragrant acronym, Flowers - Fuel Lights Oil Water Electrics Rubber Self - as a reminder.

By this time most of the women were itching to roll up their sleeves and have a go at changing a wheel. As with learning to drive, stressed Mr Fenton, success was a matter of confidence. The women were certainly enthusiastic. Cars were jacked up with gusto and wheel braces vigourously turned. 'I'll have a practice on the drive this Sunday,' muttered one woman, tightening the wheel nuts with a flourish.

Mindful of last year's complaints that advertisements for the RAC and Cellnet preyed on the fears of women drivers, the AA insists that its Women on Wheels initiative is not about scaring women into membership, or a sales pitch for its Callsafe emergency telephone service.

With a final lingering glance at brake pads and blade fuses, the women reflected on what they had learnt. 'I always thought motorway phones took 10ps, but I didn't know if they accepted old or new ones. I needn't have worried, because now I know they're free,' a young girl laughed. Her friend was relieved at the AA's pledge to treat lone women - members or not - as a priority. And Karen Abbott was just pleased to have finally mastered a wheel change. 'When I broke down before, I couldn't unscrew the nuts. Now I feel more confident,' she said triumphantly.

Jan Daykin was reassured, but realistic. 'I found the practical advice useful, but at the end of the day I can't ever see myself getting out of the car if it breaks down. Let's face it, everyone is vulnerable.' As the women returned to their vehicles parked in the darkness, a man shouted out 'drive safely'. Some of the women smiled ruefully; if only that was enough.

For details of Women on Wheels courses, telephone 0345 500600

(Photograph omitted)