Flat and faulty batteries are by far the most common reasons for summoning the AA and RAC, accounting for nearly one in five and one in 10 of their respective total call-outs last year.
"Cars with modern, high-tech engine management systems will start up to the last moment of surviving battery charge," explains Judith Cashman, spokeswoman for the RAC. "The only sure way of spotting a battery on its last legs, therefore, is to make sure the car is regularly checked by a garage."
Servicing can also do much to avoid other common causes of breakdown such as alternator and carburettor problems, faulty starter motors and hoses and plugs in need of replacement.
Nevertheless, all the handbook-reading and servicing in the world cannot safeguard against punctures, lock-outs, road accidents or acts of vandalism. That's where membership of a breakdown and recovery service comes into its own.
The AA and RAC both date back more than 90 years. With 9.1 million and 5.6 million members respectively, they are still the largest and best-known organisations. But two newer players have been providing them with increasingly stiff competition.
Green Flag National Breakdown, which has acquired nearly 4 million members since setting up in 1971, has raised its profile markedly in the past two years as a result of its sponsorship of the England football team.
Britannia Rescue, voted "best buy" in a Which? magazine survey last year, has 330,000 members. It has been going since 1983.
All four companies offer four levels of service. The most basic of these, available for pounds 30 to pounds 40 a year, offers only roadside assistance or a tow to a local garage when this is not possible. At the other end of the scale are deluxe services, typically costing between pounds 100 and pounds 150 a year and providing home start-ups as well as comprehensive help in completing your journey, including replacement cars and overnight stays in hotels.
The newcomers aim to appeal to the more discerning motorist who values competitive pricing and superior service above reputations that date back several generations. Indeed, around half of Green Flag's members have previously been AA or RAC members.
The claims of the newcomers deserve to be taken seriously but there is no satisfactory yardstick by which value for money can be measured. While they currently have the edge on published prices, exact comparisons are complicated by numerous variations found in the small print.
For example, most of Green Flag National Breakdown's policies look good value on first sight. But some of the optional features, for which it makes additional charges, are included as standard by its competitors.
Green Flag's Total Protection deluxe package (from pounds 145 a year), on the other hand, looks good value for those who drive frequently in continental Europe. The poackage includes free European cover, while the AA's Five Star Europe Option (pounds 70 a year) and its Option 400 deluxe package (from pounds 118 a year) comes to pounds 43 more.
It should be borne in mind that the AA and RAC offer their members valuable fringe benefits such as free legal and technical advice, handbooks, discounts and special offers. Green Flag and Britannia provide far fewer of these. Indeed, Britannia, which guarantees not to bombard its members with junk mail, uses the no-frills approach as a major selling point.
Attempting to compare service standards also represents something of a minefield.
The AA and RAC, which have their own uniformed patrols, place great emphasis on their "fix rates" (the percentage of call-outs they attend that they manage to fix at the roadside). They claim average fix rates of 89 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.
The newer players, which rely exclusively on networks of independent garages, prefer to be judged on their "call-out rates" (the length of time it takes to arrive at the scene once a phone call has been received). Both boast an average call-out rate of 34 minutes. Green Flag even promises to pay pounds 10 if it fails to arrive within one hour of a call.
The RAC's average call-out rate is 40 minutes while the AA refuses to quote one, which has led to accusations that it is slower. The fact that Which? found the AA's average call-out rate to be 57 minutes seems to bear this out.
Richard Williams, operations general manager at the AA, says: "The important thing is not how quickly someone comes out but whether they fix your car.
"Our independent researchers tell us this time and time again but Which? always misses the point."
The only other player to have made any significant impact in the breakdown insurance market has been Europ Assistance. UK Driver Assist - its only product aimed at private motorists - provides a useful low-cost alternative for the responsible motorist. It offers most of the advantages of a deluxe policy for only pounds 35 a year but charges extra for assistance resulting from lack of fuel, undamaged flat tyres, loss of keys or poor car maintenance.
THE ROADSIDE REPAIR CREWS
Company Number of British Average
patrols contacted garages call-out rate
AA (0800 444999) 3,700 800 Won't reveal RAC (0800 550550) 1,400 1,400 40 minutes
Green Flag (0800 00011) 0 1,500 34 minutes
Britannia 0 565 34 minutes
Rescue (0800 591563)
Europ 0 1,600 43 minutes
Assistance (01444 442211)Reuse content