Cars and cash can be saved at the roadside: Any breakdown service may be a buffer against being stranded but the cost of that protection can vary by up to pounds 145, writes Andrew Bibby

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The Independent Online
BRITISH winters pose a challenge to drivers and their cars, and most motorists prefer to venture out in the knowledge that if things go wrong they have someone to call on for help. However, that feeling of security can come expensive.

Despite the beginnings of a price war among some of the companies providing breakdown service, membership figures suggest that many drivers are staying loyal - almost without regard for price.

A fully comprehensive package of services from the AA, for example, for a family with two drivers now costs as much as pounds 127 (including the pounds 12 first-year fee), or more than pounds 175 when breakdown cover is extended to include driving on the Continent. At the other end of the scale, cheap roadside assistance policies are available for less than pounds 30.

The RAC chose to slash its basic membership fee earlier this year with the launch of a Starter rescue service for pounds 29. The package covers one driver and a single, nominated vehicle only, but provides the standard roadside help or tow to a local garage as well as other RAC member services such as legal assistance. A second named driver for the vehicle can be covered for a further pounds 10.

The RAC says the Starter package was designed as a 'recession beater'. Its more traditional New Rescue package offers home assistance for a pounds 60 annual fee, with a home recovery facility for a further pounds 29.

Europ Assistance, with about two million British subscribers, has taken a different approach. Its Select package, launched this year, costs pounds 35 and includes not only roadside help but also recovery to the motorist's destination, home or chosen garage.

Select covers any driver of a nominated car, and Europ Assistance also provides limited car hire or hotel accommodation in certain circumstances. Subscribers to Select may have to pull out their chequebooks, however, if they are to blame for the call-out. Europ Assistance's marketing manager, Adrian Stone, says that calls to cars that have run out of petrol or where drivers have locked themselves out cost extra.

'We will always come and assist, but, yes, you have to pay for these services. People do not want to be left in the lurch but a lot of people are fed up paying for incidental services,' he says.

National Breakdown, whose standard roadside assistance package costs pounds 35.80, has pioneered another alternative in a tie-up with the Prudential. Drivers who take out comprehensive motor insurance under the Prudential's Complete Car Cover policy automatically become entitled to make use of National Breakdown's breakdown and recovery service. Free European cover is also included.

The Pru tie-up, the first time an insurance company has offered full, built-in breakdown cover, is still being phased in as existing policy-holders renew. But sceptics have suggested that motorists are too price- conscious when buying car insurance for the arrangement to work.

Apart from the AA and RAC, which have their own patrol staff, organisations providing breakdown and recovery protection rely on networks of local garages, which they call out when required by members.

Last year Which? magazine suggested that help arrives fairly promptly, although both the AA and RAC were behind Britannia Rescue and National Breakdown in a survey of average waiting time. However, the AA claims that its patrol staff's access to spare parts enables them to fix a high percentage of breakdowns at the roadside.

The AA remains unusual in providing cover on a per-person rather than per-vehicle basis. While this helps those drivers who frequently drive more than one car, it penalises one-car households with two or more drivers.

(Photograph and table omitted)

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