Repeat calls invite a charge by the knights of the road

The RAC estimates that excessive use by less than 1 per cent of customers costs it more than £1m a year

CAR RESCUE services are worth every penny of your membership fee when you break down in the middle of the night on a lonely lane, miles from anywhere. But what if you need them more than once or twice a year?

Derek Smith, publisher of What House? magazine, was extremely surprised to receive a warning letter from the Royal Automobile Club after calling on its services for a breakdown for the fourth time in five months.

"I have been a member for six years and, until recently, probably used the RAC only a couple of times. It was just unfortunate that both of my cars broke down twice within a few months - it was for a different fault each time.

"After the last call-out, I received a letter saying, `If you call us out twice more, your subscription will be doubled.'

"It said that it appreciated I might have been having a run of bad luck, but if this carried on I would have to pay more. The letter said that if it got as far as having my subscription doubled, I would be able to appeal."

Mr Smith rang the RAC to protest and was told that it had to look after its good members, because it had competitive membership fees and wanted to keep them down.

"If they are penalising the bad members," said Mr Smith, "then they should reward their best members and give them no-claims discounts."

The RAC points out that it has an Excess Use Policy, which has been in operation for six years. "We try to be as fair as we can, both for specific members who might be taking advantage of the system and the wider membership," said a spokesman.

The company estimates that excessive use by less than 1 per cent of members costs it more than £1m a year. "We are trying to prevent people using this organisation as a garage," said the RAC's Peter Brill.

"We had one woman who called us out 11 times in three months, despite our warnings that it was a temporary repair and needed mending permanently. We have had people using us 50 to 60 times a year."

In the first 10 years, call-outs must not exceed four times a year for a starter membership, six times a year for an ordinary membership or eight times if you own two or three vehicles. If you exceed this, your premium will be doubled the following year. If you exceed the limit twice more, you will have to pay £63.50 for each call-out.

These provisos do not apply to members of 10 years' standing or more, and there is an appeals procedure. Written warnings are issued. Figures from the RAC show that 27,000 of its 5.9 million members were written to in 1993. Of these, 7 per cent appealed successfully but 7 per cent had premiums doubled.

"I think the majority of our members understand why we do this," said Mr Brill. "Some have asked for a no-claims discount, but it just doesn't work. People might not use it, for example, if they had a flat tyre, preferring to do it themselves to save losing their discount. The last thing we want is for a disaster to happen just because they were trying to save their no-claims discount."

The rival Automobile Association has been running its Fair Play policy for at least four years, and says it has discovered that less than 2 per cent of its members call it out more than four times a year.

It has uncovered outrageous abuses, said a spokesman. One person called the AA out 66 times in 18 months. Another had a convenient breakdown on a Friday night so that he could get a hire car for the weekend. And a third was always calling from outside a car auction. He evidently never got further than a few yards in his latest `new' car.

"Because we have been able to do something about those people who misuse the service, this has benefited the majority of our members - and the membership fee has remained the same for three years," the spokesman said.

The AA's basic premise is that if a member makes between five and eight calls within one subscription year, it will look at the reasons for the call-outs.

First of all it writes and asks the member to get in touch. If it transpires that it is a legitimate run of bad luck, then the AA will do nothing - a member of a few years' standing will initially get the benefit of doubt.

However, if it is five call-outs to jump-start a car because it needs a new battery, then the organisation might give a discount voucher for a replacement battery. Or the AA might offer a free once-over to find out the cause of a persistent problem.

If call-outs continue, the member will have to pay £45 each time for the rest of that subscription year, and any relay will be at the going rate. The following year the slate will be wiped clean.

Green Flag National Breakdown is far more laid-back about excessive use. It concedes that after a member uses the service a number of times for a recurring problem, it will take the car to a garage. However, there is no penalty for making numerous call-outs in one year for a variety of problems.

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