An investigation by Money Mail shows that inadequate response times are forcing AA and RAC customers to hire independent recovery firms to come to their rescue instead.

Desperate motorists are abandoning their vehicles and calling on friends, family, or taxis to collect them while others are finding themselves stranded at the side of the road for up to 12 hours, as they wait for recovery.

The unsettling news comes after figures show complaints about breakdown companies doubled last year and look set to double again by the end of this financial year. So, just what is going so wrong with the nation’s two largest roadside assistance companies?

Stranded without food or water

The Daily Mail spoke to Martyn James, Head of Media and Marketing at Resolver, a free online service that helps consumers raise and resolve consumer issues. Mr James says breakdown companies aren‘t good enough and that an increasing number of people find that when something goes wrong with their vehicle; the wait is excessive.

Resolver dealt with only 360 complaints in 2016-17. This figure grew to 711 complaints the following year. By August of this year, they had already received 446 complaints and say they expect to receive around 1,000 by the end of the 2018 financial year.

The AA said the average time between when they receive a call and when they arrive at the breakdown is under 50 minutes while the RAC said it gives each member an individual expected time of arrival. Yet, what‘s shocking is that Resolver says they’ve heard of people left stranded overnight without food or water.

According to experts, a big part of the problem is the lack of competition within the roadside recovery industry. Between them, the AA and the RAC control around 70% of the market and, although they each use their own patrols, they also contract out jobs to local recovery firms. The AA said they contracted out less than 15% of its jobs last year but, as they attend up to 10,000 breakdowns a day, this equates to around 500,000 call-outs. The RAC report contracting out 10% of their 2.3million call-outs last year.

Blaming the weather

Stephen Smith, of the Association of Vehicle Recovery Operators (ARVO)—which represents local breakdown firms—says the demand on companies such as the AA and RAC to keep prices low for customers means the rates they pay to local breakdown services doesn‘t encourage them to take on jobs.

The AA and RAC responded to Money Mail’s investigation findings. Here’s what their spokespersons said:

From the AA: “A harsh winter, Britain’s appalling potholed roads and a long hot summer have put pressure on the UK’s breakdown services and garages, with the AA seeing a sharp increase in calls for roadside assistance. Sometimes this has meant it took longer to reach our members than we would wish. We know we can improve so are investing in more AA roadside and recovery patrols as well as front-line staff, including in our contact centres.”

The RAC’s response: “As a responsible business we take all complaints seriously and aim to resolve them as quickly as we can. Following the harsh winter weather and the hottest summer on record, we saw large increases in breakdown volumes which inevitably led to more complaints. We have taken steps to reduce long waits and are improving the way we communicate with members who need their vehicles recovered.”

Be prepared

With all this said, if you drive a car, breakdown cover is important. Even in the most reliable of vehicles, mechanical or electrical problems can still happen. If your car breaks down at the side of the road and you don’t have breakdown cover, it can be both stressful and expensive, not to mention put you at risk from other vehicles and crime—especially at night.

Yes, motoring costs a lot already, but you can find decent breakdown cover at a low cost. If you sign up for breakdown cover while stranded, known as ‘instant cover’, you’ll pay far more than if you‘d bought cover in advance.

Before you take out a policy, though, check if breakdown cover is part of another service you already have. For instance, your bank account may include this, your car manufacturer may cover you as part of the warranty, or it could be part of your existing car insurance. If not, adding breakdown cover to your insurance is often better value than taking out a separate breakdown cover policy.

It’s wise to keep a photocopy of your breakdown cover policy on you, in the event your vehicle breaks down. Most people now carry mobile phones but carry a charger that works in your car, too.

The average wait time for roadside recovery is 40-60 minutes and, because you might need to stand away from your vehicle until help arrives, keep a warm coat, a reflective, high-visibility vest, and a torch in the boot. We hope you’ll never have a use for them, but you’ll be glad of them should a breakdown ever occur.

Do you have breakdown cover? Have you waited an excessive time for roadside assistance? Or has your experience been positive? Tell us your opinion in the comments

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