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Almost exactly a year ago we had occasion to use , for the first time in our five years of membership , the services of the AA .
We had been on our way to Portsmouth Passenger Ferry Terminal for our pre booked trip across the Channel to Caen on one of our regular visits to our house in Western Brittany .
We were trundling along the A34 in our Ford van , making good time , and looking forward to our trip , when there was a sudden loud bang . The passenger side of the vehicle dropped and my husband lost all control of the vehicle as it slewed sideways out of the centre lane , then across the inside lane and a joining slip road with upcoming traffic . How the lorry coming up to our left managed to miss us , or we him , I will never know , but eventually we came to rest suddenly and jarringly on the soft verge about two thirds of the way up the slip road .
Luckily neither of us was injured , and our first instinct was to get out and have a look to see what the hell had happened . The rear nearside wheel had collapsed completely from the axle and was jammed at an angle beneath the wheel arch , splaying the metal arch outwards . This in turn was jammed against a small concrete kerb which edged the grass verge , making the van completely immovable .
Remember that this was at 7.20 pm in February 2005 , in freezing cold weather and pitch darkness , on a stretch of road that had no visible services or emergency phones , and in the impact of stopping my mobile had fallen from the dashboard and smashed .
Not a soul stopped to ask if we were okay , although plenty craned their necks to have a look , and even though we had turned on the hazard warning lights , we were still on an upcoming slip road and in quite serious danger of being swiped .
Eventually it became clear that we had no choice but to try and flag down someone who could lend us a phone , and even though we were well aware of the danger we had no option apart from spending the night in the van in such a dangerous position and with no supplies .
Thirty five minutes later a lorry finally pulled into the top end of the slip road and stopped , and the driver kindly lent me his phone to call the AA . I explained to the operator that I had no phone and was using someone else's , and she took my details including make and model of the vehicle , registration number and its physical condition . I told her it wasn't driveable as the wheel was broken and jammed sideways , and she said we would need a large recovery vehicle and a heavy duty jack to load the van onto it to get us home . Then she asked our location , but as there were no landmarks I told her which road we were on and the direction in which we were heading . Luckily at the top of the slip road was a large board with the words " Welcome to the County of Royal Berkshire " , and I informed her of this too . The lorry driver spoke to her and included some of his own local knowledge , and she said she had located us on the map , told us to stay with the vehicle but not to sit in it as it was safer to stand outside in case something else collided with us . Then she said reassuringly " Someone will be with you by no later than 8.30 . "
By now the time was 8.05 , so I figured we would survive for 25 minutes . We thanked the lorry driver and I went with my husband back to the van .
8.30 came and went , and we were shivering with cold standing at the side of the road . The traffic had now died down and only the occasional vehicle passed by . Ironically , one of these had been an AA recovery vehicle which was obviously not the one intended for us .
9.05 pm , and we had to get back into the van and turn the heater on .. we were numb with cold . Just then a police car pulled up behind us , and the officers flashed his blue lights and beckoned to us . No way were they going to leave their nice warm car , so I had to get out and go and speak to them . Apparently they had had " several " calls " an hour or so " ago regarding people waving at traffic from the side of the road , and they had finally decided to come and investigate . After establishing that we were uninjured and awaiting the arrival of the AA they said not to sit in the vehicle and left . Thanks guys . Great help .
Fifteen minutes later we had convinced ourselves that the AA couldn't find us , as two more of their vehicles had passed , one on each side of the barriered road , but neither seemingly looking for us . The hazard warnings were still on , so we could easily have been spotted , but .. nothing .
Again our only choice was to find yet another person with a phone , so reluctantly we repeated our wild waving session at the roadside , again only to be met with stares and flashing of headlights .
As the traffic was really thin on the ground by this time of night we were beginning to despair , but then after 20 minutes a car appeared up the slip road behind us and stopped . This lovely couple had apparently driven past and seen us waving , taken the next exit and looped back around to see if they could help . At the same time another car pulled up . This young male driver was based at the nearby Army barracks and was on his way back there ,. He offered the use of his phone and he and my husband called the AA again . He also called the police and told them that we were still there broken down and un-rescued , but they seemed disinterested to say the least .
The lady in the other car gave me her take away coffee which she had picked up at a service area ten minutes drive back along the road . I was shaking so much with cold that most of it slopped out of the polystyrene cup , but the bit I did manage to drink helped a lot .
The AA office told the other man and my husband that the recovery vehicle was on its way , and that there had been " an unforeseen delay " , but to return to our vehicle and await its arrival . It was now 9.45 pm , one hour and twenty five minutes after our original call to the AA , on an unlit stretch of road in a temperature of minus 2 degrees , and freezing fog was beginning to descend as we bade farewell to our saviours and once again climbed back into the slightly warm van despite the warnings not to . We were almost frozen , and extreme cold has the effect of making you feel very tired . We didn't care much any more about the safety aspect .. After all , should something plough into us at least we would have the protection of a metal shell and the reassurance of some degree of warmth in our last minutes !
At 10.22 pm the AA recovery vehicle arrived . He asked if we were alright , and looked amazed when I said , No , we were freezing after waiting for almost two and a half hours . He told us that he had not received the callout from his base until 9.50 pm , and that he had been available and in the area all evening !
Then he looked at the damage and said " Oh . I will need to jack that up before I can load it . " Unfortunately , he had no jack . He hadn't been told he would need one .
So he rang a colleague who was in the general area , and who had a jack on board , and we waited another 15 minutes for this van to arrive .
10.40pm …. The jacking process finally began , followed by the winching and loading process .
At just after 11pm we begun our journey in the AA lorry back to our home town , three and a half hours away from where we broke down . Five minutes into what we had thought was to be the final journey of our horrible day our driver informed us that his tachograph would run out before he could get us home and him and his vehicle back to base , so he would have to phone ahead and arrange for a contractor to meet up and take over from him at Leicester Forest Services in two hours time . He spoke to someone on his phone and they arranged the rendezvous for 1.30 am .
By now we were desperately tired , having left home at 3pm and been exposed to both the shock of the accident and the elements for almost 5 hours , and a kind of resignation had set in . We realised that things weren't going to be at all uncomplicated , but as long as we eventually got home in one piece , who cared ?
1.20 am .. We pulled into Leicester Forest Services . And waited . No sign of our contractor . 1.30 am 1.45 am Our driver phoned again . Apparently the other driver had fallen asleep again after answering the call , but was definitely on his way now …
2.05 am , and in the freezing fog which swirled around the floodlit forecourt of the Service area our van was dropped down from one vehicle and reloaded onto the next .
2.25am , and off we went again .
This driver must have slept really well , because he talked non stop all the way back to our house . Delightful , but at 3.50 am , twelve hours and 50 minutes after we had left that day for our ferry to France , we didn't feel particularly talkative . No surprises there then .
We re-entered the house at a little after 4am , left the wrecked van and all of its contents on the driveway and flopped , exhausted , into bed .
The next day I called the AA customer services to have a word about our awful experience .
I hadn't wanted anything but to make the point that perhaps it would be better for the operator NOT to say " someone will be with you NO LATER THAN 8.30 if that time couldn't be guaranteed , but I was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise before I was subjected to a very terse and unrelentingly patronising diatribe upon the difficulties of providing such a service . No apology … nothing . Not even a kind word .
Needless to say , I gave up trying , cancelled my policy , put the phone down and immediately signed up with another company , as we were planning on having the van repaired and attempting to re-schedule our trip for two weeks later .
The one time in our five years of paid membership that we had needed the " Knights of the Road " .. " The 4th Emergency Service " …… and we had been totally let down . And as if the experience itself hadn't been bad enough , their Customer Services had offered nothing but abrupt rudeness and excuses when all that had been needed was a sincere apology and an interest in our state of health .
The following week I received a " courtesy call " from a man at the AA enquiring why we had cancelled our policy , and asking if he could persuade us to come back . However , after I had explained the circumstances to him , he agreed ( off the record ) that we had been treated abominably , and that he wouldn't go back either after that ! Apparently he is also currently covered by the company who we now use …..
Wow, what an awful experience - and so well reported. I feel like a helpless fool - like many others, I have paid into the AA for years and have not had to use them so far. It makes my blood boil that in my time of need they might leave me stranded. Even worse, that their "customer service" department were so dispassionate. After that cockup the very least they could do would be to sincerely apologise and give you a few years free membership. And how come the police were happy to leave you in a dangerous place?! They shouldn't be allowed to leave you like that essentially in danger from both other vehicles and the elements. So glad you got home in one piece. xx
evilfran 20.06.2006 02:02
what an awful experience, i'm not surprised you left them. Just add, that i've been with them for many years, and have called them out many times, no problem, but on this occasion for you, they screwed up royally
kismet 03.03.2006 10:41
Good review. What a terrible experience. These companies really take the mickey, they are happy to take your money for years, but they never want to pay out or do any work!