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Choosing a breakdown organisation always feels a little like taking a prepayment plan for your own funeral, but maybe thatís just my morbid side shining through. Given that we all want that extra bit of security on the road, which organisation should we choose?
Firstly, I should admit that I used to work for the RAC some years ago Ė although as a Network Support Engineer, rather than a patrol. This will explain how I know about the workings inside the RAC; I leave it to you to decide if that experience has swayed my opinion here.
The RAC operates a national breakdown service with their own, uniformed, roadside patrols. They are the second largest organisation after the AA. They have pretty much the same range of options as the others; recovery (to get you home if it canít be fixed), homestart (need I say this is to get you started at home), European assistance through partner organisations etc.
When you call the RAC your call will be routed to one of 5 regional command and control centres. Normally your call will go to the nearest centre but in busy periods you may be diverted to any, so donít be surprised if you breakdown in Cornwall and your call is taken by a Scottish girl with no idea where you are. This, incidentally, is why the takers (as the operators are imaginatively called) always run through a set script to determine your location. It may be obvious to you where you are standing; it may not be if you are sat 600 miles away. Try to know what road you are on and some sort of location, either next road junction or a landmark. Most delays arise form patrols being unable to find the members. The takers log the call on the system and it then appears in the dispatcherís queue. They will allocate the job to the first available resource (either patrol or contractor, see below). The patrols have data terminals in their vehicles and they receive the job details on these. All times are logged (for example, time call taken, job despatched, job received, patrol arrived on scene) so if there are queries later an accurate record is available.
I was a member of RAC for about twelve years, on and off, either in my own capacity or through a company scheme for fleet vehicles. In that time I probably called on their services about twenty times, which makes me fairly average. The average time for a patrol to attend was about 15-20 minutes, the best time being less than 5 minutes (in that case the patrol got to my car before I could walk back from the telephone box), the worst time was 45 minutes. These are pretty much in the usual range for which the companies all aim. I needed recovery 4 times. All of these were handled without too much delay, but you will almost always have to wait because the recovery vehicle will only be called after a patrol has checked your vehicle and just about all the recovery work is done by contractors about whom I return shortly.
The standard of work seems fine, the car was going after they left and didnít fail again with the same fault. The roadside service is not a substitute for maintenance and the patrols only have a limited range of spares and equipment, so they may not be able to do much more than tow you to the nearest garage. The patrols remain surprisingly cheerful, considering the long hours and poor conditions in which they often work. Iíve never had call for complaint on this score.
The few problems I have had were all with contractors. The RAC, in common with the AA, will use their own patrols when available. At peak times, or in more remote areas where it might take a long time for the nearest patrol to attend, they will choose to use contractors, these are basically local garages who operate independent breakdown services. These range from one man and his dog operations under the railway arches to large local or regional operators with dozens of vehicles. The quality of service here can vary tremendously. While the level of technical knowledge may be fairly consistent, the standard of vehicles, cleanliness and courtesy can be very poor. Incidentally, most of these companies take work from all of the breakdown organisations, so regardless of your membership you may end up with the same roadside assistance. As I said earlier, contractors do virtually all of the RACís recovery.
One last thing, if you breakdown on a motorway service station, donít ask the guy selling memberships for assistance. Firstly, he probably doesnít work for the RAC; most are franchisees Ė basically freelance sales agents. Secondly, only roadside patrols are insured to provide assistance. Thirdly, he doesnít have any secret quick access to the RAC; his calls go into the same queue as everybody else.
Why join the RAC? Well, frankly, there is nothing to choose between the RAC and the AA. Look at the current deals and you can more or less match everything, so it comes down to special offers or a preference for badges. In regard of the other companies, like Green Flag, the main thing to consider is that they do not operate any of their own patrols, so quality is more difficult to control. I understand that RAC & AA also pay better rates to their contractors, so at the busiest times the contractors may already have committed their resources to those organisations. If you are happy to risk a little on service levels, then the smaller operators all seem to undercut the two large operators.
I am currently a member of AA, but only because there was a salesman stood in the right place at the right time.