In a typical month around 14,500 vehicles break down, rising to nearer 18,000 a month in the summer holiday period when the roads become clogged and heavily laden cars overheat in traffic jams.

It’s true that older cars are more prone to failure, but new cars are not immune either, usually because of an electrical fault – or even because the owner has put in the wrong type of fuel! Yes, it happens more often than you might think.  And it’s not just a mechanical part going wrong because increasingly these days drivers are being left stranded by punctures or wheel damage caused by one of the millions of potholes on our broken roads.

So, what can we do? Well the easiest and most cost-effective way to get mobile again is to join one of the many roadside assistance and breakdown recovery companies. For about the cost of a tank of fuel you should be able to get a year’s protection and while hopefully you will never need it, if ever you do, then it’ll be one of the best investments you’ve made.

Let’s look at what help is available and then how much it might cost.

Levels of cover

Basic cover: Does what it says and will get you help at the roadside and if it can’t be fixed there and then, a tow to a nearby garage. However, many of these basic policies will not cover you if the problem happens while you are at home, so for this you will need….

Home start: This is extra to a basic cover policy, but is potentially the most useful if you only do short urban journeys, say a school run or short commute which might not give the battery enough time to fully recharge after cranking over the engine, and especially so during winter when it has to power the lights, heated windscreen and demister.  You’ll need to check the small print to see precisely what the organisation defines as `home’. Normally it means the cover starts so long as you are up to at least a quarter of a mile to a mile from where you live, but do check.

Onward journey: If your car has to be kept in the garage for more lengthy repairs, the breakdown organisation will normally pay for a hire car for (usually) up to three days and the cost of an overnight hotel.

National recovery: This will give your car a tow to anywhere in the UK which can be handy if you routinely do long journeys.

Family/multi-car cover: This will allow parents and up to (usually) three others and several vehicles to be covered on one policy.

European cover: As you may have guessed, this is only of any use if you take your car abroad.

How much does it cost?

Before we look at this, just consider one fact; the AA reckons that the bill to have your car retrieved from a motorway hard shoulder if you don’t have any type of cover in place will be at least £250, probably more.  Even a very comprehensive policy giving you multiple levels of cover won’t cost anything like this much.

Taking as our example cover for two cars with home start, nationwide and with onward journey all ticked as options, policies start from less than £50…

There will be T&Cs which need careful reading but a sum of around fifty quid doesn’t sound a lot to give you peace of mind.

breakdown technician identifying a problem

Satisfaction guaranteed

Well, almost. As it happens, drivers are generally very happy with the service they get from roadside help companies. In a recent study published earlier this year, 18% of drivers said that help arrived within 30 minutes of calling and 43% within 30 to 60 minutes.

The same study showed that in 38% of instances, the vehicle was fixed at the roadside and the driver able to complete their journey, in 30% a temporary repair was done and enough to get the driver back on the road. In just 2.3% of cases was the breakdown technician unable to help in any way.

What they won’t cover

Recovery companies can’t really be expected to carry the expense for an easily avoidable mistake, so you may well find that your policy excludes situations where you have been stranded because you have run out of fuel, let the battery go flat by leaving the lights on when the engine isn’t running and sometimes, misfuelling.

Usual faults

The most common causes of a breakdown are a flat or faulty battery, damaged tyres or wheels, starter motor failure, failed clutch and a misfuelling/running out of fuel incident.

A personal story

Given that I spend a lot of my time testing brand new cars, mechanical failures are thankfully a very rare event for me and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been stuck; however, and without mentioning the name of either the car manufacturer or the roadside assistance company (but they have yellow vans and the first letter of the alphabet appears twice in its logo), here’s a personal tale.

A couple of years ago I was stranded with my three children in the back and whilst on my way to pick up my wife from work. Conking out in the middle of a busy city during the evening rush-hour did little to endear me to other drivers. Stress adding on stress…

And yet within I would say, 10 minutes or so of my ringing the help line of the company I’m a member of, one of its vans turned up and the friendly technician quickly diagnosed a fuel pump issue. He was brilliant and when he did get us going again said he would follow us the 15 miles back to our home just to make sure we arrived without further problem. When I asked why, he said it was standard policy in a situation where children were involved.

If only other service providers in other walks of life were as timely, efficient and friendly as this one.

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