Conal Gregory: It’s peace of mind if hitting the road over the Christmas break

Breakdown insurance should be viewed in the same light as contents cover.
Breakdown insurance should be viewed in the same light as contents cover.
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Winter weather is definitely here, often creating difficult driving conditions. To be stranded is fraught enough but particularly when there are far fewer garages to call upon for help over the Christmas and new year period.

The solution is to take out breakdown insurance. It should be viewed in the same light as contents cover. Neither is legally demanded.

Neither may ever be required but, when it is needed, the insurer should offer prompt service and arrange that you are reinstated to the same position before the crisis occurred.

Do not expect every scenario to be included. Clearly vehicles without road tax and, if relevant, the MOT are excluded. Situations where specialist equipment is required to make a recovery, such as from mud, snow or a flood, are also out of scope. Some insurers will not cover minor items like a faulty headlight.

Motor breakdown assistance is not new. The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) was founded in 1897 in the days when the Marquis of Salisbury was Prime Minister for the third time. Eight years later, the Automobile Association (AA) was established to help motorists avoid police speed traps.

The RAC was later sold. Aviva owned it from 2005-2011 and today it is jointly controlled by GIC Private , part of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, and CVC Capital Partners.

The AA is publicly quoted and offers motor insurance, holiday and household cover besides a vehicle breakdown service.

The AA has disappointed shareholders with a declining membership – currently 3.19m – but should look up with a partnership arrangement with Admiral where it gains access to 4.3m potential customers.

Before buying cover, see if it is already in place as it is complimentary with several current account bank packages, most new vehicles and even recently sold second-hand ones.

A discount may be available when certain other products are held. The AA, for instance, offers vehicle-based breakdown help from just £15 when car insurance is bought from it. It will also provide personal cover at a discounted rate.

The three key questions to consider with any breakdown insurer are:

Personal or vehicle cover

Extended to partner and/or family

How comprehensive a policy.

The age of the principal vehicle could be a factor before even looking at the alternative providers. There is no age limit with either the AA or RAC but Leeds-based Green Flag, part of Direct Line, will not accept beyond 16 years.

The basic policy offered is roadside help away from home, which is usually defined as a quarter-mile. This is because a flat battery is a common problem.

Insurers proudly state their performance ratio in sorting out a problem on the road – eight out of 10 call-outs with the AA – but the policy will usually include towing the vehicle to the nearest appropriate garage if the mechanic cannot fix the difficulty.

Check if an insurer is using its own patrols or has to rely on a third party. A RAC patrol will carry over 500 parts and tools to fix four out of five vehicles.

If the vehicle cannot be repaired either at the roadside or an approved garage, consider if it is worth holding a policy which will take you and your passengers on to the planned destination.

The RAC, for instance, will ensure the driver and up to eight passengers are transported to anywhere in the UK and has an annual premium starting at £72.

Green Flag offers a very competitive £25 rate for roadside help which is extended to towing to the nearest garage if necessary. For an extra £15, the policy can include home assistance.

In its most recent reader survey, What Car? placed GEM Motoring Assist top for breakdown cover for the seventh year running. The provider was formed as the Company of Veteran Motorists in 1932 and operated under that name until 1983. It was then renamed The Guild of Experienced Motorists and took its current title in 2004.

It differs fundamentally from other insurers in its approach. The policyholder has to pay for the breakdown service and reclaim the cost back. Premiums start at £78.50 for an individual or £98.86 for two people at the same address.

This covers for emergency repairs at the roadside or being taken to the nearest appropriate garage.

If that does not resolve the problem, the cost of onward travel over 25 miles from home or accommodation up to £200 is included. Assistance at home is excluded from these rates which can be obtained for £96.66 and £129.21 respectively.

Huddersfield-based Britannia Rescue is one of the leading breakdown insurers. It started in 1983 by offering cover to members of the Civil Service Motoring Association. In 2007 it was acquired by the mutual society, LV=.

Policies name the vehicle rather than a specific driver. LV= has a network of over 3,000 garage staff that can be called upon. It offers five levels of service, starting with help at the roadside and up to 10 miles from home (just £30). Home assistance can be added (an extra £33).

Alternatively, Britannia Rescue provides UK recovery (£70) to which home help can be added (an extra £20).

Some of the smaller firms offer keen quotes. Bradford-based National Breakdown has policies starting at £24.99 whilst Start Rescue, owned by Call Assist, has rates from £26.10. The latter’s £37.65 policy – which includes all except Europe and theft, vandalism and driver illness or injury – has been awarded five stars by the independent research group, Defaqto. The latter two exclusions can be obtained for a comprehensive £75.

An Essex-based insurance broker, Right Choice, offers a scheme called AutoAid from £59.99 annually and will include a partner. The individual, rather than vehicle, is insured. The firm works with over 1,200 specialist recovery operators.

Ask about both average response times and what proportion of breakdown claims completes the journey. LV= reveals its figures for each as 45.41 minutes and 91.4 per cent respectively.

With continental Europe so easily accessible, check if breakdown cover can be extended there and, if so, for what additional premium. It is worth checking on what exactly would be offered. The RAC offers 49 countries where types, battery and keys will be replaced which is not available with the AA or Green Flag.

Britannia Rescue will extend cover to Europe for a combined premium of £142.

Valuable discounts for online purchases are available. Green Flag, for instance, offers up to 40 per cent off this way.

Conal Gregory is AIC Regional Journalist of the Year.