Sunday 1 August 2021

The fourth emergency service


I don’t know whether the AA still advertises itself as the fourth emergency service. It always struck me as a dubious comparison because the other three emergency services do not depend on being a member. We are all members just by virtue of being here. But still my family have come to rely on the AA ever since my mother insisted on obtaining full cover when we moved to the Highlands in 1974. She didn’t want to end up left in a passing place with small children and no way to get home. We have been members ever since.

My mother can’t drive anymore. She is 88 and depends on me rather than the AA. Long holidays are not really possible for me and my husband. Covid has made life worse for older people. They are more worried about catching it. Their social network has disintegrated and is only just being rebuilt. We can only take daytrips or else we must arrange somewhere for my mother to stay. It’s a hassle so we don’t bother and stick to making sure we are back by night.

I didn’t realise quite how far it is possible to drive in Scotland and still get back. We have reached Glenbrittle on Skye, Tongue in Sutherland and yesterday got as far as Malaig with a quick detour to view the Glenfinnan monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the doomed 45. If only they had continued on from Derby, but lack of faith in Charlie sunk the Jacobite rebellion just as lack of faith in the optimism of Alex Salmond sank what now looks like a re-enactment in 2014, if only my clutch had been able to keep going about maybe 15 years of good service. But no after carrying us all around the Highlands my little car finally died on a road in Angus.

We ended up on the side of a road not quite knowing where we were. I am not remotely technically minded either with computers or cars. Not only is my car rather old and battered my mobile phone is worse. I never quite got into the habit of using one and only ever use it to access my bank or to phone home. The battery keeps losing its charge, but I found it at the bottom of my bag and was relieved that it switched on and so I called the AA. It was about six o’clock in the evening.

There must have been a lot of accidents on Saturday and it was not an ideal time to breakdown, but still I was phoning an emergency service and everything that the voice on the line told me suggested that it thought of itself as such. I pushed the various buttons and was put in what I was told was the highest priority queue. It must have taken around half an hour to get through.

The AA must have had to deal with the challenges of Covid just like the rest of us. Its workers may be working from home or liable to be pinged. The people who I spoke to were professional and expressed words of kindness, but something went wrong not just with my car but with the service I have long expected from the AA. We were told firstly that someone would be there within the hour. After two hours I phoned again. Trying to find out what was happening took another half hour of pushing buttons and waiting in the queue. Someone then would be coming in two hours or perhaps three. Finally, a breakdown truck arrived at half past eleven. It was not his fault. He told us that he had been contacted only at half past ten.

He’d given up his Saturday night to help us and we were grateful, but the clutch could not be fixed and I doubt it will be worth fixing and the cost of repair will be more than the car is worth. But he couldn’t take us home.

The people of the little town on the outskirts of which we were stuck had been very kind. Someone had helped push the car into a safer position. Someone had spoken to the breakdown driver on the phone to tell him our exact location. The police had driven by to see if we were OK. We told them that the AA were coming. A local garage even arrived at about eight or nine with the offer to take us home for the cost of £130. But I declined because the AA were coming. I would have been home already when the man sent by the AA told us he could only take us as far as the next service station and only then after I had paid the AA more than £200 because my cover wasn’t enough to get us home.

When faced with a crisis you pay what is necessary and you are grateful to have the money to do so. But still we were stuck in a service station with a car that no longer even had a battery because we had been using the hazard lights for so long that it was as dead as the car.

I phoned the AA again. I had spent more than £200 pounds to be stuck in a cold, rainy service station with only a 24-hour petrol station and no where to sit. Even at half past one in the morning it took twenty minutes of the familiar AA voice to get through to an operator. She told us we’d have to wait until at least six in the morning for another breakdown truck. But she did offer us a taxi to take us back and I am very grateful for that. The car which is probably now just so much scrap metal will follow in a few days.

We got home at just before three. It had taken nine hours. We were none the worse. But what if I had been a young mother with a baby. What if I had been someone in their seventies with health troubles. We rely on the AA to come to the rescue, because only an organisation like that has the skill to arrange help. If I had known how events were going to unfold, I would have been better just arranging a taxi myself at six o’clock. I’d have been home by seven. Instead by relying on the AA I waited on a roadside for five and half hours and ended up in a deserted service station at one in the morning. I will keep paying my subscription the AA. I don’t have an alternative. I will make sure I have the necessary coverage to the fullest extent, because if I break down again, I will still have no alternative but to the call the AA, but I will hope that they do rather better next time. An emergency service cannot take quite so long to solve a problem, it cannot leave it half finished and it cannot be so quite so difficult to contact. Otherwise calling itself an emergency service is mere advertising.