Wayne's world: on the road with the AA

When Steven Russell wanted to find out how to save money on petrol and keep running smoothly he knew just what to do: consult a very nice AA man . . . and his lovely companion Doris

Steven Russell

When Steven Russell wanted to find out how to save money on petrol and keep running smoothly he knew just what to do: consult a very nice AA man . . . and his lovely companion Doris

A SECOND “date” with Wayne Southby . . . something of a surprise, since he proved high maintenance first time around. A bill of £80-odd brought tears to the eye.

In all seriousness, he proved a knight in shining fluorescent jacket. An isolated lane on Mersea Island is not the best place to break down, so it was a relief when his AA van hove into view.


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It didn't take Wayne long to work out that the reason for my total loss of power was a battery for which there was no hope of resuscitation. A replacement was needed. The good news was he had one of the correct type; the bad news was it was quite dear - a 1.8-litre diesel Escort needing something packing a punch to shock it into action.

As I drove off along The Strood to the mainland, I hoped I'd never see him again - in the nicest possible way, of course.

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Funny how life works. A few weeks later, wondering how to keep rocketing fuel bills as low as possible, I knew who to ask - and thought, too, that tagging along for a morning might highlight some of the things to watch to avoid those holiday-season breakdowns.

Hence a trip out in Wayne's Vauxhall Vivaro - one he's had less than three months but which has today recorded its 11,000th mile. It's no surprise he spends £130-plus a week on diesel.

One of the worst things about roadside rescues is when the vehicle is stranded on a dual carriageway, he says. As if on cue, his first job pops up on the dashboard-mounted screen at 9.16am: a car on the A12 at Stanway, Colchester . . .

Fortunately, we're almost there anyway. Even more luckily, the Ford Escort has limped into a layby just before the Halstead turn-off.

Deryck Thompson-Smith was heading to Chelmsford and had just pulled onto the A12 when he heard a horrible noise, spotted the blue P for parking sign, and pulled in.

Amid the roar of traffic, Wayne discovers within seconds that the cam-belt is frayed. A light tug with his (latex-free) gloved hand pulls it off. It was lucky Deryck stopped when he did. Had the belt disintegrated, the engine valves would undoubtedly have been bent and the repair cost proved prohibitive.

Turns out the belt is a symptom rather than the cause, however, and a seized water pump is the root of the trouble.

One of the consequences of dealing daily with sick vehicles is you quickly get to know who you can count on. Wayne rings All Trans Autos at Stanway. They could sort out the mess, and probably get the car on the road again in a couple of hours, for about £190. Deryck doesn't need to think twice, and Wayne starts attaching a towing bar.

Born in Leiston and a resident of Essex since 1967, Deryck has been a long-time member of the AA, remembering the days when patrols had a motorbike and sidecar, and used to salute passing members when they spotted the badge on the front of their car.

He reads a list of dos and don'ts about being towed before we drive slowly onto the dual carriageway. Even with the van's amber lights flashing, you feel vulnerable as vehicles flash by.

It takes only a few minutes to reach the industrial estate in Moss Road, and by 10 o'clock Deryck and his poorly vehicle are booked in. It's been a quick rescue.

Wayne's been an AA patrolman less than a year, having started in August, 2007, and oozes contentment. He wishes he'd gone to work for the organisation years ago.

The novelty obviously hasn't worn off, then? “I can't see it ever wearing off, to be honest. It's such a good job. If cars are your thing, there's nothing better,” he says.

A Colchestrian through and through, the 34-year-old had been in the motor trade since he left school - “Unfortunately!” he laughs. After an apprenticeship at a Ford dealership he worked “pretty much” for the Ford Motor Company in the engineering department, investigating faults and “finding out what might go wrong with new models and how we were going to put them right. So I was off the spanners for about 15 years”.

Then he went to work for a dealership - not in East Anglia - as assistant service manager, but hated it.

“The job was awful. I was just a whipping-boy, really. When you're assistant service manager, everybody hates you! The service manager hates you because you never do anything right; the technicians hate you because you're always jumping on them, and the customers hate you because you're charging them too much money!”

The AA had been in his mind for some time. He applied, and got through a selection procedure whose rigor surprised him. Of the batch of 80 or so applicants there on the first day of tests and interviews, only 11 progressed.

After he was taken on came a series of training courses. The first day out on his own was scary, he admits, “but once I'd done my first couple of jobs, that was it; I was in the flow”.

The team in which Wayne works covers Suffolk and north Essex. It has 56 patrols - there are about 2,800 nationally - though obviously not all working at the same time. His patch, on paper, covers a 100km radius of Colchester: as far as West London, the fringes of King's Lynn, and past Tunbridge Wells. Mostly, though, it's the streets of his hometown and the Ipswich area that claim his presence, though the other day he did take someone back to Folkestone.

The working pattern is essentially six days on and three off, and commonly a 10-hour shift, though it might be only five or six hours. Night cover is currently contracted out to local garages.

Wayne invariably opts to work overtime on some of his “off” days when they fall in the week, when daughters Jade and Emma are at school and wife Susan at work. It swells considerably a basic wage around the £27,000 mark.

There are downsides, like any job. The way the roster fell saw him working last Christmas Day, for instance. The girls - five and eight, and keen on washing the van! - get a bit grumpy if they don't see dad for a while, and Susan gets a bit browned off if he's working a lot of evenings and weekends, but, overall, the quality of life has never been better.

So what's the best thing? “I think it's the fact you're getting paid to help people. That, along with the flexibility and being out on your own.”

Another plus is that if patrolmen can't fix a vehicle - and about eight out of 10 breakdowns are sorted out at the side of the road - they can tow a vehicle to someone with the parts and tools, “whereas if you're working in a garage, you 'own' the problem”.

That said, Wayne much prefers the callouts where he can fix the glitch at the side of the road. A run of jobs that involves towing vehicles to a garage is a bit like walking through superglue, he reckons.

Tasks are usually allocated by computer at the AA control centre in Oldbury, in the West Midlands. A laptop in the back of the van contains a SIM card that tells the control centre exactly where Wayne is, and gives out jobs on the basis of patrol availability and expected journey time.

The ideal would be one assignment an hour over the shift, but it probably averages seven in a 10- or 11-hour stint. Busiest times are between 7am and 9am, and 4pm-7pm, on weekdays. Weekends are often busier and more constant, as people are going out throughout the day.

The most common culprits are flat batteries and flat tyres, but there are unexpected challenges.

Wayne once went to a village near Sudbury. A mum had locked her keys in the boot and three youngsters in the car: a seven-year-old girl and two much younger children, aged about one or two.

The lady was hysterical - understandably - but her panic spread to the older girl and made it difficult for Wayne to explain how to open the bonnet. Eventually he managed to feed an electrical line from his battery charging pack to the fuse box and squirt enough power into the system for the girl to open the electric windows.

Back to today and there's time to grab some black coffee from a drive-through McDonald's before the next mission: to tend to a Toyota Corolla that has cut out between Colchester and Halstead.

The car is on the side of the road, on a hill, just before White Colne. Again, it takes seconds for Wayne to diagnose cam-belt failure. (Something of a theme developing here . . .) This time it looks personal.

Out comes the bar, again, and car and owner are towed into Earls Colne and down some picturesque lanes to her home village deep in the countryside.

Doris - the name he's given the voice of his sat-nav system - joins the conversation for the first time as he consults the screen. “Make a U-turn,” she suggests. Considering we're in a lane little wider than the van, she'd have done better keeping mum.

The next call is to a non-starting Peugeot in the Waitrose car park at Sudbury. Wayne turns the van around. Doris wants to take us back through Colne Engaine and Pebmarsh - doubtless the shortest route as the crow flies, but in reality twisty and slow. We stick to the main roads and go via Halstead.

Over the border in Suffolk, a lady and her son are easily found in front of the store. Wayne turns the key and the engine starts first time. Cue half-embarrassed, half-relieved laughter.

As Wayne chats to them, it emerges the fan had earlier been on for about 10 minutes without the engine running: enough to weaken the battery. It had probably had time to recover since the call to the AA.

The patrolman attaches a gauge. The battery is low on juice but recharging normally. If they leave the engine running for a while after they get home, to charge it further, everything should be fine.

By now it's nearly midday and a glance at the dashboard screen shows the motoring organisation has received about 3,600 calls for help - the mark of a quietish day, reckons Wayne. An average day would bring about 11,000 incidents by about 6pm or 7pm.

As he heads towards Ipswich, to drop me off, he's allocated a job near Woodbridge - suspected brake problems - but as we get to Copdock it's reassigned. Another patrol must be nearer.

No matter: in a couple of minutes we're alerted to a Volkswagen Passat on the A14 at Wherstead. It's perched on the triangle of grass between the dual carriageway and the westbound slip-road. Not where you want to be if you value your health.

The owner and his friend had just crossed the Orwell Bridge when strange noises were heard. Again, Wayne pinpoints the cause with a single glance: a broken crankshaft pulley. The two men were bound for Colchester, to pay for a car one of them had bought at auction, but Wayne confirms today's journey has come to a premature end.

There's just room for him to precariously manoeuvre his van in front of the Passat as the traffic thunders past, and the trusty bar is deployed for the third time. Slowly, the car is towed off the A14 and up Nacton Road - a frontwheel puncture adding to its woes late in the trip. Finally it's pushed up an unmade track to an area of concrete hardstanding, where the owner will leave it while he considers his options - Wayne wading through a puddle of stagnant black water to see the job through to the end.

By the way, has he ever had to call for outside assistance during his years as a driver? “Never broken down!” he smiles. “I've ridden my luck.” Even so, there's a nice safety net coming in August, when he'll have worked for the AA for a year, because he qualifies then for free coverage.

His personal mode of transport is a BMW 320 Ci. It will shortly be due a service, and he will have it done at a dealership, because of the warranty.

“That's going to hurt, that is! That will be the first time I'll have paid anyone to do anything on my car; but, then, I've never before had a car worth being serviced by anyone else. There we go . . . bite the bullet.”

AA tips on how to make the most of your expensive, and planet-warming, fuel

Get the car serviced regularly to maintain engine efficiency

Check tyre pressures regularly and before long journeys. Under-inflated tyres use more fuel

Extra weight means extra fuel; so, if there's stuff in the boot you don't need on the journey, leave it at home

Roof racks/boxes create wind resistance and increase consumption. If you don't need it, take it off

Combine errands into one trip, rather than making multiple short journeys

If it's a short journey (a couple of miles or so) consider walking or cycling rather than taking the car

Don't start the engine until you're ready to go. This avoids fuel wastage

Drive smoothly, accelerate gently and read the road ahead to avoid unnecessary braking

If you can keep the car moving all the time, so much the better. Stopping then starting again uses more fuel than keeping rolling

Change gear as soon as possible without labouring the engine

Air conditioning increases fuel consumption at low speeds. If it's a hot day it's more economical to open the windows around

Any electrical load increases fuel consumption, so turn off your heated rear windscreen, demister blowers and headlights when you don't need them

The faster you go, the greater the consumption and pollution. According to the Department for Transport, driving at 70mph uses up to 9% more fuel than 60mph and up to 15% more than at 50mph. Cruising at 80mph can use up to 25% more fuel than at 70mph

See www.theaa.com for tips on keeping your vehicle running sweetly

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