Whether you’re stranded on the loneliest B-road in Britain or your engine simply won’t turn over outside your house, breakdown cover is essential. The unsung heroes of the highway, roadside recovery drivers ease the chronic pain of unfortunate motoring mishaps, often risking their own safety in the process. Covered mag dons a high visibility jacket and joins Cardiff-based firm Celtic Recovery for a day in the life of an emergency breakdown driver….
10am: Celtic Recovery HQ, Cardiff
The office is buzzing. Celtic process up to 90 calls a day and today is no different. I’m quickly pointed in the direction of a 12 tonne Isuzu truck and Echo Meah, a recovery driver with 26 years experience. “No day is the same,” he says. His working day started two hours ago, and he’s winching up a comatose Vauxhall Combo via remote control.
Breakdown assistance is driven by hulking great vehicles and cool technology. The Boniface operating system is at the heart of it. Nestled between the office-issued Android phone and satellite navigation devices, it controls the all important lights, beacons and machinery that tilts the giant ramp on the truck’s bed. Or PTO as it’s known in the business: power take off hydraulics. It’s a far cry from the wind-up winches and endless returns to HQ that faced Echo when he began in the 80s.
11am: Walls Truck Recovery HQ, Newport
The Combo is left with mechanics at Walls, the nucleus for the company’s national operations. It’s here where the night commands are issued. The drivers can be on call as often as every other night. From non-starts to fatal road traffic accidents, they never know what they’re heading into.
While many of the day time jobs are Section 165s – no tax or licence – night calls are often burn outs, the joyrider’s final insult. It’s one of many high risk jobs for the recovery driver who can’t access the vehicle for at least two hours after it’s been put out due to the cancerous fumes.
Day or night, road traffic accidents are the biggest dread, and Echo’s seen some harrowing sights. “When you arrive, the police will explain what you’re about to deal with then ask you what you need to make the situation safe again,” he explains. “That’s our key role, whatever the job – making the situation safe for everyone as quickly as possible. That’s why we don’t fix the cars on location. If we can get vehicles moving, we will, but it’s our job to get things back to normal as efficiently and safely as we can.”
11.30am Vauxhall Corsa – engine failure
So far I’ve learnt Echo has been a chef, a copper, a bouncer in his time. He’s also a dab hand at sports. He’s delivered Aston Martins to footballers and driven rock stars and royal aides. Now I’m learning about his current job.
There’s the snatch block that’s “worth its weight in gold” when it comes to pick-ups that can’t be backed onto squarely. I now know it’s essential “to put a strap on with every job” (to secure each of the wheels to the truck, of course) and that you should “treat your winch like you treat your wife; look after her and she’ll look after you.” The Corsa safely strapped on, we deliver it to a garage and head to our next job...
12pm: Volkswagen Polo – flat battery
A female student with a flat battery; it’s your classic damsel in distress situation. He’s been called a knight in shining armour a fair few times and it’s a role he’s more than happy to live up to as he fondly tells me of a time he drove a lady to Newcastle and was fed by her family as a thank you on arrival.
The girl’s Polo starts up in a jiffy. She’s impressed, but not as much as I am as we commandeer the city’s student rat-run of tiny terraces in an eight metre long truck in reverse. Or indeed how Echo knows exactly where the best chippy will be en route to our next job.
1pm: Volkswagen Transporter – flat battery
Another non-starter. This time it’s a man from a utilities company, and it’s on the corner of a popular-but-narrow country lane on the outskirts of the city. It’s the first time I really experience the recovery driver’s ultimate mantra; safety, safety, safety.
With the beacons flashing on full, he positions the truck so oncoming traffic can see the situation as far ahead as possible. Both the van driver and myself are ordered to stay on the safe side of the truck as we push the van into a corner Echo has made to make a safe jump lead connection while standing right in the path of any traffic.
It’s a tight squeeze, and a fine example of people and traffic management. “It’s the same if we were on a motorway,” he says casually as if putting your arse on the highway is part of everyone’s job. “The very first thing I’d do is make sure the driver and any passengers are on the other side of the barrier. The vehicle doesn’t matter but lives do!”
2pm: LDV Minibus – write off
Our penultimate mission is a sorry-looking school minibus. Something’s taken a huge bite out of the front corner, a wheel has completely blown, and it’s been declared a write off. Echo manoeuvres the truck in a tiny school car park.
For a wreck that looked like a challenge to pick up we’re ready to take it to the council depot in what seems like record time.
3pm: Fiat Punto – electronic failure
While recovery drivers aren’t necessarily mechanics, the best will know their way around a motor. Our final call allows Echo to show off his own skills. We arrive at a house to pick up a vehicle with faulty electronics. It’s assumed he’ll have to pick it up after dropping off the minibus, but after checking each individual fuse and noticing a strange click on the indicator arm, he identifies the problem simply as faulty wipers.
It takes five minutes and two cable ties to fix and we leave another grateful customer. “It’s just customer service, really, that’s all I do,” says Echo as we drive back to HQ. “Each call is a customer; I’ve got to keep them all happy. And safe...” There’s that word again: safe. Today’s been quiet on all accounts, but other days are nowhere near as easy…