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Vehicle Recovery

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Vehicle Recovery
Sheriffmill recovery truck with Stagecoach bus - Queensgate Inverness.jpg
A bus being recovered by a heavy recovery truck
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In the UK, along with most parts of Europe, a number of companies and organisations provide recovery services for broken down or accident damaged vehicles. The two organisations that most people are aware of are the RAC (founded in 1897) and the AA (founded in 1905), both of which originated effectively as clubs, providing a range of services to the early motorists. As a result, many of the current breakdown companies are referred to as clubs. Some of these clubs, like the AA and RAC, have fleets of their own vehicles, but the majority rely on local, often independent contractors to carry out the work on their behalf. Some of these companies are recovery specialists, but many are local garages who also undertake recovery work.

Between the 1910s and early 2000s the AA and RAC provided roadside telephones for their members to call for assistance in the event of a breakdown.

Breakdown Recovery

Although there is no legal requirement to have breakdown cover (unlike insurance) many motorists pay out every year for cover in case it is required, as trying to organise a recovery without the support of one of the clubs can be an expensive minefield, especially when the vehicle has broken down some distance from home. There are various routes to getting cover, with many new and used car dealers providing cover as part of a Warranty deal. Insurance companies will also offer 'cheap' breakdown cover as an incentive, as do some banks on paid-for bank accounts. Alternatively, motorists can deal direct with the providers, such as the AA, RAC or other organisations. The cover provided also varies depending largely on how much the motorist is prepared to pay.

Basic cover

Breakdown assistance and recovery being provided by a company which provides breakdown cover

The basic breakdown cover will often provide no more than a very basic roadside service, including up to 10 miles of free recovery, sufficient to get the stranded vehicle to the nearest garage - not necessarily the customers normal garage of course. There is no further commitment for service from the provider, and it is then the motorists responsibility to organise their own onward travel, or pay for any additional services that may be required. This could include specialist equipment to prevent wheel damage in the case of a puncture, or travel to a garage further than 10 miles, even when that is the closest garage in some more remote areas. Basic cover often does not include any cover within a certain distance (often quarter or half a mile) from the registered home address.

Basic cover will also often be restrictive in terms of the number of call outs for a single fault within a specified timeframe. So, for instance, if a car has a recurring problem with a flat battery, the customer may no be covered for more than two jump starts within 6 months, and would therefore be expected to source a replacement battery.

With modern cars no longer carrying spare wheels, one of the most common breakdown recoveries carried out is for punctured tyres. This can be very frustrating for some people who would, in the past, have quite happily replaced the damaged wheel with the spare and continued their journey within a few minutes, rather than perhaps spending a couple of hours waiting about and potentially being transported in the wrong direction.

Relay / Nationwide

Onward transport of a broken down vehicle being carried out by a local garage on behalf of one of the national breakdown companies

Relay or Nationwide cover will normally include nationwide recovery to the customers normal local garage, or other designated destination. The term relay comes from the means of doing the recovery in stages. For a company such as the AA or RAC this meant in the past either swapping drivers at changeover points, or swapping trucks as well. These days, drivers are perhaps less keen on swapping vehicles, meaning that the casualty vehicle and customer have to be moved. For recovery companies using sub contractors, relays can sometimes involve lengthy waits at service areas or in supermarket car parks, although changeover points are almost always organised somewhere where the customer has access to food and toilet facilities.

In recent years, and especially since the Covid epidemic, there has been a significant increase in policies providing courtesy cars or taxis to allow customers and vehicles to travel separately. This is particularly common on longer distance routes as it allows the customer to get home much quicker than the vehicle, without having to travel overnight in a recovery vehicle. Hotels are sometimes also provided on the more expensive policies.

Home Start

As the name implies, this type of cover includes a service at the customers home address.

Accident Recovery

Cars being recovered following a collision

The above services relate to normal breakdowns. Recovery of accident damaged vehicles, although often ultimately carried out by the same sub contractors using the same vehicles, is normally routed through a different system. There are two main routes, firstly through the customers insurance company, and secondly through the Police scheme.

Insurance Recovery

When a vehicle is involved in an accident, the customer will often call their insurance provider in the first instance in order to get the vehicle recovered. Most fully comprehensive policies will cover the whole process, no matter what the cost, of getting the vehicle away from the scene and in to either a repairer or salvage company. This can often include a short period when the vehicle is sat in a recovery operators yard awaiting an assessor or other decisions to be made.

With modern cars, it is increasingly the case that vehicles over a certain age, or when the airbags have fired, will be sent to salvage rather than attempting repairs. Sometimes these vehicles are then auctioned off as repairable vehicles, even though the insurance company doesn't consider it to be financially viable. This can yield a better return for the insurers than trying to repair the vehicle.

Police Recovery

In certain circumstances, the Police will become involved in the recovery process. This can be due to either serious injuries having occurred, suspicion of a criminal offence, or simply the speed with which the road needs to be cleared to allow traffic to flow. The majority of Police recovery instances are incident rather than breakdown related. The Police contract the recovery out to some of the larger recovery agents, who then use the same sub contractor process outlined above.

Commercial Vehicle Recovery

An HGV being recovered by a heavy recovery truck

Although most of the above also relates to Commercial Vehicles, the recovery cover is less often provided by the 'clubs'. Most of the main dealers provide manufacturer supported breakdown cover, such as 'Daf Aid' or 'Volvo Action'. This is the main recovery service used by smaller operators. However, large fleet operators will often use specialist Commercial vehicle breakdown providers, many of which use the same sub contractor system as described above. These services are generally provided by specialist recovery companies, or even the dealers themselves rather than small local garages.

Types of Recovery Vehicle

As can be imagined, there are a vast variety of recovery vehicles required in order to service the varying needs of the British transport network. From a simple service van to carry out a wheel change or jump start, so seriously impressive crane vehicles capable of recovering Heavy Haulage vehicles which have overturned.

Spec Lift

A Spec, or Spectacle Lift, is normally a small 3.5T or 7.5T truck with a folding down arm on the rear which can lift the wheels of the driven axle of the casualty vehicle. Front wheel drive cars are the easiest to load with this type of truck, but rear wheel drive cars can also be transported in reverse. It is not advisable to recover a four wheel drive vehicle, even with selectable drive, due to potential damage to the drivetrain. Spec Lifts are very useful in urban areas as they are small and manoeuvrable. They can also prove to be valuable for accessing remote properties down narrow country lanes, although most operators are reluctant to transport vehicles long distance on a spec lift, unless going for salvage or already substantially damaged.

Fold out spec lift systems, sometimes with dolly wheels have been mounted into vans in the past, and similar systems have also been fitted to pick up trucks. In most cases, a crew cab is provided allowing 4-6 passengers to be carried.

Slide Beds and Accident Units

Slidebed truck

A Slide Bed is, as the name suggests, a lorry with a rear load bed that slides off the chassis, creating a ramp. This allows the casualty vehicle to be driven or winched on to the bed and carried without any wheels running on the road. A more recent development is the demountable, where instead of forming a ramp, the body can be laid down almost flat on the road, although the additional costs compared to the benefits of this type of vehicle mean that few operators use them. They do, however, make life easier for loading vehicles with long rear overhangs (such as large camper vans) or lowered / collapsed suspension.

Another development of the Slide Bed vehicle is the Accident Unit. This is a slightly larger, heavier variant, with a Hiab type crane mounted between the cab and bed to allow accident damaged cars to be craned on to the lorry. The Hiab can also be used in conjunction with winches to provide extra pull to drag damaged vehicles up banks or out of fields. Similar vehicles are used, with lifting frames / spreader bars etc, to quickly lift illegally parked cars in urban areas.

All of the above can have single or double cabs, although accident units more commonly have the smaller cabs to maintain load capacity with the crane on board. They also often come fitted with a slide out spec lift mounted under the load bed which allows two vehicles to be transported together.

Wreckers and Rotators

A Heavy Rotator Recovery Truck

Vehicles over 7.5 Tonnes are generally not recovered on a slidebed or simple spec lift vehicle. The most common recovery lorry for larger casualty vehicles is a Heavy Wrecker. In the past, systems of hooks, chains and crane arms were used, as many of us are familiar with from childhood toys, however today the most common means of recovery is the underlift. This works in a similar manner to the spec lift, in that a fold down arm can be located underneath the front axle or chassis rails of the casualty vehicle, with various forks, chains and other means available to secure the casualty to the underlift bar. This is then lifted to take the front (or occasionally rear) wheels off of the road surface. In order to prevent any damage to the drivetrain, either a half shaft or propshaft needs to be removed before towing any distance. Special attachments can also be fitted to the underlift bar to provide a fifth wheel for recovering trailers.

On larger vehicles, the underlift is mounted in conjunction with a hydraulic crane arm, operated by large rams. The crane arm is normally mounted with at least one winch, which allows the Wrecker to recover vehicles which have gone off road, or become stuck in soft ground, from a safe distance. The weight of the kit on the rear of the Wrecker, in conjunction with the partial load of the casualty vehicle on the underlift means that Wreckers normally have heavy ballast blocks towards the front of the chassis to act as a counterbalance and keep the front axle steering wheels in contact with the road.

A development of the heavy wrecker is the Rotator. This has a much larger and more versatile rotating crane arm on the back, with the capacity to lift fully laden lorries (depending on distance between vehicles) back on to their wheels. They are also more capable as winch trucks, with the crane arm providing a much more manoeuvrable winching point. These rotators, working in tandem, and often with other plant on site to assist, can recover large loads such as 150 Tonne cranes which have fallen over on soft ground. They are also used by some operators for crane work, as they can be more manoeuvrable and versatile than a similarly sized mobile crane.

Low Loaders

The equivalent of the slidebed for HGV recovery is the Lowe Loader. While some recovery companies employ trailers little different to the large plant trailers, others have extendable trailers, and there is also a specialist recovery trailer which has the axles fitted to a bogie unit that slides forwards towards the unit, allowing the rear of the trailer to lie on the road without needing substantial ramps. Almost all recovery low loaders are fitted with winches to allow the casualty vehicle to be loaded.

Vehicle Recovery
Related Pictures
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Slidebed.jpgSheriffmill recovery truck with Stagecoach bus - Queensgate Inverness.jpgRoss's Garage accident recovery - A835 Ferintosh.jpgStoddart recovery truck - A835 Ferintosh.jpgEwen MacRae recovery truck - Portree.jpg
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