Richard Yarrow calls out RAC technical director Dr David Bizley to talk about the breakdown service's pioneering telephone operation.

When a breakdown organisation like the RAC takes a call from a stranded motorist and arranges for a patrol to attend, it costs money.

It also means that 'man with a van' is tied up for an hour or more driving to the job and doing what's necessary. That's why the RAC is pioneering 'the phone fix'.

Dr David Bizley is the RAC's director of technical and explained: "We have always done this to a limited extent, but launched the current system last year. It involves giving a breakdown assistance operator [the person who initially takes the SOS call] the option to bring an engineer into a three-way conference call with the member."

Bizley believes there's huge potential for the initiative to be expanded, provided it's the right solution for the customer's problem and the individual is comfortable trying to help themselves at the roadside.

"In the first three months of 2007 the opportunities identified as possible for 'phone fix' only accounted for 1.25 per cent of our total volume. That was still more than 8,000 requests for assistance, but going forward, we believe up to five per cent of requests could be referred in this way."

Trying to mend a car over the phone might sound unlikely, but of the cases when an engineer got involved almost half were sorted. The most common scenario is with dashboard warning lights, with engine management, ABS and airbag icons the three most popular.

Misfuelling issues can sometimes also be resolved, though the fix rate is reducing as a full-scale draining of the fuel system is often required on modern diesel cars.

Bizley continued: "Calls associated with vehicle security also make up some of the demand. For example, in a situation where a member's vehicle has an immobiliser problem with the key icon flashing on the dashboard during starting, this is often symptomatic of a corrupted key."

The primary fix is a simple one - get the member to dig out their spare key, then have the original reprogrammed or replaced at their local dealership later.

Other recent examples of the phone fix have included a customer who was about to set off on a driving holiday when the low coolant warning light came on. An RAC engineer talked him through the topping-up process.

"Hire car drivers, often in an unfamiliar vehicle, will call for breakdown assistance because they can't find the fuel cap release or are uncertain which fuel to put in. Obviously we don't need to send a patrol to them" said Bizley.

"We also get calls about possible water leaks under vehicles, especially in the summer. By asking the right questions over the phone an RAC engineer can often establish that the problem is condensation dripping from the air-con condenser after the vehicle has been parked." And sometimes it's the vast array of electronic wizardry which can bamboozle the driver.

Reading the owner manual would save a lot of hassle, as Bizley explained: "We had a case with one of the new passive locking systems. In some, the vehicle will not lock whilst the keycard is in close proximity.

"One RAC member rang to say they couldn't work out how to lock the car, and during the conference call they walked backwards and forwards to and from their vehicle telling us: ' I'm in the porch and it's locked, I'm on the drive and its opened!' We explained over the telephone how the system worked - and that this was all normal - and everything was fine!"