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Who are you going to call after a breakdown?

Given the amount of time trucks spend on the road, a breakdown of some sort is inevitable. Popping a tyre, losing hydraulics, simply failing to start or any one of a hundred things will eventually sideline even the best-kept truck. Asking the question popularised in a movie, who ya gunna call?

For anyone in a car, life is easy because roadside assistance offered by various national and state motoring clubs, insurance companies and private contractors has been around almost as long as the car. Trucks, on the other hand, are a different matter.

Not surprisingly, the same sorts of roadside assistance offered to car owners and drivers by the motoring clubs is unavailable for heavy vehicles because roadside service technicians are generally not equipped or trained to handle anything big.

The best that could be done was call up a tow truck and, not surprisingly, a fairly extensive network of heavy vehicle-capable towing services soon popped-up around the country.

So for truck drivers and owners, the notion of roadside assistance has been just that, from about the time the truck as we know it first appeared in 1895.

There is no easily-referenced history of heavy vehicle assistance anywhere but, in Australia, assistance packages for trucks similar to those offered by the state auto clubs for cars were first offered around 2005/06 by National Transport Insurance (NTI) as a wholesale product called Truck Assist for new Isuzu and Hino trucks.

At that time, Isuzu called its package Isuzu Assist and Hino labelled its offering Hino Roadside Assist.

But what started as a showroom floor sales incentive caught peoples’ attention and the idea quickly grew legs. 

There are no secrets about how roadside assistance works; in its simplest form the broken-down vehicle is attended to by a repair technician and either fixed on site or towed to a repairer.

The difference is that while car owners usually belong to one of the state automobile clubs, truck drivers do not. Owners are instead linked to a service either as a part of the manufacturer program, through a relationship with their local dealer or as a member of an independent organisation.

Depending on the service to which the truck is linked, a roadside call-out means businesses either pay for parts only or pay for a call-out fee, parts and labour.

Motorcharge Truck and Van Roadside Response, an assistance service for trucks and light commercial vehicles, for example, is a 24/7 national service. Access to it is free (a Motorcharge card is a must-have, however) but anyone using the service will be required to pay an upfront call-out fee plus the cost of any repairs.

Motorcharge has a 10,000-strong army of service providers covering the obvious – mechanics, auto electricians, tyre and battery suppliers and tow services – to the not-so-obvious, like locksmiths.

Craig Carmody, NTI’s National Development Manager – Transport, describes heavy vehicle roadside assistance as “a customer-centric proposition”, a specialist service to cut downtime so the vehicles can continue generating income.

“(In the case of NTI) Truck Assist roadside assistance pays to get the technician out (to the stranded truck) and the customer pays for the parts. It’s a different animal to car breakdowns,” Carmody said.

Playing by the numbers, of the approximately 600,000 trucks currently plying Australia’s roads, 480,000 of them are rigids and of that number, half are not traditional freight haulers.

“The ‘other’ 50 per cent are not transport industry-related,” says Carmody. “They are owned by plumbers, carpet layers, builders, that sort of thing – single operators in industries that don’t have the same (repair) infrastructure as the truck industry.

“Because of that, having a roadside assistance plan is not as emotive a decision as it is for car owners, it’s a rational, practical decision – it saves time and it saves money.”

Flat batteries and flat tyres aside, the modern truck is not something that can always be fixed easily and quickly at the roadside and for a lot of operators a quick inspection to decide whether or not a vehicle needs towing can be a time and money saver.

Roadside assistance plans are yet another financial outlay though so weighing-up the pros and cons of each is essential.

There are a number of localised and state-based businesses offering roadside assistance but for this story, we looked only at the national businesses offering an ‘anywhere, anytime’ service.

Motorcharge, for example, has no annual membership cost but bills $55 for each call-out plus the cost of any repairs, parts or other services.

For its part, Truck Assist runs two plans, one costing $479 a year giving $1000 of breakdown cover per event,  the other costing $785 annually and covering $1500 in breakdown costs each time.

Interestingly, of all the state-based motorist associations, only the NSW-based National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) has a national roadside assistance service for heavy commercial vehicles.

Known as NRMA Business Motoring, it caters for vehicles – trucks and buses – with GVM weights over 12 tonnes and covers trailers (single through to triple axle). Membership is $349 annually and while it is not specific about its repair pricing structure it does note that wheel and tyre changes are free ‘provided the vehicle has a suitable jack, tools and spare’.

Fix My Truck, a Melbourne-based service catering for vehicles over three tonnes, offers the obligatory 24/7 national breakdown service, boast more than 13,000 service providers in Australia and New Zealand.

Finding its own unique payment plan niche, it charges monthly and by truck numbers. A fleet of up to 10 trucks, for example, costs $22 (NZ$25.50) per truck per month. Between 11 and 20 trucks cost $16.50 (NZ$19) each a month and 21 to 50 trucks $11.50 (NZ$13) monthly. More than 50 and each vehicle costs $6.50 (NZ$7.50) monthly. The company also accepts casual customers but only if they have a valid credit card handy.

For the broad transport industry the notion of roadside assistance has come from nothing to a reasonably sophisticated ‘something’ in little more than 15 years and indications are that it will only get even more involving and all-encompassing.

Can small to medium operators live without a roadside assistance plan? That will always be the $64,000 question but provider choice is probably more important given the different services offered and the varying costs involved.

The bottom line though is the peace of mind brought by having that roadside assist number on every driver’s speed dial.

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