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Roadside assistance and breakdown coverage are services that assist motorists, or bicyclists, whose vehicles have suffered a mechanical failure that leaves the operator stranded.
Early motorists were often capable of carrying out minor repairs themselves, but as automobiles became more complicated, this become more difficult to carry out successfully. Some early local motoring clubs tried to support their members by encouraging them to help each other. A rota of members who would help other members was kept and in some cases, cash was put aside to hire a tow vehicle if needed.
In the UK, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) (formed in 1897) and The Automobile Association (AA) (formed in 1905) offering repair services to their members on the spot, or a tow to a local garage or the driver's home if nearby (in all cases a limit of 20 miles).
The Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club in Germany began to offer a similar service in 1927. The American Automobile Association (AAA) was formed in 1902 and later merged with its Canadian company, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). Many of these associations are membership-based clubs and provide services to assist members through the use of fleet assistance vehicles. In the case of the UK AA, these were traditionally motorcycle-mounted prior to the introduction of vans.
When communication technology and availability made it practical, a network of emergency phone boxes, placed at intervals by the roadside, was introduced in some countries. In recent years, the widespread ownership of mobile phones has, to a large degree, supplanted the need for an emergency phone network. Mobile technology has led to the development of free applications (apps).
Provision of service
In some areas, especially in Europe, there is a government-sponsored or -sanctioned automobile membership association, and the service may be in the form of an insurance policy with premiums, instead of a member subscription fee.
Services may also be available as part of the service of a vehicle insurance company, or other companies whose primary business is to offer such assistance, such as AAA in America or the AA in the UK.
Some automobile manufacturers also offer roadside assistance for their customers, sometimes for free for some period after the purchase of a new vehicle.
Breakdown cover may include jump-starting an automobile, diagnosing and repairing the problem that caused the breakdown, towing a vehicle, helping to change a flat tire, providing a small amount of fuel when a vehicle runs out of it, pulling out a vehicle that is stuck in snow or helping people who are locked out of their cars.
In the United States, many states and their Departments of Transportation have organized government-run Highway Assistance Patrols, or Highway Safety Patrols, to keep the traffic moving and assist with highway emergencies as needed. While not law enforcement personnel, these persons provide free service to motorists in distress, and secure lanes of traffic, provide emergency medical assistance, request tow trucks for vehicles in inconvenient or dangerous locations, remove debris from the roadway after a crash, and resolve minor disabled vehicle problems, such as flat tires, jumpstarts, or pushing a disabled vehicle out of travel lanes. Many of these patrols work directly with the State Police and Highway Operations departments of their state, and respond to assistance when a citizen calls 911 for minor roadside assistance duties.