WORK EXPERIENCE: Heroes of hard shoulder save many a day
6:02pm Friday 4th October 2013 in News
Argus reporter, Jennifer Mills Work Experience out with an AA patrol in Newport. Jennifer working out on patrol. (1159513)
AS STEVE Smith and I sit in Tesco car park in Newport at 7.30am, waiting for our coffee to cool down enough to drink, the call comes in.
For my first experience working as a roadside patrol with the AA, it’s a dramatic one: a tyre has burst on the fast lane of the M4, and a woman is stranded on the motorway hard shoulder between Newport and Cardiff in a white Renault Mégane.
When we arrive and put on our hazard lights, she’s visibly upset, having just almost lost control of her car in the middle of speeding traffic. The tyre is destroyed, with frayed bits of rubber visible. Steve reassures the driver, Carina Jordan, who was on her way to a training course from Aylesbury, after making sure the van is safe behind a warning triangle and that Carina and I both get behind the crash barrier.
Mrs Jordan tells Steve: “I was driving along and something didn’t feel right. I just heard a ‘kink, kink, kink’ sound and then my door smelled like rubber.” She was impressed by the AA after they arrived in less than 15 minutes, adding: “They were lovely on the phone, because I was crying my eyes out.”
Steve jacks up the car and prepares to change the wheel, always facing the oncoming traffic. Kneeling down at the edge of the hard shoulder as lorries come speeding past looks terrifying, and Steve admits that it takes some bravery: “It can be nerve-racking. You have got to be wary of some lorry drivers because they bend the rules a bit. Sometimes, they drive on the hard shoulder – if you see anything approaching your space, run!”
Thankfully there’s no need for Steve to leap behind the crash barrier this time and he changes the wheel without incident, sending a happy customer on her way.
It’s a great introduction to the job, which can allow for dozens of minor triumphs every day. Steve, 43, tells me that his job isn’t really that exciting – “I’ve never had to rush someone to hospital who went into labour, or take the bride to her wedding” – but from what I can see, he’s downplaying a job that leaves plenty of customers viewing him as a hero.
He tells me that one of his most memorable jobs was helping two newly weds when their Ford Galaxy broke down: “They were going to a friend’s wedding and after that they were going on their honeymoon. I made up a belt that would fit the car. Their faces after it was done just lit you up – they were so happy and relieved they would be able to carry on with their plans.”
He covers a large area, so any day could see him driving as far as Carmarthen in the west and Swindon in the east, from his home in Beechwood, Newport. It’s a tough job, but Steve says listening to the radio helps with the hundreds of miles he notches up regularly.
Before my day on patrol, I was apprehensive, as I’ve always had a reputation for being better at the academic than the practical (cleaning job: fired. Barista job: tactfully moved over to making bacon sandwiches. Ski resort job: broken wrist.) As I’ve only been driving for a few months, I was concerned my failings with a screwdriver might give credence to the notion that ‘wimmen drivers’ should step aside and leave car repairs to the men.
Luckily, there are many women proving that to be incorrect, as I found out joining the AA for a day on the 25th anniversary of their first female roadside patrol, Georgina King, starting work aged 21. She stayed in the job for more than a decade, before moving on to train mechanics. Tina Smith, 33, from Ipswich, is working as a roadside patrol at the moment. Steve tells me she worked in the pits at motorsport races before becoming a roadside rescuer.
The AA say they are keen to recruit more women to frontline positions and I encourage others to give it a try. I can really see the appeal of the job, and Steve clearly takes pride in it, as evident by his evangelistic attempts to get me to leave my current breakdown provider and join the AA.
After the motorway, we’re posted to Pontypridd, where a Ford Fiesta won’t start. Steve predicts this will be due to a flat battery, explaining that we’re coming into the season of flat batteries, as cold weather affects battery performance.
Wise Steve has obviously been in the business longer than me, as his prediction is borne out when we meet Gillian Parker, 38, waiting by the car when we arrive.
This breakdown is one I can help out with, as there are fewer HGVs approaching at 70mph. Steve opens the van, which proves akin to Mary Poppins’ handbag. He produces batteries of multiple voltages, several drawers of wrenches and screwdrivers, makeshift fan belts, car jacks and... a spare high-vis jacket for me. He’s a patient teacher, giving me a stack of blue rubber gloves to complete the look, and assures me that I’m following in the footsteps of some inspirational women.
He takes out an electronic testing machine and attaches it to the red and black leads coming out of the battery. Things do not look promising, and after ten minutes of charging yields no improvement, Steve goes back to the van of tricks and finds a battery of the correct amperage. It fits, and the car stutters back to life.
It’s still only around 9am, but we’re already on to the third job: a black Vauxhall Corsa in Abertillery where the engine mountings have snapped.
When we get to the car, we meet Martin Yates, who has ridden his bike down into the valley from Blaina to help out with his son’s car, which is enthusiastically adorned with Angry Birds stuffed toys and Wolverhampton Wolves memorabilia. I pull on my blue rubber gloves again and Steve sets me to work unscrewing bolts and removing the air filter, so we can see the engine better. It’s harder than it looks, obviously, and I start to get a sore wrist before I finish the first bolt.
While we’re there, I have a moment of pride mixed with panic when a man spots me wearing my AA vest and says to me: “Can I ask a stupid question? How do I open the fuel cap?” It transpires that when he hired the car he forgot to ask, but before I have the chance to leap to the rescue, Steve has already opened it.
We find another bolt and fix the engine in place well enough for the Corsa to be drivable, although it will still need some work.
Then we’re off to Abergavenny, where Sue Hughes has a problem with the alternator on her Daewoo Matiz. As I tinker with the car, Mrs Hughes brings out a plate of coffee and Kit Kats, and warns us to check the van for her cat Stubbs before driving off, who has previous in jumping into recovery vans.
Our second-to-last call of the day is shrouded in secrecy, as the man who calls us out confides he is an undercover policeman, and asks me not to describe his car. I can tell you the car looks totally ordinary... It could be driving behind you on the way home.
Before we break for lunch, we sort out a blue Mercedes van, driven by a construction supervisor who admits he wasn’t expecting to see a woman pull up alongside Steve: “I thought maybe you were his wife.”
But he adds: “I’d be more than happy to have a woman patrol – as long as they can get the engine started, who cares?”
I have to get back to the office, but Steve carries on working until 5pm.
My new knowledge was tested when a week after my intensive lesson in car mechanics, I got into my car and turned the key in the ignition and met with... nothing.
My AA experience didn’t equip me to flick up the bonnet, rewire a few cables and zoom away, but it did allow me to diagnose the car’s issue as a flat battery... Maybe I’ll be giving Steve another call.
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