This article was first published in MMM magazine in August 2006. On our travels we have met a few couples who remembered the article and cut it out to keep, so I figured it might be of use to a wider audience.
A serious road traffic accident in a foreign country is an event that one really doesn’t want to think about, particularly when you are dreaming about your next adventure. The odds are that you will shunt it off to that part of your brain labelled: “Won’t happen to us.”
What follows is the tale of what did happen to us and what we learnt from it – some of it the hard way.
Our bad dream started in the Savoie region of France, 5 weeks into what was planned to be a six month trip, taking in the French Alps for some skiing and then down to Spain and Portugal for some sun.
We were in the busy evening traffic leaving Bourg St Maurice, on the RN 90 towards Aime, en route to meet up with some friends on the L’Eden campsite at Landry
The impact came out of nowhere, unseen, on the passenger side door. The car, glimpsed only as a blur, disappeared like a bullet ahead of us.
It’s at times like this that one’s brain goes into slo-mo, freeze frame mode. My brain was already trying to compute the extent of the damage on the passenger side when an invisible giant hand pushed us up the rock strewn roadside embankment. More terrible noises and I realised that the side was being ripped out of the ‘van. To compound my disbelief that this was happening I could feel that the van was about to turn over on its side. The van didn’t want to steer, one of the wheels wasn’t in contact with the road at all. Somehow we landed back onto the road with an almighty crash.
At this stage I was definitely in shock and I started to do irrational things. Seeing that Sue was physically OK, I legged it after the car, phone in hand, desperate to get his registration number. The Seat Ibiza had come to rest in a lay by, about 200 metres ahead. Panels were ripped off both sides, a tyre had come off and both air bags inflated. There was no driver. The traffic was milling slowly by us. It was getting dark.
A passing ambulance summoned the Gendarmerie and Sapeurs-Pompiers and they arrived in minutes. We spent a surreal hour on the roadside. The Ambulance wanted to take us to hospital, but we had to fill in a form in order to refuse. Sue had got our hi-vis jackets out, but we were the only ones wearing them – the Gendarmes in their dark blue uniforms came in and out of view, virtually invisible on the dark road.
Finally we drove to the local Gendarmerie. The other two drivers involved had what was left of their cars lifted onto trucks and went with the Gendarmes.
As there were three drivers involved, two sets of road accident report forms were filled out, the guilty driver filling in part A of both forms. I had to draw a sketch on the form and the police added details. These were signed by all involved. Then, still in a bad dream, it was “Bon Soiree” to everybody.
My sketch on the accident report form
The young driver who caused the accident and the driver of the car he hit first were lucky to be alive. We were lucky to escape serious injury. Now we were on our own to pick up the pieces.
We drove to meet our friends, who did their best to restore us with large glasses of Jameson’s and plates of Thai chicken curry.
In the morning, out came the digital camera and we started to record the damage. It was both better than we thought and worse than we thought. Although the main walls of the van had remained intact, there was damage to the valances on both sides and rear, the exhaust, waste tank and step underneath, and the interior. The tracking was out and the tyre scuffed. However, we could still use all services and still drive – just.
The first point of impact, deflecting the wheel and forcing us off the road
Damage to the front bumper and wheel arch
There were now three options – we could claim we were a basket case, get the insurance company to ship the van back to the UK and go home. We could get the vehicle checked out and repaired mechanically, and then drive home for the rest of the repairs. Or, we could try to get the van repaired entirely in France and continue on our trip.
The gas locker door wouldn't open properly
The electric step was hanging off, the alarm sounding constantly
We have a French built Rapido van, there was a Rapido concession and a large FIAT agent nearby, so it seemed to make sense to go for the last option.
On reflection, (Technicolor hindsight, in fact) I would say that this decision is not for the faint hearted. We have only limited French language and certainly not enough to win an argument. We have an English specification vehicle and this can cause problems with spare parts. We were foreigners, in a part of the country where life is hard and unforgiving and we were not therefore natural candidates for oodles of sympathy and service from the native French.
The exhaust was bent right back, torn off its mountings
The waste tank drain was twisted and broken
However, we pressed on, desperate to continue our holiday. Besides, I told myself, anyone can eat an elephant; you just have to do it in small chunks.
To cut a long and arduous story short, we arranged, with the help of the Norwich Union office in Paris and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, for all repairs to be carried out. First of all the van would go to a FIAT main agent (with its own body shop) for the steel and mechanical repairs, then to the Rapido concession (Curioz Loisirs) at Balme de Silingy, northwest of Annecy.
The hire of a motor home from Curioz Loisirs, whilst the repairs were being carried out, was arranged with the help of the RAC office in Lyon – cheaper than a hotel and a car.
The bike rack had buckled down into the rear bumper
We fell at the first hurdle. Namely the FIAT garage, who having taken a booking to start the repairs, backed out with a torrent of flimsy excuses and a great deal of discourtesy. Norwich Union in Paris pulled the plug and arranged for the repatriation of our battered home. C’est la vie.
The bed had bounced out of his mountings
We felt gutted, all that effort, an unhappy month of stress and setbacks, literally hundreds of pounds worth of mobile phone calls (enduring “call centre” hell) and now we had it to do all over again in the UK. Our holiday was well and truly down the Suwannee.
But our bad French dream was not over yet. Getting a suitable low loader to us (from Seville) would take the best part of a week, meanwhile the insurance company didn’t want us to drive the vehicle. We couldn’t possibly leave it by the side of a main road, in front of a garage with which we were not on speaking terms. Plus we had to return the hired motor home in which we now were living and contained lots of our kit. We took a deep breath, transferred all our goods and chattels back again, returned the hired ‘van and holed up in an aire de service near the pick up point in Albertville.
Holed up in Annecy awaiting news
Now we had to sort out our own repatriation. The RAC (in Lyons) was called to the rescue - our luck was in this time and we got a native English on the phone (Emma, you are a star), and a car was arranged for the day before the low loader arrived. The haulage company informed us that the bikes would have to come off the back of the van or they would disappear in Calais, if not before. To put them inside the van was unthinkable, especially if the Customs gave it a thorough going over, so they went into the car.
Au revoir, the dismal day matched our mood
Once at Calais, we would have to leave the French hire car, reassemble the bikes, board the ferry as foot passengers/cyclists, then reverse the procedure in Dover with the English hire car. (We had hoped that an English hire car would be available in Calais, but it rarely happens now.)
We finally arrived home late on a Sunday night. On Monday the gremlins were out in force again – the English haulier’s truck had broken down and return to our local nominated repair centre would be delayed. “Scottie – is your beam working?!”
Below is a distillation of what we learnt and our advice derived from that experience.
Before you leave home
Test drive your emergency phone numbers.
Call and ask if you are ringing the right number to report an accident abroad – you might get a surprise! Check that your insurance cover remains comprehensive where ever you intend to travel.
Get RAC and Uninsured Losses cover
For a combined outlay of £70 for this cover, we have the potential to save ourselves thousands of pounds. Plus you have informed, knowledgeable, English speaking people on the end of a phone – and that can be precious in itself.
Make a list of all your (checked) emergency numbers
Keep it with your vehicle details and policy document. Include the details of the dealer/repair garage of your choice should your ‘van have to be repatriated. Check that it is approved or acceptable by your insurer.
NB. If the cost of repatriation exceeds the value of your van, your insurer will not pay. In which case you face “digging deep”, completing the repairs abroad or writing off the van!
Essential items to have on board
Everybody has a mobile phone – but do you have a spare, and have they been “unlocked” to accept a foreign SIM card? This could save you a lot of money (and stress). Don’t forget the hands-free earpiece, it really does help to make long and difficult calls easier.
Many of us carry these – but do you have it set up to send and receive emails? Language translation software can be a godsend for understanding and preparing documents. Autoroute is a popular mapping program, extremely useful for finding locations and planning routes. Sat Nav is an alternative but the larger laptop screen makes life very much easier.
Very useful if you are used to one, and can perform most of the functions of the laptop. (These days you can get them with a GPS receiver and Sat Nav included.)
Get one. They are now so small, so cheap and so good that you’d be crazy not to. Most phones now have cameras but the extra definition and ease of use of a dedicated digital camera can ensure better results when you are under stress and in a hurry.
Spiral wound notebook
Sounds basic, and that’s its strength – you can fold it back on itself and shove it into other peoples hands for addresses and directions. You can tear out pages to pass on the same. Try that with a Smartphone. Store your pen in the spiral and you are ready for that incoming phone call. Ours formed the cornerstone of our recording and documentation. A refinement would be an A5 or A6 ring binder or filofax.
Nice to have this – and I don’t. I made do with floppy discs and writeable CD’s (CDR) and got other people to print documents and pictures for me. (These days USB memory sticks are so cheap, most people with a laptop have one).
Fold flat luggage holdalls
When the game is up and you finally have to abandon your ‘van (even temporarily) you will be glad of these.
They could save you life. Plus you could be fined for not wearing them, which adds insult to injury.
After the impact
We were so lucky to escape serious injury. Everything I say here is on the assumption that you should be equally fortunate.
Remember you are in shock
The adrenalin will be pumping, urging action. Be aware that your body’s response to what has happened will affect your ability to think and act in a cool and rational way - especially when your beloved home is in pieces.
Running along a busy road, in the dusk, without a hi-vis jacket, (as I did) in search of a fleeing driver, is not a sensible thing to do.
Get out the digital camera
Take pictures of the other cars involved, particularly the number plates, the damage and the position on the road. The damage to your own vehicle can wait, but try and get a general view of the scene, particularly the road markings.
If anyone comes up to you and says “I saw what happened” or similar, get their name, address and telephone number pronto. An independent witness can be very valuable.
The repair process
Take a break
For a few days after the accident, rest up and get your head together. If you decide, or have no other choice, than to have repairs done locally, don’t go rushing into them. You will have to wait for an assessor in any event, and you have the right to choose, within reason, when and where you have the vehicle repaired.
Don’t underestimate the emotional stress of the accident – seeing your beloved home damaged, and living with that on a daily basis is a continuing strain.
We all love the freedom of being able to move on when we feel like it. To have that denied is a much harder blow than we imagined.
Decide your objectives
Whether you are ready to embrace the fact or not, you are now a project manager.
Consider your options carefully. Try and make your head rule your heart.
A crucial objective could be to get the van driveable – then you are not faced with repatriation on a truck. Other damage could be considered merely cosmetic or inconvenient and you could continue your holiday – but get it properly recorded, assessed and accepted by the insurance company now.
Find an interpreter you can trust
Unless you speak the language fluently and know the culture intimately, a vital requisite is dual language speakers who are on your side, or who at least are willing to offer help over a sustained period of time. We got help above and beyond the call of duty from the Paris office of NU and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, but the RAC office in Lyon was also wonderfully helpful - providing you have cover they have your interests at heart and enormous knowledge resources to call on.
Select your repairers with care
If alarm bells are ringing, ask to see their workshops, confirm every stage and item, until you feel as confident as possible. Try elsewhere if necessary. The RAC will not get involved in accident damage unless instructed to do so by the insurance company, but they may be able to direct you to a competent repairer.
Nurture the experts
Try and persuade the motor home concession to take charge of the entire repair, nominating their own body shop. If not, insist on the assessor examining the ‘van at both body works and motor home concession. This is important in two ways – it convinces the repairer that you mean business and that they will get their money, secondly, the input from a skilled repairer on how to go about the repair can be crucial.
Don’t expect anything to go according to plan. If someone says they will phone at a given time, or call you back, allow them half an hour’s grace and no more (it’s your blood pressure remember). Try your best to maintain politeness and your sense of humour. Ring to confirm again if you have the slightest doubt about an arrangement or agreement. Try and share the telephoning load between you. Remember, call centres were put on this earth to reduce the population – deaths from stroke, apoplexy, suicide etc!
Do you fit?
Make sure the haulage company knows the exact dimensions of your van, to the inch - did you include the awning? Remember the vehicle will rock on the trailer when under way - is there sufficient clearance?
Have you, er, put on weight?
Give a realistic estimate of your all up weight - if the haulage company is under the impression they are repatriating an empty panel van (ours were) there may be a drastic change of plan!
Any bikes, skis or storage boxes will have to be removed - the haulier will not accept responsibility for damage or loss to any of these.
The Customs are likely to inspect the interior of the van - looking for persons, drugs, cigarettes and booze. They may not leave the place tidy or close cupboard and locker doors or drawers - move all fragile or heavy kit down low or in open topped boxes on the floor. The haulier will not accept responsibility for any interior damage.
Take pictures of the van before it departs on the trailer. The driver will ask you to sign a damage inspection form, but your pictures can be conclusive.
The driver will also require this for Customs, better to have a copy ready.
Don’t forget to phone your tracker HQ!
Postscript: Little did we imagine that repairs to the van would never be satisfactorily completed, or that it would take the best part of two years to get to a stage where we could draw a line under this painfull saga and walk away - from Brownhills at Newark (never to return!)
In fact, on the reccomendation of our Insurers (Norwich Union) we accepted a pay off of over £2000 for outstanding work, their view being that it was unlikely that Brownhills would ever complete the work to our satisfaction and we should engage another repairer of our choice.