With more than 30 million cars on UK roads alone, driving is – for the vast majority of us – an essential part of everyday life. But for Service families, it can be a lifeline. Kate Viggers finds out more…
FEW sectors of the population are as mobile as the military, where the car is relied upon for much more than the school run or daily commute.
“I’ve always lived central to a city so never needed to drive but as we’ve moved around, it dawned on me I may not always be so lucky,” said Army spouse Stacey, who recently started driving lessons.
“My husband is often away for six months; once I can drive I won’t be so isolated.”
Families posted at a distance from support networks depend on road trips to stay connected to relatives and friends.
The freedom of four wheels makes settling into a new area easier too, granting access to facilities and events.
A driving licence is also a gateway to employment for many of you. Relying on public transport makes securing work from an inconvenient posting difficult.
“There are no buses into town from camp,” said learner driver Kayleigh, from Newcastle upon Tyne. “This is my first posting. Feeling homesick with young children, driving would make it easier to pop home, or even a trip to the shops or seaside without waiting for my husband to be about.”
While driving can bring huge lifestyle and earning benefits, it comes at a cost. On top of the vehicle price, lessons, tests, the licence and annual fees (MOT, tax and insurance) mean getting on the road for the first time totals an average £5,000.
Premiums are usually higher for newly-qualified drivers, while ad hoc repairs and a regular service bump up the cost too. Dedicated financial assistance for Forces families helps reduce the price tag.
The MOD’s Defence Discount Service (DDS Cars) offers special deals to eligible personnel. In Northern Ireland, the SSAFA Driving Initiative helps those in remote postings, funding 50 per cent of the cost of ten lessons with an approved instructor.
Buying & selling
Ownership is more affordable when buying part-exchange or ex-demo, or through payment plans like Hire Purchase. Research your finance options and always read the small print.
A government grant of £5,000 (or 35 per cent of the purchase price) is available for new electric cars, which are growing in popularity thanks to low running costs and environmentally-friendly credentials.
When in the market for a used car, it’s crucial to do your homework. Using a dealer in a set location will give you recourse in case of problems.
“If buying privately, check price guides to avoid being overcharged and do a thorough test drive,” advised Ian Crowder from the AA, which offers free vehicle history checks to highlight potential issues.
When it comes to selling, Service life can present unique challenges – as ex-Artillery spouse Gillie discovered.
“We were posted to South Africa and needed our car until departure,” she told Army&You. “So we then had to find a buyer quickly and lost out financially. It was a stressful final week.”
If your soldier is away for an extended period, his or her vehicle must remain insured or, if not driven, the DVLA must be informed. When Amy’s husband deployed, his car was parked on camp and declared SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification). “When I went to retrieve it, the battery was flat and the MOT expired, so I had to arrange for a new battery to be fitted to get it straight to the test centre.”
Driving would make it easier to pop home, or even a trip to the shops or seaside without waiting for my husband to be about.
The AA’s advice is to run a stationary car occasionally to keep the battery topped up.
“Make sure it reaches maximum running temperature before switching off,” said Ian. “And if left outside, invest in a cover.”
Safe & savvy
Regular maintenance prolongs the value and life of any vehicle (see panel, right). Understanding what’s under a bonnet has other advantages too.
Gillie said: “However ‘dated’ this sounds, as a female customer l felt at a disadvantage going into garages when my husband was away. I was wary of mechanics who may assume I knew nothing and would blindly pay any bill. I’m more car savvy nowadays!”
Breakdown cover also means greater confidence on the road. Some providers prioritise solo female drivers with children.
Gillie added: “I drove many long boarding school runs after dark, so the implications of careless workmanship didn’t bear thinking about.
“I used recommended dealerships or asked fellow military personnel before using smaller garages.”
While cars are costly and frustrating at times, there’s no doubt getting behind the wheel brings huge positives to Service life – from increased convenience and independence to more choice when it comes to where you live, work and socialise.
As Amy put it: “Without a car I would be cut-off. I don’t like to rely on others, so it would be restricting. Our sons would have to give up clubs and we wouldn’t see much of friends and family. It would be pretty rubbish!”