What To Do After a Car Accident: 8 Steps
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Over five million motor vehicle crashes were reported in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car accidents can be traumatizing for many drivers, but it’s important to stay focused during the aftermath. Otherwise, you can miss out on evidence necessary for your insurance claim or worse — a lawsuit.
SmartFinancial has outlined each step you should take following a car accident so you can stay safe and prepared for filing an insurance claim.
1. Check for Injuries
After colliding with another vehicle, immediately stop, activate your hazard lights and check for injuries. If you do not stop, you can be convicted for a hit and run, which can carry severe legal consequences.
If somebody is injured or there is substantial property damage, call the police immediately. Be ready to answer questions about the collision scene, such as the location, how many people are injured and if anyone is bleeding, unconscious or without a pulse. Do not move your vehicle if anyone is injured, unless the injured person is in a burning vehicle or some other immediate external danger. Moving an injured person may worsen the injury and cause a fatality.
If there are no major injuries and the accident was minor — a fender bender, for instance — move to the next step.
2. Get Yourself to Safety
After confirming that all parties in the collision are uninjured, return to your vehicle and safely move your car to a location that will not obstruct traffic.
Refusing to move your vehicle if there are no injuries or fatalities can unnecessarily impede the flow of traffic and potentially cause additional accidents. Obstructing traffic unnecessarily is illegal.
3. Exchange Information With the Other Driver
You will need to exchange insurance information with the other driver involved in the collision. Be sure you to request the following information:
- Full name
- Phone number
- Insurance company and policy number
- Vehicle year, make and model
- License plate number
Give this information about you (and the other driver, if they leave the scene) to the police if you contact them. Ask your police officer how and when you can get a copy of the police report. Later, give all this information to your insurance agent, as well.
Do Not Admit Fault
Even if you feel somewhat or fully responsible for an accident, do not admit that you were liable for the accident. Admitting fault at the scene when emotions may be running high offers no benefit and may even provide fuel to use against you in the future if you’re involved in a personal injury lawsuit. Similarly, do not point fingers and accuse the other drivers of being at fault.
Your job immediately following an accident is ensuring everybody is safe, exchanging insurance information and documenting facts about the collision. Let the police and car insurance companies conduct their investigation to determine who is at fault. You may later discover that the other driver partially contributed to the collision.
Report the facts accurately, as you remember them to the police or your insurance agent. Do not lie since eyewitness testimony and traffic cameras can catch you red-handed.
4. Document the Accident
After exchanging information with the other driver, record as many details as you can about the accident. Start by noting the following information:
- Accident location or closest address
- Police officer’s name and badge number (if applicable)
- Record the time and date of the accident
- Your estimate of how fast the other driver was going
Next, you should take pictures of all the documentation listed above plus the accident scene:
- Visible injuries
- Street signs
- Where the collision occurred
- Weather conditions
- Road conditions (e.g., potholes, road debris, tree blocking view, etc.)
- Skid marks on the road
- Faraway shot showing if the collision scene was an intersection, merging lane or some other type of street
If there were eyewitnesses present, ask them for their name and contact information. Your insurance company may want to contact them when investigating the accident.
If the other driver is not present — i.e. you accidentally backed into their car in a parking lot while they were inside the store — leave a written notice on their vehicle with your name, address and a description of the collision. Even if the other driver was absent, proceed to the next step and file an insurance claim with your carrier.
5. File an Insurance Claim
After collecting documentation on the accident, call your insurance company to initiate the claims process. Your insurance agent will walk you through on next steps, including explaining the accident, uploading documentation (i.e. the police report) and how the settlement will work.
Note: Some insurers allow you to file an insurance claim through the company mobile app or an online portal, with no need to speak with a phone representative.
It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for your insurance company to investigate the claim and provide you with an update, so don’t expect a same-day response to your insurance claim.
Understanding Your Insurance Coverage
When filing an auto insurance claim, review your policy to understand your coverages and policy limits. For example, collision insurance and Medpay insurance will pay for your vehicle damages and medical expenses but are optional coverages you may not have.
If you do not have collision insurance and you were the at-fault driver in an accident, you will need to pay for your repair bills out of pocket.
Here’s a summary of how coverage works when you are the at-fault driver versus when the other driver is at fault.
You Were At Fault
The Other Driver Was At Fault
After paying your deductible, collision coverage will pay to repair your car or replace it, if totaled.
The at-fault driver’s property damage liability coverage will cover your vehicle damages.
If you or your passengers sustained injuries in the accident, Medpay coverage or personal injury protection (PIP) will pay for the medical bills without a deductible from you.
The at-fault driver’s bodily injury liability coverage will pay for your and your passengers’ medical bills.
PIP will pay for your and your passengers’ medical bills, regardless of who is at fault.
What if the other driver doesn’t have car insurance? If the other driver was determined at fault, their liability insurance will pay for your losses. If the other driver is uninsured or has insufficient coverage, your uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage will cover your property damages and medical injuries.
UM/UIM is required in some states, but is still an optional coverage you can buy if your state does not mandate it.
Note: If you have collision insurance and medical payments coverage, UM/UIM may be unnecessary.
6. Get Roadside Assistance if You Need It
Some collisions may render your car inoperable or unsafe to drive. If you purchased roadside assistance, you can request your insurance company to dispatch a roadside service provider. Depending on the company, roadside service requests can be made through the mobile app, by phone or through the online portal.
In a car collision, roadside coverage would likely take the form of a tow or winching. A tow truck can transport your vehicle either to your home or a nearby repair shop. You can also have your car extracted, if the collision caused your vehicle to get stuck in dangerous terrain, like mud or sand.
If you do not have roadside coverage in your auto policy, you will need to pay for several services out of pocket.
7. Get Your Car Repaired
If your car is damaged, your insurance company will either send an insurance adjuster to estimate the damages or refer you to a qualified appraiser. Your insurance company will then propose a settlement amount based on the findings. You can accept the settlement or provide estimates from repair facilities that show the proposed settlement is too low. Your insurer will either increase the settlement amount or recommend a facility that will complete the vehicle repairs at the proposed amount.
Drivers should note that insurance providers will often have a list of approved repair facilities but they cannot force you to use a specific facility. It is the consumer’s right to choose where they will repair their car. However, choosing a facility that charges higher prices may require you to cover the difference out of pocket.
If you’re shopping for a repair facility yourself, consider asking the shop the following questions to ensure you’re working with a legitimate establishment:
- Are your technicians certified with the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence or some equivalent entity?
- What types of vehicles does your shop typically service?
- Do you offer a warranty and if so, what are the terms?
Make Transportation Arrangements
Make transportation arrangements while your vehicle is undergoing repairs. According to J.D. Power, your car may be in the shop for four to five days, on average. If you have rental car reimbursement on your auto policy, then your car insurance company should cover the cost of a rental car. Otherwise, you will need to pay for your own means of transportation.
8. Report the Accident to the DMV
Some states require that drivers report accidents to the DMV if the collision involved injuries or considerable property damages. For example, California drivers are legally obligated to report an accident to the DMV within 10 days of the accident if property damages exceed $1,000 or if anybody was injured.
Check your state’s DMV website for more information on collision reporting requirements.
How Is Fault Determined in an Accident?
Insurance carriers will investigate to determine which driver was at fault in the accident, using eyewitness testimonies, supporting documents and more.
- Police report: This official document can be strong evidence that describes the severity of damages or injuries sustained during the accident.
- Type of accident: Certain accidents often signal which driver can be held liable. For example, a driver who was driving under the influence and rear-ended the car in front of them will likely be held liable for the other driver’s losses.
- Traffic camera footage: Busy intersections may have traffic cameras that insurance carriers can access to see what actually happened when the collision occurred.
- Eyewitness eyewitnesses: People who were present when the collision happened can lend insight into what happened.
Both parties may be at fault for the accident. For example, if Driver A struck Driver B after running a red light but Driver B was speeding then both drivers may be required to pay a portion of the other driver’s losses. If the insurance companies determined Driver A was 70% at fault, then Driver A would pay 70% of Driver A’s losses, while Driver A would pay 30% of Driver B’s losses.
In the above scenario, fault was determined using the comparative negligence method, in which each driver is assigned a percentage of liability. The two other types of negligence are modified comparative negligence and contributory negligence.
Drivers share the cost of damages in proportion to their percentage of liability.
Driver A (70% liable) pays 70% of Driver B’s losses, while Driver B pays 30% of Driver A’s losses.
Modified Comparative Negligence
The driver who is 51% liable cannot seek compensation from the other driver.
Driver A (51% liable) cannot require Driver B to pay 49% of their losses, but must pay 51% of Driver B’s losses.
Drivers who are even 1% liable cannot recoup losses from the other driver's insurance company.
Driver A (1% liable) is not allowed to recoup losses from Driver B at all.
Fault Works Differently in No-Fault States
In no-fault states, there is no investigation to determine which driver was at fault after an accident and each driver is reimbursed by their own insurer. This type of coverage is commonly called no-fault insurance or personal injury protection (PIP).
PIP is a required coverage in no-fault states and will pay for your medical expenses, loss of income and death benefits, while collision insurance pays for your repair bills even if the accident was your fault.
Example: You were stopped at a red light but the driver behind you rear-ends you at high speed. Your medical and repair bills total $3,000. Although the other driver is 100% liable for your injuries, it is your insurance company that covers your losses.
The majority of states do not offer no-fault insurance and are called traditional tort states. No-fault insurance is available in only the following 12 states.
Drivers should note that no-fault states can place restrictions on your right to sue. This restriction is called a tort threshold and drivers must suffer severe injury (e.g., death, dismemberment) or financial loss before they can sue.
For example, drivers in Kansas must have accumulated $2,000 in property damages or medical bills before they can sue the other driver for reimbursement and pain and suffering.
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Will Your Insurance Be Impacted After a Car Accident?
Reporting an at-fault accident to your insurance carrier will likely increase your auto policy premium. Also called an accident surcharge, drivers may pay elevated rates for three years, and the surcharge may still apply even if you were not the at-fault driver.
The surcharge amount will depend on the severity of the accident, whether you were at fault and your driving history. An accident with zero injuries and minor scratches will likely result in a smaller increase than an accident caused by your intoxicated driving.
If you have multiple recent moving violations and accidents, you will pay higher insurance rates or your insurance provider may refuse to renew your policy altogether.
TIP: Purchasing accident forgiveness will dismiss the accident surcharge applied after your first at-fault accident.
You Should Not Hide a Major Accident From Your Insurance Company
Some drivers may want to hide a major accident from their insurance carrier but this is generally a bad idea, especially if anyone sustained serious injuries. Remember: you may not report the accident to your insurer but the other driver may.
If the other driver files a claim against your insurance company, your insurance company may refuse to renew your auto insurance policy because you failed to report the accident.
The only exception may be very minor accidents in which nobody was injured and there was minimal property damage (a fender bender, for example). If your deductible exceeds the cost of your damages, then filing an insurance claim and paying the deductible plus higher rates probably isn’t worth it.
Shopping for a cheaper policy can help you absorb post-accident surcharges. Your insurance company will likely increase your rates after a car accident, whether it was your fault or the other driver’s. While new insurers will still count the accident against you, finding a cheaper policy can help you reduce your monthly premiums. Just enter your zip code below or call 855.214.2291 and answer a few questions to receive your free car insurance quotes.