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What to do after a car accident?

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Dealing with a car accident can be scary and confusing, but if you have insurance and a plan then these stressful moments can go much smoother. The first step in any such plan is understanding what is required of you when a vehicle accident occurs. This article will walk you through all the steps involved in navigating your way through the insurance aftermath of an automobile accident.

These are essentially the same steps one must take when filing a claim no matter who’s at fault. However, there may be different angles to consider with each scenario. By considering the best way to approach either situation (at fault and not at fault) ahead of time, you can avoid an unpleasant claim outcome.

What to do at the scene of the accident?

Car accidents can be jarring and disorienting, but if you know ahead of time what to do in a car accident then it will be easier to remain focused. The most important thing is safety. Before taking any other steps, make sure that you and any passengers in your car are uninjured. If you believe that you or your passengers need immediate medical attention, then call for an ambulance right away. The other constant is that you will exchange information with any other drivers involved in the accident. This will include basic identity information, such as your name, as well as proof of insurance for your vehicle.

When you believe you’re not at fault

If you were hit from behind or someone ran a stoplight or stop sign and hit you, that is pretty cut and dry as to who is at fault. However, it’s not always that simple. It’s even more complicated if you are in a PIP/No-Fault state like Michigan, which assigns fault percentages—also the states where insurance fraud is highest and where you can easily fall victim to a planned accident. In states like that, you should never admit to fault, no matter how it appears to be. You could be missing a very big ‘clue’ that law enforcement or an adjuster may see that changes everything. 

Even if the other person promises to pay out of pocket cash for your car, do not engage them in conversation or make any “deals.” Too many nice people have been left without any resources whatsoever to fix their car because the at-fault driver promised to pay all damages if they agreed not to call the police. Typically it is because their insurance has lapsed, they don’t have a license or they have had far too many dings on their record.

Take the following steps:

  1. Provide a statement

Call the police and give them your statement when they arrive. Ask how to obtain a copy of the accident report. This ensures that if legal action is taken over the car accident, that the authorities have your statement ready and documented. While this is not required by law, it can be a wise move as it helps to protect your liability for an accident.

In the case of a dispute over fault, your insurer and your attorney (if it comes to that) can reference your initial police statement as evidence. Provided your account is both honest and indicative of the accident not being your fault, this can help your chances of winning the dispute.

  1. Photograph the accident

Take pictures with your cell phone or camera. There are some great new apps available that you can keep on ‘standby’ to have ready in case of an accident. Some are available through insurers, and others are apps you can simply download. Most let you take and store photos with your smartphone, record information and some from insurers even let you make the initial claim filing.

Having these photographs on hand can help your insurer determine fault and it can significantly accelerate the process. The more straightforward fault is to identify, the sooner the whole ordeal will be over.

  1. Document the accident

Carefully record everything that you can see at the scene of the accident. You will not see details if you try to think of everything hours or even days later. When it comes to documenting the scene, no detail is too small, although some should be given preference. What time of day is it? How much traffic is there? Which way were the respective cars driving that were in the accident and which way are they facing afterward? Questions like these can help to resolve disputes over fault and speed up the claims process.

The more documentation you have, the better. If you have provided a statement at the scene, photographed the scene and written your observations of the scene, then you will be well prepared to answer any questions that your insurer might ask.

  1. Seek medical attention

Seek medical attention, even if you feel fine at first. According to the Consumer Protection Association of America, one-third of all car accidents result in injury—some of which may not show up immediately but that can often be detected early as long as you’re checked out. Get treatment the first time, and then schedule a 30 day follow-up immediately just to be safe.

Not only is the right course of action to take for your health, but it creates documentation showing just how seriously you are taking the accident. While second to your well-being, this documentation can further help your claims case in some situations.

  1. Speak with both insurance companies

Call both yours and the other person’s insurance company to provide your statement. You want to give your own insurance company your side of the issue because it wouldn’t be the first time an at-fault driver tried to claim innocence. You want to be sure that you give your statement to both insurance companies. Some states, such as Minnesota, require you to file a form for any accident with bodily injury claims over $500.

Few things can facilitate the quick processing of an automobile accident claims as much as thorough, honest, and transparent documentation. The goal is for fault to be obvious once all the documentation is analyzed as a whole. This makes the determination between the insurance companies easier and quicker. When one company sees that it is evident and well documented that their driver is at fault, they will put less time and effort into disputing that claim.

When you’re involved in a single vehicle accident

It’s very rare that a single car accident (yours) will not be considered a not-at-fault claim. You didn’t do it intentionally, but it happened nonetheless (hence the word “accident”). Unless you hit a deer or an animal that jumped in front of the car, you were the one in control when the accident occurred, so it will be considered a collision claim. Some policyholders get confused by this—generally, ‘at-fault’ accidents pay out under liability coverage, but that’s just if you cause damage to another vehicle and/or if you cause an accident injuring someone else. When it’s just your vehicle (like if you overcorrect and drive into a tree), your collision coverage will pay out. Remember that if you carry ‘liability only,’ your policy will not pay out at all.

Take the following steps:

  1. Assess yourself for injuries

First, check to see if you are injured. If any visible or painful injuries exist, call 911 immediately. Whether the accident is your fault or not, you should still get a checkup no later than the next day. Remember that if you have medical payments coverage on your auto insurance, you can use it regardless of fault up to its limit.

By waiting too long and avoiding medical treatment, if a problem does arise, the expense for seeking treatment at that time will likely come out-of-pocket.

  1. Assess your vehicle

Look at your car to visually assess the damage, and if it appears that it is safe to drive, consider your options. If you place a call for a tow and make a claim, there is no way to expunge the collision claim from your record. You’ll be stuck with it for five years. Consider carefully what to do. If you have suffered very little damage, particularly to an older-model car that has little to no loan left on it, you may want to consider just going home and finding the best price on an auto body repair shop and do it out of pocket.

Consider the deductible amount. If your deductible is $1000 and the damage is less than, say, $1800, there just isn’t much point in paying that kind of money and having to pay increased premiums for three to five years as a result of the claim. Often if you are paying cash out of pocket and the body shop owners don’t have to deal with an insurance company, they will offer you a good deal. You can consider that; however, you should still get your vehicle checked, because you may have suffered damage invisible to the untrained eye.

Car accident information checklist

Some information is essential when you’re involved in a vehicular accident. Below is a list of some of the most critical pieces of information you’ll want to gather.

  • Full name and some form of contact information: Make sure that you have the legal name of the other driver as well as a means of contacting them.
  • Proof of insurance: Have the other driver show you their proof of insurance and write down their policy number and insurance company name.
  • Driver’s license: Have the other driver show you their driver’s license and write down their name, license number and the state that issued it.
  • Vehicle information: Write down the make, model, color, age and plate number of the other vehicle.
  • Time and location of the accident: Make a note of the intersection or street where the accident occurred, along with the time of day and information on which way the cars were driving when they had the accident.
  • Witness information: Record the names and testimony of any witnesses on the scene who are comfortable providing you with this information.
  • Photograph the scene: Take pictures of both vehicles, showing where they are damaged and try to get at least one photo that captures both cars at once.

What to do after a car accident

Once you’ve gone through the checklists above, you’re ready to leave the scene of the accident. But first, there are just a few more steps to make you take. These final steps are about tying up any loose ends and making sure that your health and your vehicle are in good hands. Knowing what to do after a car accident can help get you and your vehicle safely back on the road sooner.

  1. File a claim

If you haven’t done so already, it’s important to file your claim as quickly after the accident as you reasonably can. It’s not uncommon for both drivers in an accident to plead not at fault. Filing your claim promptly can help to shorten the time it takes for the two insurance companies to debate which driver is at fault or whether both, or neither, are at fault.

To file a claim, you can call an agent from your insurance company, or you can submit it through their website if they offer digital claims filing. Keep the notes and documentation that you gathered at the scene on hand, as some of that information will be requested during the claims process.

  1. Arrange for your vehicle to be moved

If your vehicle is drivable and safe, then you can drive it away from the scene once you’ve exchanged information with the other driver and gone through your checklist. It may be wise to take your car directly to an auto mechanic shop so that they can assess damages with a professional eye. This can be documented and shown to the insurers to help with your claims process.

If your vehicle is undrivable, then you will want to contact a towing company and arrange for them to transport your vehicle to a mechanic for assessment and repairs. Your insurer may have a local mechanic that they work with, and they may request that you have your vehicle taken to that shop. The easiest way to know is to ask them when you file your claim.

  1. Speak with both insurance companies

After you’ve filed your claim, it can be helpful to stay in touch with your insurance company. They’ll continue to work on your claim regardless. Still, this way, you will know where they are in the process and will be ready to provide them with any extra information that they might need.

Next, reach out to the other driver’s insurance company and provide them with your statement and documentation of the accident. The more transparent the accident is to both companies, the sooner the whole process will be over with.

The takeaway

  • Be prepared for car accidents
  • Keep your driver’s license and proof of insurance with you when you drive
  • Exchange information with the other driver(s)
  • Gather information from the scene
  • Decide whether to file a claim

Car accidents are no fun and no one intends to have one. Yet, they are common. Being prepared for these unfortunate situations can help get you through the process with minimal pain while helping you to protect your health and finances.

If you do get in an accident, always make sure that you’re safe and uninjured before doing anything else. After that, you can focus on the bureaucratic components by gathering all the pertinent information and filling out the appropriate forms.

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