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What to do after a car accident

How to stay safe and make a successful claim after getting in a car accident.

If you’ve ever been in an accident, you know how scary they can be. Be prepared for a collision by learning the right way to handle an accident before it happens.

Secure the area

  • Do you or anyone else require medical assistance? If anyone is injured, call 911 immediately.
    • Apply first aid if you know how and make the person comfortable.
    • If spinal or head injuries are suspected, don’t move them under any circumstances and wait for the ambulance to arrive.
  • Is the surrounding area safe? Make the area safe to prevent another accident from occurring. Secondary accidents account for many of the accidents that occur on US roads.
  • Is the car safe? Make sure that there are no hazards such as leaking fuel or debris lying on the road.
  • Is the car still running? Make sure engines are switched off and hazard lights are on.
  • Can you move the vehicles? If it’s safe to do so, you should move the vehicles involved in the accident to the side of the road and keep your hazard lights on.
  • Have you called the police? Call the police if someone has been injured or if there’s third-party property damage where the owner is not present. The police should also be notified if there is any suspicion of drugs or alcohol involved in the accident.

Collect information

The next step is to exchange details with other drivers involved in the accident. Note that apologizing is typically cautioned against, as it could be taken as you assuming guilt.

Details you should exchange include:

  • Full name
  • Residential address
  • Phone number
  • Driver’s license number
  • Make, model and year
  • Registration number
  • Insurance name, phone number and policy number

Ideally, you’ll have a notepad and pen in your glovebox for this purpose. You could also take notes on your phone — getting a picture of the driver’s proof of insurance could save time and help minimize the risk of losing the info. Some insurers also now have mobile apps to help with the accident-recording process.

If you have your smartphone, take photos of the accident scene and details. Pictures should include the damage to your car, damage to other vehicles and any third-party property damage. You can often upload these photos directly to your insurer when you make a claim.

How to deal with a difficult driver

Unfortunately, not all drivers will be cooperative and helpful when involved in an accident. Here are some scenarios and how to deal with them:

  • Uninsured driver. If the other driver doesn’t have insurance, get their driver’s license number and contact info. Your insurance company might be able to help you recoup some of the costs associated with the accident.
  • Hit and run. If you’re involved in a hit and run, try to get the license plate number, make, model and color of the other car involved. Then immediately call the police. If there were any witnesses, ask if they will wait around to provide their account to the police officer.
  • Uncooperative driver. If the other driver isn’t willing to provide their insurance or contact info, call the police. Then take photos and get what information you can, like the license plate number.

Call your insurer

If possible, call your insurance company from the accident scene. An agent will be able to talk you through the process and advise you of your next steps. You’ll usually be advised to not admit liability to anyone.

This is because you may be in a state of shock or may not be fully aware of the circumstances of the accident. It’s not up to you or anyone else at the scene to determine fault — that should be left to the police and insurance companies to decide at a later date.

Even if no one is hurt or the damage is only minor, you should likely still report an accident to your insurer. This will protect you in the event the other party involved decides to make a claim against you, or if you develop an injury or discover further damage to your vehicle at a later date.

What you should say to your insurance company

It’s against the law to lie to your insurance company, but be mindful of the information you do provide. Answer the agent’s questions truthfully and provide an honest recount of the incident. But don’t try to guess any fuzzy details, and make it clear when you’re giving an estimation rather than exact information.

Don’t assume blame. Relay the facts, and let the police and insurance company determine who is at fault.

Repair your vehicle

If your vehicle is damaged, you’ll need to determine whether it’s roadworthy before driving it from the scene of the accident. Damage may be obvious in the form of a flat tire or punctured radiator, but other damage may be harder to determine, such as steering or brake problems.

Check your vehicle over thoroughly before driving it. If there’s any doubt about its roadworthiness, don’t drive it away from the scene.

Call your insurer to ask what you should do. You’ll generally be directed to the nearest recommended mechanic, which the tow truck should take your vehicle to. You do have the right to have your car towed to your preferred shop, but you might pay for any extra towing mileage if it’s farther away.

If your vehicle isn’t drivable, tow trucks at the accident may try to talk you into taking your vehicle to a mechanic they’re affiliated with. Don’t let yourself be talked into anything you don’t understand or trust. And under no circumstances should you sign a contract, as it may be committing you to having your vehicle repaired at a particular mechanic.

Don’t take cash at the scene of an accident

When you’re involved in an accident and the damage seems to be minor or even nonexistent, it could be tempting to take a cash offer from the other driver. But resist temptation.

There may be damage to your car that isn’t visible, or you could be underestimating the cost of repairing any visible damage. You also could have suffered an injury that isn’t apparent at the time of the crash.

Take the time to get the diver’s insurance and contact info, and be sure to document the accident by taking pictures with your phone. If the costs of the accident exceed the cash offer — which will most likely be the case — you’ll be glad you did.

Make your insurance claim

The final step after an accident is to make a claim with your insurance company. If your vehicle was towed to an auto mechanic that has been approved by your insurer, repairs will usually be authorized fairly quickly.

On the other hand, if your vehicle is drivable after the accident and only needs minor repairs, your insurer may require you to obtain at least two quotes — sometimes three — from different mechanics. The insurer will then authorize repairs at the mechanic who quotes the lowest amount for the repairs.

Whether you choose to make a claim at all will depend on the cost of repairs compared to your deductible, and the effect a claim would have on your no-claim bonus. Many people choose not to make a claim on repairs under $1,000 for these reasons.

Whose insurance should I use: theirs or mine?

Even if you are not at fault, you should contact your insurance company. At-fault laws vary by state.

Your insurance company will handle the claim with the other driver’s insurance on your behalf. Typically, your insurer will cover the costs upfront and then seek reimbursement from the other insurance company.

However, you will most likely have to pay your deductible, even though you’re not at fault. Once your insurer is reimbursed by the other insurance company, your deductible will be refunded.

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Don’t fall for a staged accident

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous drivers out there who will stage a car accident in order to scam your insurance company out of money. Fraudsters often stage an accident that appears to be your fault, and then exaggerates injuries and damage to their car.

Although your insurance company is the ultimate victim, the loss they incur due to these fraudulent claims is passed on to you in the form of higher premiums.

If you suspect you’re the victim of a staged accident, it’s a good idea to call the police to gather as much evidence at the scene of the crash. Be especially vigilant about collecting the driver’s info and documenting the damage to their vehicle.

Warning signs of car insurance fraud

Here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • You were driving in a busy part of town. These types of criminals often strike in urban areas where there’s a lot of traffic, which makes it harder for you to avoid their staged accident.
  • You were driving in a wealthy part of town. Wealthy drivers are more likely to have higher car insurance coverage limits to protect their assets.
  • You were driving a new high-end car. A nicer, newer car is also more likely to have a good insurance policy taken out on it.
  • You live in a no-fault state. Staged accidents are more common in no-fault states, where insurance companies must pay up no matter who is at fault.
  • You had to slam on the brakes. A common practice is to have a passenger watch for when you’re distracted. They then signal the driver who comes to a sudden stop, forcing you to slam on your brakes and potentially rear-end their car.
  • The driver waves you into the lane. What appears to be a courteous driver signaling you the right of way abruptly speeds up and crashes into your car.

Bottom line

If you’re involved in an accident, try to stay calm. The best thing you can do after an accident is to go through the steps listed here and let the car insurance companies argue the legalities of the situation at a later date.

Make sure you’re covered for any kind of accident or claim with the right car insurance.

Frequently asked questions about car accidents

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