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Car Accident - What do you do after an accident?

About 5.5 million car accidents are reported every year. Most of us will only be in a few accidents in our lifetime and most will be minor. However, when an accident happens it can still disrupt your calm and ruin your day. In addition to natural anxiety in response to an unexpected event, the process of working with the other driver, the police, and the insurance companies can create further apprehension. Much of the stress can be eased if you take a little time now to prepare your vehicle and yourself for the chance event of an auto accident.

Most drivers will never experience a major accident and the minor car accidents they do experience will be few. Therefore, it is harder for drivers to prepare for an accident when they don't have the past experience to build strategies of what works best. Therefore, we have taken time to compile a list of some of the most repeated advice from insurance agents, government websites, research studies, and fellow drivers. In addition to this general advice, we have also created a downloadable checklist which can be printed and kept in your car in case of an accident.

Before the Accident

  • Insurance - Besides having insurance, make certain you keep a copy of your proof of insurance with you whenever you drive (usually in your wallet or purse). Also, take time to review your coverage and make sure you understand what it covers. Sometimes you may have something you don't often think about, such as roadside assistance, and will want to remember to take advantage of something you're already covered for instead of paying out of pocket.
  • Emergency Supplies - Nowadays you may only need a smartphone but in case your battery is low or you don't have one then consider keeping the following in your car: pen and paper, a disposable camera, and emergency contacts such as your insurance agents phone number. Also keep an emergency kit that includes road flares, first aid kit, and other supplies.

The Accident Just Happened

  • Move Aside - Try to move out of the road or area of traffic if possible.
  • Take a Moment - Either count to ten or take several slow deep breaths. When the unexpected happens, even a parking lot fender bender, the adrenaline will be high. Your energy, emotions, and thoughts may be racing, take a moment to refocus and relax.
  • Render Aid - If there are any injuries, try to help as much as you are able. First dial 911; the dispatcher can help walk you through any first aid until an ambulance arrives. If you do not render aid (within reason), you can be held legally accountable.
  • Call 911? - Your insurance company will want you to call regardless of the severity of the accident. However, in some areas police may only come if there are injuries or the need for a mediator. If the accident is a fender bender in the parking lot, an officer will likely not come. Keep in mind, even if the police are not called to the scene, you will still be required to file a independent accident report through the police or DMV (usually for any accidents involving $500 or more in damage but this varies by state). When in doubt call 911, the dispatcher can help you determine if an officer's presence is necessary.
  • Notify Other Drivers - Set up road flares or signs to let other drivers know of the accident. Even if you are pulled to the side of the road these items will help other drivers avoid the scene. Keep in mind that if your car is disabled on a busy road this may not be possible as it will be more dangerous outside the car and you will want to wait until the police arrive on the scene.

The Next Hour

  • Be Polite - When you talk with the other driver keep in mind that your adrenaline is up and so is theirs. You will both be agitated, so keep calm and polite. If the other driver is not cooperative, call the police immediately to act as a mediator.
  • Do Not Admit Fault - Even if you rear-ended the other car, do not admit any wrong doing at the scene. This isn't about being shady and avoiding responsibility - instead the reality is that there are several considerations and laws that you may not be aware of that could adjust who is at fault. This is a big part of what you pay the insurance companies to do - let them stress over it!
  • Call your Agent - This can be done after you exchange information, but you may want to consider doing this early as your agent or insurance representative can walk you through the process.
  • Exchange Information - Exchange names (including everyone in the vehicle), officer's information (badge and report number, etc), witnesses, insurance carriers, car information, and any inconsistencies (driver doesn't own car, etc.). For a detailed walk through, see our Accident Information Form (PDF).
  • Photos - Take pictures of both cars and angles or viewpoints of the scene when possible. If there was a tree obstructing the view, make sure to get a picture of it.
  • Out of Pocket Risk - If the accident was minor, you may find that both of you would like to handle the accident privately without using your insurance companies. This is risky and note that you may lose any claims if the other party later decides not to pay you. Also, even if you do not file an insurance claim your state may require you to file an accident report!
  • Uninsured Driver - Call the police to be on the scene and make a report. Although you may not receive payment from the uninsured driver, they can still be fined for their lack of coverage and your state may even take corrective action, such as suspending their license, until they pay you for damages. Most drivers who have insurance are covered for uninsured drivers, however, it is rather unfair that your premiums should suffer for their negligence - don't walk away from it - make sure they are held accountable.

The Next Day

  • Accident Report - If the police do not come to the scene you are usually still required to file an accident report with the police or DMV. Each state will be different, but generally you should get this report done in under two weeks. Again, even if you do not file a claim with your insurance company, many states require that you still report the accident. If you had a one person accident, such as you hit a road sign, then you will also need to file this report.
  • Quotes - Your insurance company will want you to start obtaining quotes, usually from two or three shops, for repairs. Make certain to check with your insurance carrier if there are any limitations to the shops you can contact. However, it is also considered good practice to get at least one quote from a shop not provided by your insurance company to check for consistency. Keep in mind if you are not filing a claim but getting paid by the other driver independently it is also considered common courtesy to seek out two to three estimates for the other driver.

General Follow-Up

  • Know Before you Sign! - Do not sign any agreements with the other driver, their insurance company or even your own insurance carrier unless you understand what you are signing for or agreeing to. If you are uncertain, consider consulting an attorney.
  • Counseling - If you are involved in a major accident or had a nasty encounter with the other driver, consider seeking some counseling. The post traumatic stress can eek away at other aspects of your life - don't let the accident do this!

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Accident Resources:
There are several bits of information you should get after a car accident. The attached form can be printed and stashed in your glove box - we hope you never have to use it!

Accident Information Form (PDF)

Want an app for that? There are many out there - some created by the major insurance companies and others by local law firms. Here are a few of the more general apps we found:

Further Reading:

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