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Accidents happen, even to careful drivers. After a car accident, you might be stunned with shock, dizzy with adrenaline or enraged at the guy who ran a red light.
The first thing to do after you’ve been in a car accident? Stay calm. The post-accident process is fairly straightforward, but it’s not always easy. Keeping a cool head will help you document the wreck more thoroughly and accurately.
Use the tips below to prepare yourself to handle the stressful aftermath of an auto accident and to make the claims process — if there is one — more efficient and effective.
1. Check for injuries
After the car accident, immediately determine whether anyone is injured. If so, call 911 to get an ambulance and police on the scene. Even if the incident was minor and everyone is cooperative, consider calling the police. That way you’ll have an official report to give to your insurance company.
2. Move to a safer area
If the vehicles involved are still operational, get them to the shoulder or off the main road. Make sure to pull completely off the road to avoid being hit by approaching vehicles. If you have flares or reflective emergency triangles, set them up to warn other cars. If there appears to be a danger of explosion, get everyone out of the way.
3. Exchange information and document the crash
State laws vary on how much information you’re expected to give at the scene of an accident. Generally, you need to provide only your name and your insurance information to any other drivers involved. While you might want to hash out the details of the crash with the other driver, it’s best to limit your interaction so you don’t admit guilt or blame the other person.
Still, you’ll want to get as much information as you can, including:
Name and insurance information of the other driver.
The other driver’s telephone number, if they are willing to provide it.
Witness contact information.
Photos of any damage.
Police report number.
Police officer’s name and telephone number.
Personal notes on what happened during the incident.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners offers WreckCheck, a free app that records the time of the accident, lets you create written and audio details, and emails everything to you or your agent. In addition, several car insurance companies offer free smartphone apps to help you document the details of the crash.
Don’t have a smartphone app, but have a pen and paper handy? Draw a diagram of the scene and make notes about how the accident occurred, including the direction in which each vehicle was traveling.
4. Determine what insurance coverage would apply
How the insurance claims process shakes out for you after a car accident depends on who was at fault and on the types of coverage you and the other driver have. Assuming the other driver was at fault, here’s how the coverages would work.
Your and your passengers’ expenses
Your vehicle: The other driver’s property damage liability coverage will pay for repairs up to the policy’s limit.
Your medical bills: These would be covered up to the limits of the other driver’s bodily injury liability coverage, which is required in most states. In the 12 no-fault states, your own personal injury protection would come into play.
If the other driver didn’t have insurance, or didn’t have enough coverage to pay your bills, uninsured or underinsured motorist coverages would pay out. Uninsured motorist coverage is required in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and some of those states also require underinsured motorist coverage.
The other driver’s expenses
Their car: Collision coverage will pay for repairs up to the vehicle’s actual cash value, minus a deductible. Generally, this coverage is optional, unless you’re financing or leasing.
Their own injuries: The medical payments coverage, or MedPay, part of their policy would work in tandem with health insurance coverage.
Optional coverages that can help either driver
Emergency roadside service: This comes in handy if you need a tow to the repair shop. This service is one of the benefits of AAA membership; however, it’s often cheaper to get emergency roadside service from your auto insurer. The downside is that using it will count as a claim, and claims can cause your rates to go up.
Rental car coverage: Rental car reimbursement coverage pays for a rental while yours is in the shop.
Be aware that you’ll probably need collision and comprehensive coverage in order to add rental car reimbursement and emergency roadside service.
5. Decide whether to file a claim
If an accident was your fault and the damage looks minor, it’s tempting to offer to pay cash for the other driver’s repairs. But it might be costlier than you think. According to Consumer Reports, a number of test crashes at just 10 mph produced damage that looked minor but priced out at $3,000 to $6,000.
You might still have to use your own insurance upfront, even if a crash was the other driver’s fault. Here’s how it works:
File a claim with your insurance company and be prepared to pay a deductible. Your insurer will communicate with the other driver’s insurance company and refund your deductible if needed.
If you live in a no-fault state, your own PIP coverage pays for injuries to yourself and anyone in the car with you. (You’d still have the right to sue for serious injuries later.)
The other driver’s insurance company will investigate whether its client was at fault. After that, either you’ll be asked to get a repair estimate or an adjuster will assess the damage.
The company may cover medical costs unless you live in a no-fault state. But in both cases you’ll be reimbursed only up to the at-fault driver’s liability limits.
If that’s not enough to pay all the bills, you could turn to your own collision coverage, if you have it, or your own underinsured motorist coverage, which is not required in every state. Deductibles likely apply for both.
6. Shop around for lower car insurance rates
Your car insurance rates rates could go up significantly (50% or more, in some cases) depending on the severity of the accident and your insurance company. While some insurance companies offer accident forgiveness, which means your at-fault accident may not result in higher premiums, other companies might double your rate for the same accident.
In fact, a Consumer Federation of America report indicated some companies will even raise rates 10% or more for accidents that weren’t your fault. Yet other policies only levy a price increase if you’re at fault. Even the amount of time an accident affects your rates varies by state and company.
Just surviving an auto accident can feel like a victory. But don’t let your post-crash shock distract you from taking care of business, both at the accident scene and in dealing with insurance issues. This is why it’s essential to compare car insurance rates to find the best price (and policy) for you.