What to do after a car accident

The post-accident process is fairly straightforward, but it’s not necessarily easy. 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.

Daniel Owent/The Gazette/AP/File
A passerby helps pull a stranded motorist from the snow on Austin Bluffs Parkway in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Accidents happen, even to careful drivers. After a car crash, you might be stunned with shock, dizzy with adrenaline or enraged at the guy who ran the red light. Remember that this is why we have auto insurance: to financially protect ourselves and others.

The first thing to do after an accident? “Take a deep breath,” says insurance agent Scott Grimm of Newport Beach, California. That deep breath can help you shift your focus from what just happened to what you need to do next.

The post-accident process is fairly straightforward, but it’s not necessarily easy. 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.

Assess the situation

After the accident, immediately determine whether anyone is injured. If so, call 911 to get an ambulance and police on the scene. Even if nobody is injured, call the police if there is significant damage or if anyone involved is acting belligerent or confrontational.

Consider calling the police even if the incident was minor and everyone is cooperative. That way you’ll have an official report to give to your insurance company. In some cities, an officer won’t be sent out unless the accident is serious. If this happens, you’ll have to file your own report with the police.

If the vehicles involved are still operational, get them to the shoulder or off the main road. 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.  

Remain alert because rubbernecking drivers gawking at the damage might not see you.

Document the crash

State laws vary as to how much information you’re expected to give at an accident scene. Generally, you need to provide only your name and your insurance information to any other drivers involved. Bill Topalian, who owns a Seattle insurance agency, suggests using your smartphone to photograph the other driver’s insurance card and the damage to both vehicles.

“Any documentation will help,” he says.

Although the other driver doesn’t have to show his license, ask anyway to confirm his identity. If he refuses, get a picture of him while photographing vehicle damage; that way, he can’t later claim he wasn’t involved.

Some car insurance companies offer free smartphone apps to their customers that help document the details and scene of the crash. 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.

Don’t have a smartphone app? Draw a diagram of the scene and make notes about how the accident occurred, including the direction in which each vehicle was traveling. Get the names and contact information of any witnesses too.

Don’t say that the accident was your fault, even if you think it was. Don’t say anything like “I’m all right,” either, since you may be injured and not know it. If asked, say something like, “I don’t believe I need medical attention at this time.”

Determine what insurance coverage would apply

The insurance claims process depends on who was at fault and on the types of coverage held by the drivers. Assuming you were at fault, here’s how the insurance might shake down:

Other driver’s medical bills: These would be covered up to the limits of your bodily injury liability coverage, which is required in most states. In the 12 no-fault states, the other driver’s personal injury protection coverage would come into play.

Suppose you didn’t have insurance, or didn’t have enough coverage to pay the other guy’s bills? Uninsured motorist coverage is required in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and some of those states also require underinsured motorist coverage.

Your own injuries: The medical payments coverage part of your policy would work in tandem with your health insurance coverage. Although medical payments coverage tends to have a low limit, it’s a big help if you have a high health insurance deductible. If you live in one of those no-fault states, then your personal injury protection, or PIP, would kick in.

Other driver’s vehicle: Your property damage liability coverage will pay for repairs up to the policy’s limit.  

Your own 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.

Emergency roadside service: This is optional but 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 usually cheaper to get emergency roadside service from your auto insurer. The downside is that using it will count as a claim, and too many claims will cause your rates to go up.

Temporary transportation: Rental car reimbursement coverage is optional but very useful. Be aware that you’ll probably need collision and comprehensive coverage in order to add rental car reimbursement and emergency roadside service.

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 guy’s repairs. But it might be a lot more costly 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.

Some insurance companies offer “accident forgiveness,” which means your at-fault accident may not result in higher premiums. If you don’t have this, prepare for a premium rate increase that could last up to three years.

When the accident isn’t your fault, the other driver’s insurance should step up. Yet you might be able to use your own insurance upfront.

Collision coverage: Filing a claim might mean faster service but might also mean paying a deductible. Your insurer will probably ask the other driver’s insurance company for reimbursement and then refund any deductible. In addition, you could immediately take advantage of rental car reimbursement coverage, if you have it. However, deductible reimbursement can take months and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it back.

PIP or medical payments coverage: You can use the same process of filing an injury claim through your own company. However, if you live in a no-fault state, you’re required to use your own PIP coverage for injuries to yourself and anyone in the car with you. You would still have the right to sue for serious injuries.

The other driver’s insurance company will investigate whether its client was at fault. After that, you’ll either be asked to get a repair estimate or an adjuster will assess the damage. You’ll also get a rental car until your own vehicle is fixed.

The company will also cover medical costs, unless you live in a no-fault state. But in both cases you’ll be reimbursed only up to the liability coverage limits. If that’s not enough to pay all the bills, you could turn to your own insurance policy’s collision coverage, if you have it, or your own underinsured motorist coverage, which is not required in every state. Deductibles may apply.

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.

Looking for a better car insurance deal? NerdWallet’s car insurance comparison tool can help.

This article first appeared in NerdWallet.

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