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What you should do after a car accident

Tara Baukus MelloThe dreadful thump of two cars colliding is enough to send anyone's blood pressure skyward, even if it's just a fender bender. Once the people and cars have moved to a safe area and any injuries have been addressed, it's time to get down to the details your car insurance company will need to file a claim. Here are four steps to remember when you're in a car accident.

1. Take notes. While the other party is digging for his or her registration and car insurance card, take a deep breath and jot down some notes or even draw a diagram to explain what happened. Doing this first will help you remember what happened, and you won't doubt yourself based on a comment someone else makes about the collision. Note the street you were traveling on, a nearby street number and a cross-street if there is one. Include information about the direction the cars were traveling when the car accident occurred. Get information from any witnesses as well.

2. Take photos. Take photos, using a cellphone if necessary, of the area where the accident occurred as well as of the damage, or lack of it, of all the cars involved, including your own. If it's safe to do so, photograph each car by standing at an angle from each wheel so one side of the car and either the front or rear is fully visible. Include close-ups of any damage. Take pictures of the license plate on each car, the people involved if appropriate, and anything that can help your car insurance company understand how the car accident happened and possibly determine fault or fraud.

3. Exchange information. Ask for the person's car insurance card, registration and driver's license, and copy the information yourself to ensure accuracy. Ask if the address is current and if not, get the person's new address as well. Compare the information from all three documents, taking note of any discrepancies.

4. Report the accident to your car insurance company. Even if there appears to be minimal damage, you probably want to file a claim because repair costs for just bumper damage will often exceed a low deductible. Plus, minor exterior damage can mean more expensive underlying damage because cars are designed to flex and bend in a car accident to absorb the energy and better protect occupants. Some auto insurers, including AAA, Allstate, Liberty Mutual, Nationwide, Progressive and Travelers, offer smartphone apps that can help file a claim, or you may need to call your car insurance company when you get home.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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