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7 steps to take in an auto accident

No one likes to think about getting into a traffic accident, but it's important to plan ahead so you'll know how to deal with insurance issues if you are involved in a collision. Here are seven steps you can take to make sure the insurance process proceeds as smoothly as possible.

1. Be prepared before it happens

While auto insurance policies don't make for exciting reading, you need to understand exactly what's in yours. "A lot of people don't even know what their policies are," says Michael Gutter, assistant professor of family financial management at the University of Florida.

"It's important that you take a look at that. State laws vary. You'll want to know what protections are there for you, particularly if the other person doesn't have insurance."

What to do in an auto wreck:
  1. Be prepared before it happens.
  2. Make sure everyone is OK, then call the police.
  3. Call your insurance company pronto.
  4. Gather information.
  5. Don't admit guilt.
  6. Keep track of repairs.
  7. Treat parking lots like roads.
Make sure you have your insurance information -- name of provider, policy number and phone number -- in both your wallet and your glove compartment, as the glove compartment could be damaged in an accident.

It's also a good idea to keep a disposable camera -- unless you use your cell phone for a camera -- and a pen and paper in the glove compartment.

2. Make sure everyone is OK, then call the police.

"Obviously the first thing you want to do is make sure everyone involved is OK," says Kip Diggs, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. If injuries are serious, of course, dial 911 for an ambulance. Otherwise, move your cars out of traffic to avoid another accident.

Experts advise that in any accident you should call the police. "Even if the other person says, 'I'll take care of you; I've got a brother-in-law with a body shop that can fix your car,' you still want to call," says Beth Hanlon, an agent for Allstate Insurance in Riverhead, N.Y.

That's because you don't know how things will turn out, and a police report will provide an official record of the accident. If you're on an interstate highway, call county or state law enforcement.

If it's a minor accident without injury or much damage, the officer will merely file an incident report, which functions as an information exchange. If the accident is more serious, the officer will create an accident report to assist the insurance process and establish legal liabilities.

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