2008 Insurance Guide
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7 steps to take in an auto accident

Be aware that if it's a minor accident, police officers may not come to the scene. "We don't dispatch a police car to every fender bender," says James Kenneally, a Boston police officer. "We can't afford to, given our limited resources."

And that's not just the case in big cities. In Evanston, Ill., which has a population of about 75,000, Police Commander Tom Guenther says "if it's a fender bender, we have people come in to the police department, and they can fill out forms there."

3. Call your insurance company pronto.

People in the insurance industry say you should call your carrier regardless of the accident's severity. If any payments have to be made to you or anyone else involved in the accident, the sooner your insurance company knows of the situation, the better. (To compare insurance policies and quotes, visit Insureme.com, a Bankrate company.)

However, Gutter says there are cases in which you don't want to involve your insurer. State law often forbids insurance companies from raising your rates unless the accident was your fault, he points out. "But if you aren't protected from rate hikes, I can see why someone would think twice (about calling his/her insurance company) if it's just a fender bender."

If you do decide to call your insurance company, don't procrastinate. "Sometimes our customers will be in an accident, and the other guy will call first. That raises eyebrows," says Hanlon. "Within a day, you should let your insurance company know."

4. Gather information.

"If possible, take photos, including the surrounding area, traffic signs, lane markings and the damage to vehicles involved," says Shawn Burklin, vice president of claims for GEICO insurance. "Photos can provide a wealth of information and assistance in handling your claim."

Pictures are particularly important for accidents in parking lots or other private property, where police may not show up and it's difficult to determine exactly what happened.

Write down the name, contact information and insurance information for the other driver. If the other driver doesn't have proof of current insurance, you can call his or her carrier at the scene to verify coverage.

You also want to write down all of the accident's details. "Your insurance company's claims person will ask a lot of questions," Hanlon says. "What direction were you traveling and on which street? Were there any stoplights or signs? They'll also need to establish where the impact to your vehicle was."

Try to get the names and contact information for any witnesses, so they can back up your version of events.

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