In the United States, there are over 6 million auto accidents each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Though many are just small fender benders, some are serious, placing the U.S. fourth in the world for number of road fatalities. When a car accident happens, having the right insurance company and coverage in place can ensure the process goes smoothly. Whether or not you have experienced a car crash recently, knowing the steps to take if you are involved in an accident can help you if one occurs so you know what to do.

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1. Be prepared for an accident

The first step in determining what to do in an accident takes place before the accident: drivers should take the time to understand exactly what their auto insurance policy covers. “A lot of people do not even know what their policies are,” says Michael Gutter, assistant professor of family financial management at the University of Florida.

“It is important that you take a look at that. State laws vary. You will want to know what protections are there for you, particularly if the other person does not have insurance.”

Here are some other ways you can be prepared:

  • Make sure the insurance card and other information — name of provider, policy number and phone number — is in the glove compartment and in your wallet or phone, in case you cannot access the glove compartment after an accident.
  • Keep a disposable camera or your phone handy to take photos.
  • Also keep a pen, small pad of paper and flashlight 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, dial 911 for an ambulance. Regardless, move the vehicles out of traffic to avoid another accident.

Experts advise always calling the police after an accident. “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.

This provides an extra measure of protection for everyone involved, and a police report will act as an official record of the accident. If the accident happens on an interstate highway, call county or state law enforcement.

If the accident is minor, without injury or much damage, the officer will typically just 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.

Be aware that if it is a minor accident, police officers may not always 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.”

3. Call your insurance company

Most insurance experts suggest calling your insurance carrier regardless of the accident’s severity. If any payments have to be made to anyone involved in the accident, the process will go more smoothly the sooner the insurance company knows.

However, Gutter says there are cases in which it may not be a good idea to involve your insurer. In some cases, state law forbids insurance companies from raising rates unless the insured was at 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 the insurance company does need to be notified, call them as soon as possible. “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 and exchange insurance information

“If possible, take photos, including the surrounding area, traffic signs, lane markings and the damage to vehicles involved,” says Shawn Burklin, senior vice president for GEICO insurance.
Pictures are particularly important for accidents in parking lots or other private property, where police may not show up and it can be difficult to determine exactly what happened.

Write down the name, contact information and insurance information for the other driver. If the other driver does not have proof of current insurance, you may want to call their carrier at the scene to verify coverage.

It is also important to write down all of the details about the accident. “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.”

It is also a good idea to get the names and contact information for any witnesses who can verify what happened.

Be mindful of liability

Conversation with the other driver should probably be limited to exchanging insurance and contact information. “Don’t answer questions or make statements,” Gutter says. If the police were called to the scene, answer their questions honestly. Whether you live in an at-fault or no-fault state determines who decides liability and fault after the accident. It is generally recommended to not admit guilt and instead let the insurance companies make the decision.

5. Determine if a claim needs to be made

A claim may not need to be filed If the overall damage is not significant and no damage is done to the other person’s car. If, for example, there is $500 worth of damage to your car and the deductible is $1,000, it may not make sense to file a claim, which might also result in a raised premium.

In some cases, the insurance company should probably be involved. These include:

  • When there are any injuries, no matter how minor they might seem. It is impossible to predict how expensive the medical bills might be, and there is also the possibility of legal action being taken against you.
  • If the damage is significant or either car is totaled.
  • If it is unclear where the blame lies and the police report is inconclusive. This may be particularly true with parking lot accidents, where there may not be stop signs or lane marking to make it clear who has the right of way.
  • If the accident is your fault.

In short, it is a good idea in most cases to let your insurance company know about any accidents since their job is to help keep you protected.

6. Keep track of repairs

It is usually wise to stay involved throughout the repair process when your car has been involved in an accident.

“You do not want to just leave it all to your insurance company,” Gutter says. “The insurer would like the repairs to be done in the least-expensive manner. You may not have a lot of options (in terms of where the car is taken and how damage is fixed). But the key thing is to make sure you have the right to have original manufacturer parts put in.”

It is also important to let the insurance companies handle any discussions with the other driver after an accident.

If the other driver’s insurance company contacts you, refer them to your insurance company. “While you are not required to cooperate with the other party’s insurance company, your claims representative will discuss the best way to handle your claim, which may include cooperating with the other party’s carrier,” says Burklin.

7. Look for lower car insurance rates

After an accident that resulted in a claim, auto insurance policy rates can increase, which may make it a good time to shop around for a new policy with lower rates. Here are a few tips to help you make the best decision:

  • Research various discounts or special coverage options like accident forgiveness–it may not help with the previous accident, but it could be useful for any future fender benders.
  • Ask friends and relatives if they would recommend their insurer.
  • Consider both large national carriers as well as regional insurance companies; there are benefits to both options.
  • Get online quotes to compare coverages and discounts. If you have questions or need help customizing the best policy, you may want to call an agent.
  • In addition to low cost, there may be other things to consider, such as customer service. Check out J.D. Power’s 2020 Auto Claims Satisfaction Study to see which insurers have the best reputation for its claims handling process and overall customer satisfaction.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best car insurance company?

No one “best” option is right for everyone. Consider what is most important, whether you are most concerned about price, coverage, discounts, third-party reviews or financial stability to pay claims.

Will my rates go up after a car accident?

If you are involved in a car accident or file a claim for damages or injuries, your rates could be affected. Having options like accident forgiveness on your policy may not raise your rate, but the coverage has to be in place prior to an at-fault accident.

Should I call the police after an accident?

If there are injuries, vehicles cannot be safely moved from the road or if information cannot be exchanged, you may want to call the police after an auto accident. If you are unsure about any of the steps to take after an accident, consider calling the police to the scene.