7 Steps to take after an auto accident

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No one likes to think about getting into a traffic accident, but it can happen to even the safest drivers on the road. Every driver should consider taking these seven steps after being involved in an accident.

1. How to 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 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.”

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, in case you can’t get to 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. Otherwise, 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 provide an official record of the accident. If the accident happens on an interstate highway, call county or state law enforcement.

If it’s a minor accident without injury or much damage, the officer will 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’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.”

3. Call your insurance company pronto.

Insurance experts say it’s a good idea to call 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 called, 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 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’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, call his or her carrier at the scene to verify coverage.

It’s 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.”

Try to get the names and contact information for any witnesses who can verify what happened.

Avoid admitting guilt

Express concern for any injuries or damage sustained by anyone else involved in the accident, but don’t admit fault, no matter what happened.

Even if the insured driver is not at fault, but the insurance company may have to pay for the other person’s injuries or damage to their car if liability has been admitted, and the police investigation of the accident may not be as thorough.

“Don’t answer questions or make statements,” Gutter says. Conversation with the other driver should probably be limited to exchanging insurance and contact information.

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 makes no 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’s impossible to predict how expensive the medical bills might be, and there’s also the possibility of legal action being taken against you.
  • If the damage is significant or either car is totaled.
  • If it’s 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 and it’s unclear who has the right of way.
  • If the accident is your fault.

In short, it’s 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’s usually wise to stay involved throughout the repair process when your car has been involved in an accident.

“You don’t 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’s also important 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 will likely 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:

  • Do some research, starting with our Best Car Insurance Companies for 2020. 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 if possible, but don’t stop there. Call an agent to learn more about possible discounts, get answers to any questions and help customize the best policy.
  • 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 customer management.

Frequently asked questions

What is the best car insurance company?

No one “best” option is right for everyone. A good place to start looking for the best option is Bankrate’s Best Car Insurance Companies of 2020.

Will my rates go up after a car accident?

They may — but check your policy to see if you have Accident Forgiveness. This coverage disregards your first accident, no matter whose fault, and doesn’t raise rates afterwards.

Should I call the police after an accident?

It’s a good idea to call the police, even for minor fender-benders. They can write up an official incident report, even if there’s little damage. They can also handle the other driver if he or she is angry or uncooperative. Of course, if there are injuries, don’t hesitate to call 911 immediately.