Getting into a wreck is every motorist’s nightmare. Even the most cautious drivers get into fender-benders. In the spirit of “be prepared,” here are some steps to take if you’re in a car accident.
Assess the Situation
An accident occurs suddenly. You might be shaken, perhaps even injured, but you’ll need to stay calm, collect your thoughts and proceed accordingly. If you, your passengers or the occupants of another vehicle are hurt, call for an ambulance.
Call the Police
Even if there’s only minimal damage, you’ll need to file a police report for legal and insurance purposes. If both vehicles are drivable, you might be asked to head to the nearest police station to file a report. Otherwise, you’ll want to stay at the scene until an officer arrives. Be sure to jot down an officer’s name and badge number in case it’s needed later.
Exchange Information with the Other Driver
You’ll need to exchange information with the other party. Get his or her full name, address and telephone number. Obtain the name of the other driver’s insurance company and the policy number. Write down the year, make and model of the other vehicle, and both its vehicle identification number (VIN) and its license plate number. Legal experts suggest you keep all discussions with the other parties to a minimum. Never admit guilt or liability to anyone at the scene.
Document the Facts and Take Photos
You’ll need to provide details about the crash for the police report and insurance purposes. Jot down this information while it’s fresh in your mind. Include the time of the accident and the address or intersection where it occurred. Note the direction of your car and the other vehicle, the approximate speed at which you were driving and any external circumstances that might have affected the situation. Take pictures of the damage and the vehicles’ positions from multiple angles using your smartphone.
Move Your Car Off the Road
If the vehicle is drivable, get it out of harm’s way by pulling it to the side of the road or into an adjacent parking lot. Take your insurance and registration information from the glove box. If you need a tow, remove any personal belongings from the vehicle. Remove larger pieces of wreckage from the street if it’s safe to do so. Stay close to your vehicle and do not leave the scene, even if there is little damage and the other driver waves you off. Leaving the scene of an accident is a criminal offense.
Talk with any witnesses to the accident and write down their names and contact information in case an insurance adjuster or law enforcement official needs to contact them later. Verify that they saw what happened and see whether they’ll agree to cooperate, if necessary.
Call Your Insurance Company
Contact either your agent or the insurance company’s claim department while you’re still at the scene. Depending on your coverage, they might be able to arrange for towing and provide a rental car if your vehicle is disabled. You might be able to report a wreck and upload images of the damage via an insurer’s website or smartphone app.
If you’re sure the incident is 100 percent the other driver’s fault, you can choose not to contact your insurer and let the other provider handle the situation. That said, there’s always the risk that the motorist might not have been truthful about having coverage. A safer bet is to contact your insurer, even if you’re not at fault, to protect yourself. You usually can get compensation (minus your deductible) quicker this way. Your company then will proceed to collect damages from the other company and will often pay back the deductible after the claim is settled.
Contact an Attorney
If you or any of your passengers were injured in the wreck, consider calling an attorney to ensure you’ll be fully compensated for out-of-pocket health care costs along with any loss of income and other damages. Be wary of quick settlements from the other party’s insurance company, as some long-term physical effects might not surface immediately. Injury attorneys usually work on a contingency fee basis, which means they only charge for services if you get a settlement. If you’re at fault, you may need a lawyer to defend you in court.
Getting a Settlement
If your vehicle is severely damaged, it might be considered a total loss. This happens when the cost to fix it is more than its current resale value. In this case, the car will be towed to a salvage yard, and you’ll receive a check for its value. It’s a good idea to check online to see what an equivalent replacement costs to ensure you’ll be fully compensated. Our used car listings here at CARFAX can be a great help in this regard.
If the vehicle can be repaired, you likely will be asked to take it to a shop that’s approved by or is partnered with your insurer. This might not be an absolute requirement, depending on your policy, but you might get quicker service and ensure you won’t be stuck with out-of-pocket charges. If you’ve downloaded the free myCARFAX smartphone app, you can quickly and easily locate repair shops and estimate the cost of needed repairs.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2014. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.