Car accidents are one of the most frustrating and upsetting events to throw a wrench in your already hectic schedule. Trust me, I know – I used to be the licensed adjuster who answered your phone calls when you called in about an auto claim on your insurance. Last week we talked all about the different car insurance coverages that may be available to you and what they mean. Today, we’re talking about car accidents.

Have you ever been in an accident before? If you’re lucky, probably not (knock on wood). But what happens if you are in one? What are your next steps?

Stay calm and assess the situation.

It can be jarring when you’re in an accident. You’re caught completely off guard, your adrenaline is pumping, and sometimes you’re not even sure what happened. Pause for a second. Assess your situation, where you are, where the other driver is, and get your bearings straight.

Are you in a safe place? If not, are you able to move to a safe place?

Make sure everyone’s okay.

If you have any passengers, make sure they’re okay. Are you or any of your passengers injured? Get out and talk to the other driver if possible. Is everyone in the other vehicle all right? Is anyone injured?

*Pro Tip: If anyone is severely injured, or possibly has a head injury, call 911 right away.

Do not move any injured persons unless they’re in immediate danger. You don’t want to cause more harm than good.

Call police.

Someone needs to call police. Depending on your state, filing police reports when property damage is over a certain threshold, or if a person involved is injured, is mandatory. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

However, if you live in a big city and no one was injured in the accident, police might not show up (especially if it happened on private property – and yes, that includes parking lots). In many big cities, police don’t visit the scene of an accident unless someone is injured or a vehicle can’t move and is blocking traffic.

If no one is injured, damage is relatively minor, and the other driver is cooperative, just make sure you exchange information and take lots of photos.

If police are on their way, don’t leave the scene of an accident. You don’t want anyone to think you were “fleeing the scene.” Many times, if the police get your license plate information from the other party, they may show up on your doorstep.

Move to a safe place.

When you’re on the phone with police dispatch, ask if it’s okay for you to move your vehicles. This is especially important if your vehicles are blocking an entire roadway. Try to move them to the side of the road, or off to a side street where everyone will be safer and out of harm’s way.

If your vehicle is not drivable (doesn’t turn on, is leaking fluids, bent axles, airbags went off, etc.) then don’t move the car. Walk to a safe place or area where you and anyone else involved can get away from traffic. You’ll want to let police (or your insurance company) know that your vehicle isn’t drivable and you’re needing a tow.

*Pro Tip: Photos first, if possible.

Before you move vehicles, be sure and take lots of photos of where the cars are and how they hit. This could come in handy as evidence in the future. However, only do so if it’s SAFE. Do NOT put yourself in harm’s way for a simple picture.*

Take pictures ASAP.

Even if the other driver is fully cooperating with you at the scene of an accident (let’s hope that’s the case) you should always take photos on your smartphone.

Take photos of everything:
  • Driver’s licenses or photo ID
  • Insurance cards
  • Drivers’ faces
  • Vehicles involved
  • License plates
  • Damage from the accident
  • The accident scene

The fact is, people lie. They lie all the time, every day, in all kinds of situations. Even about things that don’t really matter. Taking these pictures will be evidence that the accident took place, of whom was driving, proof of the amount of damage, and which vehicle was involved.

Although some people may be helpful and understanding at the scene of an accident, you never know how their story might change later on. Working in an auto claims department, lies, deceit, exaggerations, and insurance fraud were a daily occurrence. So protect yourself!

Exchange information.

Make sure both drivers exchange information. Be polite, but don’t apologize or admit to any fault. That’s for the insurance companies to worry about.

Necessary information both drivers need to gather from the other party:

  • Photo of the driver’s ID – You need their name, address, and DL #.
  • Picture of the vehicle’s license plate – Insurance companies can usually run plates to determine owner information and last known insurance policy number.
  • Photo of the vehicle’s insurance card – You’ll need their policy number.
  • Write down phone numbers for contact.

If the driver is not the owner of the vehicle, you’ll need to gather the owner’s information too. It doesn’t matter if it’s owned by a business or a person – you need the name and a number to contact them at.

*Pro tip: Owner’s policy trumps driver’s policy.

When a vehicle is involved in an accident, whatever policy insures the vehicle itself (usually the owner’s policy) is what applies first; the driver’s insurance policy (if different) would apply second.

If the other driver refuses to cooperate and exchange information, take as many pictures as possible (including one with their face in it and one with their license plate) in case you end up needing evidence the accident actually happened. And call police if you haven’t already. Dial 911 and tell them an accident has happened and the other party is refusing to cooperate and exchange information.

Unfortunately, there are many people who hate taking responsibility for their portion of fault in situations like this, and think they don’t have to cooperate. Don’t get stuck with the bill because they refuse to fess up to their insurance company later!

File a police report (if applicable).

If anyone involved in the accident was injured, there was significant property damage, a driver is being uncooperative or hostile, or if someone flees the scene without exchanging any info – you’ll want to file a police report. It may also be necessary to file one for insurance purposes – depending on what coverage you’re using.

When and if police come to the scene of an accident, they’ll either have drivers exchange information, or they’ll have you file an accident report where they collect everyone’s info themselves. Sometimes they’ll also give you a sheet with the other party’s info for insurance claims purposes, but other times they won’t give you anything and tell you it’ll all be on the report – which will be filed in a few days. Often times it can take up to 6 days for a police report to be accessible to the individuals involved, and even longer for the insurance company. (It wasn’t uncommon in our claims department to wait over 6 weeks for a police report to come in when we ordered it.)

Even if police don’t come to the scene of an accident, you still have the option of filing an accident report yourself at your local police station. Some police stations even offer a report you can fill out online. This is especially helpful when dealing with a hit and run accident, or if someone damaged your vehicle while it was parked.

*Pro tip: Police do not make liability decisions.

They are trained in criminal law, not negligence. Your insurance company will determine liability. They may use the police report as evidence, but that’s not the only evidence they have to take into consideration. If there’s enough damning evidence otherwise, a situation where police tell you you’re not at fault could end up in a shared negligence situation. Meaning, both parties could be partially responsible. Depending on your state, this makes a big difference in who pays and how much. But we’re not talking about liability today.

Call Your Insurance Provider

When possible – while you’re waiting for police, or when you’re able to get home – call your auto insurance company. They should be able to explain your coverages you have available to you and how they’ll apply in this situation. It’s your choice (depending on the liability decision) how you want to file. If you’re not at fault, you’re usually given two options – file with your insurance so that they can go after the other insurance company once they take care of you, or file directly through the at-fault party’s insurance. Or, you could decide to not file at all. The insurance company is there to help you if you need it. If you decide to file, they should walk you through the next steps in the process as well.

*Pro tip: If you or the other party decides you’d rather handle repairs without involving insurance, just be careful.

Protect yourself! If the two of you decide the one at fault will pay out of pocket, make sure you get any and all agreements in writing, and signed. For any payments made, make sure you get signed receipts for them. These aren’t technically legally binding, but if the other party tries to swindle you out of cash and still pursues your insurance company, you can present the documents as evidence to prevent them from getting double the payout. And even if you don’t want insurance involved, always make sure you get the other driver’s policy info – just in case!

What to do after a car accident. Pro-tips from a retired auto claims adjuster.

Be Prepared

While I hope you never have to experience what it’s like in a car accident (or having to deal with the aftermath!) it’s always good to know how to handle yourself if disaster strikes. Stay calm, and move to a safe place if possible. Make sure everyone’s alright, and gather the information you need. Call police to the scene, and take lots of photos. Remember to be polite and cooperative, but don’t admit to any fault. Let your insurance company handle the rest.

Until next time,

PS: Looking for more topics that will help you be a more successful adult? Check out our Adulting Series!

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