None of us want to get into a car accident. But if it happens to you, here is the info you need, what not to do, and the correct process to follow.
There’s no way around it, getting into a car accident sucks. As my agent says,” They’re not called ‘on purposes’” The worst time to learn about what to do after a car accident is right after an accident. Emotions are high, and you may not even be in the capacity to make a decision. I know after my first car accident. I was unconscious! Unfortunately, I’ve been through a few, so this guide should help you navigate. I’m not giving legal advice and isn’t about complex cases involving significant losses or any severe injuries. This guide is for the annoying fender benders that seem to happen to everyone at one point (or in my case, multiple points) in their life.
Know The Basics of Car, Home, Medical and Business Insurance
You’d think a car accident is simple. It’s in a car, so shouldn’t the car insurance pay for any damages? Nope. Your car insurance generally covers the vehicle and the damage caused by that car to person and property.
What’s in the car is a different story.
Let’s start with the “stuff.” For example, you might have your laptop. One time during a pretty bad accident mine was thrown across the car and the screen cracked. Guess what? That’s not covered by car insurance. The same is true when it’s stolen from your vehicle. That’s under your homeowner’s policy and is subject to a deductible. So now you’ve got the deductible for the car accident if it’s your fault, and then the separate deductible for the laptop under homeowners. Some insurance companies can do a shared deductible for one event, so it’s a good idea to ask in advance.
If you use that laptop (or other items) for business, that’s a different story and a separate deductible. And if it’s a work laptop, it’s even more confusing.
Prepare Key Information Cheat Sheet in Advance
When you’re in the throes of a car accident, sometimes literally, your brain may not be working the way it should. Even if you’re just a little nervous, you might forget the simple stuff. Most people keep an insurance card in their car, although now it may just be an app.
Call your insurance agent and check your coverage and ask them what to do in an accident. Some things I keep in my car:
- A phone number for claims
- The non-emergency number for the local police.
- A towing company that your agent recommends.
- Which body shop your agent recommends.
- How medical injuries are handled
When you’re having this discussion, review, and adjust your deductibles as necessary; your agent can tell you at what point they determine a car a total loss compared to the value of your vehicle. You might remove some coverage altogether because it’s just not worth it. You’ll also have to find out how much your rates might go up after a claim. Given that increase along with the deductible, you might want to adjust your coverage.
One thing I check on my policy is rental car coverage. I can’t be without a car for work, and I can’t use my spouse’s, so I want to make sure I have the maximum coverage for a rental. If you work out of the home or are unemployed, you may not need that coverage.
Agents typically like to meet with you once a year to upsell, excuse me, review your coverage. That’s the time to ask all the questions about what to do in an accident. Keep it printed inside your glove compartment next to your insurance card.
Don’t rely on your phone to keep this information. My phone was destroyed in my last car accident, and I learned it the hard way to keep a printout.
Download The Mobile App
Most insurance companies have a mobile app. Even though your phone is at risk during an accident, the more info, the better. The app might have tools to document the accident and critical numbers to call. Keep your options open.
At The Accident Gather All The Data
The general rule is the more information, the better. Remember that immediately after an accident, people’s brains may not be functioning 100%. They aren’t always lying to you, but you know, sometimes they are. That’s why I get as much information as possible.
Most people know the basics, get the name of the person, address, phone number, insurance information as well as their driver’s license number. Don’t rely on the person’s memory to give you that information. Instead, ask to see the insurance card and the driver’s license.
Stay in The Car At First
Before you even get out of the car, take pictures if you can do it safely. You may not be able to get the license plate right away, but at least get the color make and model if the car. Spend a few minutes and document less obvious things like street signs, businesses, and potential witnesses. See if you can see skid marks or other damage to property. Taking those pictures also gives you a moment to pause and clear your head. You might find once you move, you’re injured.
If my phone is working, I start a voice memo dictating as much as I can. The situation can change quickly, so early information is gold. If your communication with the other participant goes south and they drive off, you’ve lost all that info.
After you’ve got all your information, it’s time to call that non-emergency number for the police. You might be on hold for a few minutes so that you can get out of the car at that point. My last accident was about a 45-minute hold!
Now Meet Your Accident-Mate or Mates
Ideally, treat it like any social interaction. Don’t immediately place blame or apologize, The old adage of “don’t admit fault” isn’t the reason. Insurance companies and police assign fault.
Introduce yourself and discuss exchanging vital information. If you met at a Happy Hour, you’d introduce yourself and talk about what you do. This should ideally have the same emotional valence. Of course, it won’t, but that’s the goal. Tempers and blame get in the way of getting that essential info.
If your mobile phone is working, take pictures of each other’s insurance cards, business cards, license plates, and additional info. Then duplicate those efforts on paper. Your phone was just in an accident, so it may not be reliable. Keep a pen and paper along with a printed template, reminding you of what info to gather. Most agents have these suggested worksheets.
Sometimes other people might be tight-lipped or just leave the accident. That’s why you need to get as much information before you even start. If the person is difficult, just sit tight and wait for the police.
Look for Other People
You all were probably in your cars and missed details. Try to see if there are witnesses around. Some people won’t want to get involved, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Don’t forget to ask nearby businesses if they witnessed anything or have cameras pointing in that direction. With so many homes having video doorbells, asking some people in a residential neighborhood if their cameras saw anything helps.
Don’t Play the “Let’s Not Report this” Game.
Even if the damage appears minor, unless you are both an insurance adjuster and a doctor, you probably can’t evaluate the damage. Both you and your car need an estimate before you decide if you’re going to claim your insurance. That’s why a discussion with an agent beforehand is essential. Know the drill of whom to go to and get an appointment.
The other party may offer you some money to settle the claim. Don’t agree to anything before an estimate. Once you’ve got an estimate and know how much you and the cars were damaged, then you might decide not to make a claim.
Decide Whose Insurance This Goes Through
This decision point is the fun (cough) part of the process. You pay premiums to your insurance company. You’re their customer, and they have a duty to take care of you. The other person’s insurance feels the same way about their customer. It’s a somewhat adversarial process.
If you think you’re at fault, the process is easy. You work with your insurance company, and they pay you for the claim, minus any deductibles. The process is done.
However, if you think the other person is at fault, then you have two choices. If you go through the other person’s insurance, you’re at their mercy. When will the person file a claim? How quick is their insurance? These are all things out of your control. If you go through your insurance, you’ll have to pay the deductible, but then the claim is resolved.
No, this isn’t the latest EDM release on Spotify. Through a process called subrogation, your insurance company collects their money and your deductible from the other company. Of course, if you and the other person have the same company for insurance, it’s even easier.
In theory, when your insurance subrogates, they take legal action against the company of the person that hit you. In reality, the process is almost instant if the fault is clear. Both times when I used my insurance and the other person or persons were at fault, the subrogation determination and my payments were at the same time.
Getting Your Car Repaired
Depending on how your car insurance operates, you’ll have some options for what to do. The key is to know beforehand. That’s why you need to have that meeting with your agent. Typically when you use an approved body shop for the repair, they pay the shop directly. That makes the process easier for you and no out-of-pocket expenses except possibly your deductible.
If you use a body shop, not on the list, you’ll have to pay to get the car repaired directly and then wait to get reimbursed by your insurance. It could be thousands of dollars floating on your credit card. I prefer doing this so I can put it on my credit card and get the points.
Don’t be surprised if your insurance company and body shop disagree. It’s a process and they might find additional problems after the work begins. Approved shops will work with your insurance directly. If you choose your own shop, you might have to coordinate with the adjuster and the body shop. Fortunately, my shop does that for me, but smaller shops don’t always have the staff to fight it.
Total Loss: Not Fun
In general, a total loss means the repair costs of the vehicle are close enough to the value of the car, the insurance company would simply like to pay for the vehicle rather than the repairs.
Some states use a formula set to determine a total loss. In my home state of Kansas, that’s 75%. Other places it’s up to the insurance company. One insurance company might think your repairs are a total loss while another might do the repairs. It’s not something people think about when shopping for insurance, but it’s important. That’s why you should talk with your agent beforehand. In particular, as your car decreases in value the likelihood of a total loss increases. Be sure that it includes things like sales tax and other fees. Some lawsuits include this.
Never Take the First Offer
When your car is a total loss, the insurance company is buying it from you. If this were a private sale, you’d never take the first offer. The same is true of the proposal the adjuster makes. They aren’t per se lowballing you, but they may not have all the facts. Kelly’s blue book and other places are just guides. Your local market might have higher rates on some cars. Compare local ads for buying and selling prices. Call dealers and find out how much your vehicle is worth.
Be sure to include recent maintenance and upgrades. For example, I got an extra few grand when I mentioned my car just had a full inspection at 150,000 miles along with new tires. Or the adjuster was sick and tired of me complaining. Either way, a few hours of work and some assertiveness saved me lots of money.
Delay the Process If You Can
The insurance company wants to settle the claim as soon as possible. Once your car is fixed, or a check is written, they’re done with you. You lose your rental vehicle and you might be kind of stuck if the timing isn’t right.
After my first accident when the check was written I was entirely unprepared to buy a new car. I thought I’d have more time. The next time I negotiated the total loss while trying to find a new car. Those extra few days are what I needed to keep my sanity and just get the right vehicle.
Hopefully, You Won’t Need This
None of us want to get into a car accident. The odds are, though, if you drive, you might need this information. The key to surviving is planning in advance and knowing the process. Talk with your agent, get the facts, and get back on the road driving as quickly as possible.