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By definition, accidents happen unexpectedly, and often at the most inconvenient times. Many people have fears of flying, boats, etc. But in truth, car accidents are one of the most common ways to be injured or die. US drivers are involved in car accidents every six minutes, a rate four times higher than in any other country. In an ideal world, everybody would have full coverage car insurance to protect themselves along with their passengers and other drivers. But, even with the best full-coverage auto insurance plan, things can get complicated on the road if you don’t know what to do after a car accident.
Whether you’re rear-ended during rush hour or spin out on an icy road, remaining calm in the aftermath is essential. Amidst the chaos, your primary goal following an accident is to avoid further injury or property damage.
“When your nerves are working overtime, it’s easy to forget what you should do immediately following a car accident,” licensed insurance agent Ashley M. Hunter, founding partner of A. Hunter & Company tells Insider. She suggests the following steps to ensure a smooth, hassle-free outcome after an accident.
Immediately following an accident, you may be in shock. So take a minute if you need to, but get yourself out of the road as quickly as possible. After a highway accident, be aware of your surroundings and position your vehicle well out of the way of moving traffic.
After a serious accident, drivers may not be able to move their car at all. In this case, be aware of your surroundings while you exit your vehicle and move to safety while you await assistance. In either case, turn your hazard lights on to alert other drivers of the accident.
If it appears that you or your passengers have been injured, contact emergency services immediately. Individuals experiencing shock may not realize they are hurt. Medical professionals are best suited to assess injuries and provide documentation if it is needed for insurance purposes.
Note: In the event of a moderate or severe crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends replacing any child safety and/or booster seats involved to ensure proper crash protection for young passengers.
Dial 911 to dispatch the police to your location. Even in the case of minor accidents, having a police report on record can expedite the insurance claims process. More importantly, it protects you by putting the details on paper immediately. No matter how minor, driving away from the scene of an accident is a misdemeanor offense in many states and may carry hit-and-run charges.
While the police report is hardly a be-all, end-all document, it will help file your insurance claim and determine fault. In some cases, it will also nail down the damage done.
So, for example, if you rear-end someone in traffic, they cannot later claim you damaged the front and side of their vehicle. Similarly, if they rear-ended your vehicle, a police report would prevent them from changing their story later. Therefore, a report should be filed even if you don’t intend to file a claim (the damage is minor or the at-fault party is willing to pay in cash).
With safety in mind, take as many photos of your car and the accident as possible. Any cars involved and the damage is important. However, you should also take pictures as applicable of the surrounding accident site and any skid marks on the road. The idea is to give a third party an objective picture of what happened.
Photo documentation is the best way to prove the damage to your vehicle after the accident, especially if you have an adjuster who wants to handle your claim over the phone.
Once it is safe, exchange information with the other driver(s) involved in the accident: take a photo of their driver’s license and insurance identification card. That’s the only interaction you need. Discussing the specifics of the accident, particularly who may have been at fault can result in statements used against you.
Once the police arrive, document as much information about the accident as you can remember and note the responding officer’s name and badge number. If you have a dash cam, you can provide the footage to your insurance company as needed. The police may also want a copy after a severe accident.
Regardless of who is at fault, notify your insurance professional you’ve been in a car accident as soon as possible. While this does not need to happen from the scene of the accident, it should happen within 24 hours (or, in the case of serious injury, as soon as you can).
Each insurance company is different. Laws also vary state-by-state, with a few states operating as “no-fault” while others apply an at-fault standard. Essentially, state laws tell you which insurer will cover medical bills. In a no-fault state, each insurance company covers its customer. In at-fault states, a judgment has to be made based on evidence provided, and the responsible party’s insurance will cover medical costs associated with the accident.
Some insurance companies will direct you to a mobile app to jumpstart your claim. Others will advise you over the phone on the next steps. If you are not at fault and the other party is not disputing anything, going straight to their insurance may save you some hassle as the cost of car insurance may increase anytime your insurer receives a claim.
Car accidents can be stressful, and bumps may arise afterward. Once you’ve followed the steps outlined above, leave it to the professionals.
“If there are any disputes as to who hit who, or ran into what, (the insurance company) will consult the police report, but they will also look at photos taken at the scene of the accident, which is why photographs are really your friend,” says Hunter.
In addition, things like dash cams and other technology can be a saving grace after a car accident. Many newer vehicles also have onboard safety features that automatically dispatch the police and/or emergency services upon impact.
In the days (and sometimes weeks) following your accident, you may be contacted by various individuals, from a claims adjuster with your insurance company to a representative from the other driver’s insurance company or the police.
The other driver may also try to contact you, but communicating solely via insurers and other official parties can reduce the likelihood of complications. Unsurprisingly, Hunter is emphatic about one thing: Never attempt to negotiate a car accident or claim directly with another driver.
“The moment you accept payment from a third party that is not your insurer, you void your claim with the insurer, and they are no longer obligated to assist you,” she says, underscoring the peace of mind that comes with paying a monthly premium for an automobile insurance policy.
Of course, this is without factoring in he said, she said of unofficial conversations that could be had. Once a claim is created, the claims agent assigned will be your point of contact.
Regardless of the specifics surrounding your car accident, staying calm and following these expert tips is the best way to ensure a favorable outcome. It can also help you avoid unnecessary and stressful situations.
“The last thing you want to think about is the little things, like having to pay the tow company,” says Hunter of why connecting with your insurance professional as soon as possible following an accident is paramount.
Insurance professionals will help you navigate the aftermath, including securing a rental car if needed. Then you’ll be back on the road (with fewer things to worry about).
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Read our editorial standards.
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