Car accidents, even just fender benders, are an unfortunate fact of life. Even though fewer cars are on the road during the pandemic—16% fewer according to Zendrive, a smartphone-based driving analytics app provider—drivers might be more distracted. Phone use while driving was up 38% after lockdowns started, according to a May study by Zendrive.
Their data also shows other increases in riskier driving, including speeding (up 27%) and hard braking (up 25%). And now people are also taking Zoom meetings while on the road. When you’re in a car accident, you want to be prepared, whether or not you caused the collision.
Preparation will help you protect your ability to make an auto insurance claim against an at-fault driver, and also protect you if another driver falsely blames you for the accident. Here’s what to do in this stressful situation, including how to prepare to deal with first responders, injuries, other drivers and insurance companies.
The first thing you should do, if possible, is pull your car over to a safe, well-lit place nearby, preferably a public one where others can see both you and the other driver.
That’s especially true “if you are bumped from behind and think you might be the intended victim of a staged accident,” says Scott Holeman, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.
If your car may cause a road hazard, you’ll want to move it, even to a sidewalk.
“Stay calm and use emergency flashers to alert oncoming cars,” says Robert Passmore, vice president of auto and claims policy at American Property Casualty Insurance Association. Even if you’re feeling disoriented, it’s important to have an after-accident plan and get through the incident in order to preserve your rights in a potential claim.
If you can’t move your car, get yourself and any passengers you have to a safe distance away from the collision. However, “you want to make sure you do not leave the scene,” Holeman advises.
It’s easy after a car accident to get distracted and make mistakes you otherwise would not with loved ones and pets that might lead to additional injury.
If this is a fender bender or minor collision, don’t leave young children, pets, disabled adults or non-ambulatory elders in a hot, locked car after the accident. Just as you wouldn’t leave them in the car to run into a store or other business, don’t leave the engine off with them in a hot car while you deal with the accident details.
If children traveling with you during the crash are young enough to be in car seats, don’t remove them from the car seats after the accident. They may have injuries you can’t see, so let a first responder remove them from their car seats to assess them for injuries.
Make sure other children stay in the car when it’s safe, so they don’t they don’t get injured. Do the same for non-ambulatory elders or otherwise incapacitated people traveling with you, even if they are frightened or agitated.
After you and your vehicle are in a safe place, check to see if you or anyone in your vehicle at the time of the accident has injuries. Call fire and rescue or an ambulance if someone shows even minor harm from the accident. You’ll want to get medical help for yourself or others right away, especially if the injured are children, elders or incapacitated people.
When you call 911, get someone nearby to give you the location of the accident if you don’t know exactly where you are.
Besides your name and other identifying information they request, prepare to provide the city, street name and house number you’re closest to, mile markings and traffic signs or signals, travel direction and whatever else you think will help them find you quickly and easily. Don’t hang up before the dispatcher says you can.
“While it’s not always necessary to call the police, in some states it’s required,” says Holeman.
States have different methods of alerting police using mobile phones. Those include dialing cell phone-only numbers like *SP (star 77) for state police or *HP (star 47) for highway patrol, to report highway and vehicle related problems. Remember, “511” is not for reporting vehicle collisions; it’s for learning travel conditions in the area where you’re dialing. Make sure you’ve taught your children how and when to call 911 if they need to.
Other states require you call 911 only to report accidents, though some locations allow texting 911, which only is advisable if it’s your only option. It’s important to know which emergency numbers to call in your state, when to report accidents to the state motor vehicles division, and the other driving laws in your state before you’re in an accident.
If you’re in a car wreck while out of state, it’s best to call 911. Be prepared for possible long waits for police to respond, because law enforcement prioritizes more urgent calls, especially during the pandemic.
If the police can’t come to the scene, have to leave before taking a report, don’t show up because no one got hurt or the involved vehicles are not blocking traffic, don’t panic. Go to the nearest police station and file a report as soon as possible after the accident. Most states allow up to 72 hours to make a police report, but laws vary by state.
It’s crucial you document the accident with a police report in case you’re sued by the other driver, says Holeman. Get a copy of the police report.
“An accident report may be helpful later in the claims process,” he says.
Determine you’re safe talking to the other driver, and if you can do so calmly, without police help.
“If there is any sign road rage may have played a role in the accident, use extra caution when you talk with the other driver,” warns Holeman.
Once you’ve determined it’s safe, “Secure and conceal any valuables before exiting the vehicle,” advises Passmore.
While it’s appropriate to engage in small talk while waiting for the police, refrain from making admissions or blurting out you’re sorry, even when you feel you’re at fault. Avoid expressing anger toward the other driver. Don’t blame the accident on another driver at the scene or accept blame from another driver or witnesses on the scene.
“It is best to avoid discussion of who is at fault at the scene of an accident,” says Passmore. That’s for the insurance companies to determine.
Also, resist discussing any potential injuries. “You may not always know the extent of damage—to your car or your body—immediately after an automobile accident,” says Holeman. If you’re asked if you or your passengers are okay, say something like, “Only our doctors can assess our health.” That’s because you rarely know right away if you or other car passengers have physical injuries. Even in a fender bender, those can take hours or days after to manifest.
“When talking to others, keep to the facts,” Holeman says. “Do not discuss who was at fault or how much insurance you have with other drivers.”
Also, don’t make any side deals with other drivers to accept or pay cash for the accident instead of filing an insurance claim, even if the other driver offers a significant sum or claims they have no auto insurance.
Holeman warns that “making a ‘handshake deal’ with cash on the scene could expose you to major expenses down the line.”
By this point, you’ve had to take so many steps to secure yourself, loved ones and the vehicle, you might forget to collect some important information. That’s why consistently keeping your documents in order is essential.
“You should always keep important information in your car, like registration, proof of insurance and the name and phone number of your insurance professional,” explains Holeman. “It’s also a good idea to carry important medical information, such as known allergies and the name of your doctor,” he adds. Have similar information for loved ones and pets on hand or easily available.
As you start the document exchange process, “Exchange insurance and contact information only,” says Passmore. That prevents you from saying anything that could get used against you later. Holeman provides this list of what you should collect for insurance claims:
Be sure to take pictures or video of any damage to both cars, talk to witnesses, write all you can remember about what happened, or even record with audio or video details.
Also, document injuries, road and weather, and anything else you believe contributed to the accident. If you have a mobile device, note-taking apps or insurance company mobile apps can be helpful in documenting accident details.
Passmore emphasizes that “the insurance companies will want to know the details of the accident, if a police report was filed, if there were witnesses, and any other information that may be pertinent regarding the accident.”
Holeman says that if you have a mobile device, consider downloading and setting up your insurer’s mobile app before any collision occurs in order to expedite the claims process. A good mobile app can be critical because, besides documenting the accident details, your insurer may be able to send a tow truck and provide rental car options via the app.
“Depending on your policy, you may have roadside assistance, towing services, rental car coverage or other services available to assist you after an accident,” says Passmore.
Later, save bills and medical records from the accident, since you might need them for claims or court.
It’s important to contact your insurance provider as soon as possible.
“This will help expedite the claim process and they may be able to assist you with other services that may be included in your policy,” says Passmore.
While information about the claims process is often on an insurer’s website or mobile app, ask clarifying questions about anything you don’t understand. It’s essential you get all you’re entitled to under your policy and state law.
“Find out what documents you need to give your insurer—like a ‘proof of claim’ form,” Holeman adds. “Also be sure to know if there’s a deadline for filing and when you can expect to hear from your insurance company,” he says.
“Your insurer, or the other driver’s insurer, will likely want to inspect your vehicle to prepare a damage estimate,” explains Passmore. “If your car is still drivable, you may be asked to visit a drive-in claims center, a collision repair shop affiliated with the insurer, or make use of remote inspection tools such as a smartphone app.”
Many insurers have been improving their virtual car insurance claims process, especially during the pandemic.
Using mobile tools helps you get your claim handled faster and back on the road.
After you make a claim, providing all the information the insurer requires, insurance adjusters determine fault and what you’ll receive for repairs or to replace your car if it’s totaled.
Passmore summarizes how fault determination works: “The insurance adjusters for each company will gather the facts regarding the accident and, based on the details and state law, will determine who is at fault or the degree to which each driver is responsible for the accident,” he says.
That process depends on where you live, since 18 states have no-fault insurance laws, and require that you have personal injury protection (PIP) on your policy to pay medical bills for injuries related to the accident, loss of income and other expenses no matter who is at fault.
In states without no-fault laws, insurers use different methods to determine who is at fault. For example, in some states your claim amount is reduced by your percentage of fault.
“Some states take into account that each driver may bear some responsibility for the accident and, based on the details, will assign a percentage of fault based on their degree of responsibility,” Passmore says. “When there are disputes that cannot be resolved, the courts may ultimately decide.”
“If you have questions at any time, contact your insurance professional or your state insurance department,” suggests Holeman.