According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,795 Americans died in motor vehicle fatalities in 2022. Though you may not want to think about the potential for a crash, preparing for the possibility of one and knowing what steps to take after a car accident may help reduce stress if you are involved in an auto crash. Here’s what you should know before you get behind the wheel.
1. Be prepared for an accident
We all hope we never experience a car accident, but preparing beforehand may be critical. This includes reviewing your auto insurance coverage types and limits. Understanding your coverage selections may help you navigate the claims process and could be a good opportunity to review whether you have enough coverage. If not, you can either contact your insurance company to discuss your options or start comparing policies from other providers.
Here are some quick steps you can take to ensure you’re prepared if an accident were to happen:
- Make sure your insurance card and other information — name of provider, policy number and phone number — is in your glove compartment and in your wallet or phone in case you cannot access the glove compartment after an accident.
- Keep a disposable camera or your phone handy to take photos.
- Keep a pen, small pad of paper and flashlight in your glove compartment.
2. Make sure everyone is safe, then call the police
“Obviously the first thing you want to do is make sure everyone involved is OK,” says Kip Diggs, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. If injuries are serious, dial 911 for an ambulance. Regardless, move the vehicles out of traffic to avoid another accident.
You might have heard that you don’t need to call the authorities if the crash was minor, but experts advise calling the police after any type of car accident. “Even if the other person says, ‘I’ll take care of you; I’ve got a brother-in-law with a body shop that can fix your car,’ you still want to call,” says Beth Hanlon, an agent for Allstate Insurance in Riverhead, New York.
This provides an extra measure of protection for everyone involved, and a police report will act as an official record of the accident. If the accident happens on an interstate highway, call county or state law enforcement.
If the accident is minor, without injury or much damage, the officer will typically just file an incident report, which functions as an information exchange. If the crash is more serious, the officer will create an accident report to assist the insurance process and establish legal liabilities.
Be aware that if it is a minor accident, police officers may not always come to the scene. “We don’t dispatch a police car to every fender bender,” says James Kenneally, a Boston police officer. “We can’t afford to, given our limited resources.”
3. Call your insurance company
Most insurance experts suggest calling your insurance carrier regardless of the accident’s severity.
However, Michael Gutter, assistant professor of family financial management at the University of Florida, says there are cases in which it may not be a good idea to involve your insurer. In some cases, state law forbids insurance companies from raising rates unless the insured was at fault, he points out. “But if you aren’t protected from rate hikes, I can see why someone would think twice (about calling his/her insurance company) if it’s just a fender bender.”
If the insurance company does need to be notified, call them as soon as possible. “Sometimes our customers will be in an accident, and the other guy will call first. That raises eyebrows,” says Hanlon. “Within a day, you should let your insurance company know.”
4. Gather and exchange insurance information
Car accidents can be stressful, and it may be difficult to recall information about the event as days and weeks go by. Gathering all relevant information at the scene is one of the most important steps to take after a car accident. Later on, it may even help make the claims process easier. This could include:
- Taking photos at the scene. Take photos of all vehicles involved from all sides. Include photos with surrounding area markers, like road or traffic signs, traffic lights and other identifying markers.
- Exchanging insurance information. Write down the other driver’s name, contact information, insurance company name and policy number. If they have proof of insurance, it may be easier to take a photo. If they cannot produce insurance information, it may be a good idea to call the insurance company from the scene to verify coverage.
- Writing down details while they’re still fresh. The insurance company will ask questions to understand what happened before and during the car accident. Make note of what direction you were traveling and the street you were on. Where did the impact occur and how did it occur? You could also draw a picture or do a voice recording if that’s easier.
- Getting witness information. If there are witnesses that saw the fender bender, get their name and contact information to provide to the insurance company. Witnesses may help corroborate your accident report and verify what happened. If police arrive on the scene, they may also do this.
Be mindful of liability
Conversation with the other driver should probably be limited to exchanging insurance and contact information. “Don’t answer questions or make statements,” Gutter says. If the police were called to the scene, answer their questions honestly. Whether you live in an at-fault or no-fault state determines who decides liability and fault after the accident. It is generally recommended to not admit guilt and instead let the insurance companies make the decision.
5. Determine if a claim needs to be filed
A claim may not need to be filed If the overall damage is not significant and no damage is done to the other person’s car. If, for example, there is $500 worth of damage to your car and your deductible is $1,000, it may not make sense to file a claim.
In some cases, most insurance professionals recommend that your insurance company be involved. These include:
- When there are any injuries, no matter how minor they might seem. It is impossible to predict how expensive the medical bills might be, and there is also the possibility of legal action being taken against you.
- If the damage is significant or either car is totaled.
- If it is unclear where the blame lies and the police report is inconclusive. This may be particularly true with parking lot accidents, where there may not be stop signs or lane markings to make it clear who has the right of way.
- You are deemed at fault for the accident.
In short, it is a good idea in most cases to let your insurance company know about any accidents since their job is to help keep you protected.
6. Keep track of repairs, appointments and expenses
It is usually wise to stay involved throughout the repair process when your car has been involved in an accident. You may not have a lot of options in terms of where your car is taken and how damage is fixed, but keeping track of necessary repairs and how they are done may help ensure the work is high quality. For example, you may want to ensure that the mechanic is using original manufacturer parts.
It is also important to let the insurance companies handle any discussions with the other driver after an accident.
If the other driver’s insurance company contacts you, refer them to your insurance company. “While you are not required to cooperate with the other party’s insurance company, your claims representative will discuss the best way to handle your claim, which may include cooperating with the other party’s carrier,” says Burklin.
Lastly, keeping receipts of all repair work and medical expenses may also be helpful. Keeping track of appointments, medical treatment and resulting costs may help ensure you get repaid in full for eligible expenses. Having proof of repairs may also prove helpful if there is an issue with repair work in the future or you sell the car so that you can pass the information along to the new owner, for example.
7. Evaluate your car insurance rates
After an accident that results in a claim, you may see your auto insurance rates go up. This may be a good time to shop around and compare quotes to see if your carrier still offers the most competitive rates for your circumstances. Other carriers will still be able to see your driving history, but they may not weigh at-fault accidents as heavily.
Some carriers may charge a policy cancellation fee if you cancel your policy before the term ends. It may be worth reaching out to your current provider to inquire about cost-saving measures, like participating in a telematics program.
Frequently asked questions
After a crash, the first thing to do is ensure that everyone (including you, your passengers and the other people involved in the accident) is safe. If there are any serious injuries, call 911 right away.
There is no best car insurance company for everyone. The best car insurance company for your needs will likely depend on your priorities. You might be looking for low rates, or you may want a company with a robust mobile app. Once you know your most important criteria in a company, you can narrow down your choices, then compare quotes. If you’re looking for a place to start, Bankrate’s research found that some of the best car insurance companies include Geico, Amica, USAA, Safeco, Auto-Owners and State Farm.
If you are involved in a car accident or file a claim for damages or injuries, your rates could be affected. Having options like accident forgiveness on your policy may shield your rate from an increase, but the coverage has to be in place prior to an at-fault accident. Each insurance company weighs accidents differently, which means your rate could increase more with one carrier compared to another. Generally, at-fault accidents increase rates more than not-at-fault accidents, and some states do not allow carriers to increase rates if you are not deemed at fault.
If there are injuries, vehicles cannot be safely moved from the road or if information cannot be exchanged, you may want to call the police after an auto accident. If you are unsure about any of the steps to take after an accident, consider calling the police to the scene.
It is not always clear who is at fault in a car accident. If a driver does not take responsibility, the police may assign fault if they are called to the scene. The insurance company may ultimately decide fault, which may be 100 percent on one driver or a combination of fault between both drivers. Fault may also depend on your state laws.