What to Do After a Car Accident: Checklist & Tips for Drivers
There are over 10 million motor vehicle accidents every year, according to Census Bureau estimates, so even if you’re a safe driver, it pays to plan ahead and be prepared. The most important rules: Keep your cool. If there is any chance of serious injuries, call 911.
This guide starts with a checklist for what to do at the scene of an accident when there are injuries or more than just incidental property damage. Following these steps will help keep you safe, protect your rights and make sure you are compensated for your losses.
After that, you will find tips for handling fender benders and other minor collisions so that you can judge when it might make sense to handle the accident without the involvement of police or insurance companies.
A serious accident can be jarring, but it’s important to keep a level head and to protect your health and your rights. If anyone is injured or if either vehicle is seriously damaged, you will want to take these precautions:
Stay calm – It may go without saying but don’t panic. A calm demeanor will make it easier to think straight and helps avoid a potential conflict with the other motorist. Make small talk with the other driver. It may calm everyone down and make it easier to discuss more serious matters.
Keep everyone safe and away from traffic – If the damage is minor and you can safely move the vehicles, it is probably best to move them off the road. Otherwise turn on hazard lights and set up warning triangles or flares if you have them. If there are no medical injuries, make sure everyone gets off the road and stays away from traffic
Don’t move seriously injured people – If someone is seriously injured, especially if there are potential spine or head injuries, don’t move that person unless there’s more danger in leaving them.
Call 911 & get a police report – State laws require that you call the police if anyone is injured or if property damage exceeds a certain threshold. You may also need a police report when you file your insurance claim. If you need to, be politely persistent with the other driver and the police officer that you would like a written statement. Make a note of the following information:
- The officer’s name
- The officer’s badge number
- The officer’s phone number
- The police report number
Get witness contact info – If there are willing witnesses, ask them for their contact information and ask them to wait for the police to arrive. If the accident occurred on private property, such as in a parking lot ask security or an administrator/manager to make a statement. You want to have a neutral third party account of the incident if at all possible.
Don’t admit fault – Don’t apologize for a driving mistake you may have made. Cooperate fully with the other driver and the police but do so without admitting your own fault or speculating, Stick with your personal account of the facts, and don’t sign any documents unless they are for the police or your own insurance company.
Don’t agree not to report – Don’t accept any immediate compensation or promises from the other driver to pay for the damage separate from an insurance claim. Don’t make any statement that the accident was too insignificant to act on. Immediately after an accident, you’re in no position to assess the extent of injuries and property damage that the crash has caused.
Take photos and take notes – Use your cell phone camera to take photos of the vehicles, the accident scene and any injuries. If you can do so safely, take pictures of the vehicles before you move them. While it is still fresh in your mind, write down the details of the accident as you remember them.
Exchange essential information– Make sure to get the other driver’s name and insurance information. The other driver may request personal information such as your home address, phone number and driver’s license number, but given the risk of identity theft, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners now advises that you only provide what is required by state law. In nearly all cases that means only the information on your insurance card:
- Your full name
- Insurance company
- Policy number
- The phone number for your insurance company
If the other driver insists on your providing more information, remain calm and wait for the police to arrive. Again, small talk may help.
Contact your insurance company – You are not required to call your insurance company from the scene, but you’ll need to do so soon if there will be any claims or if there are any injuries.
It’s apparent that serious accidents – especially those involving any injuries – should follow these guidelines, but let’s also discuss lesser accidents. Should they be treated differently?
While it’s always wise to follow our accident checklist above, if damage is minor and both driver's insurance companies agree, calling the police might not be necessary. But you should only agree not to call the police if all of the following are true:
- No one is injured
- Property damage is minor
- The other driver accepts blame and has insurance
- You get the other driver’s insurance information in writing
- You talk to your insurance company and the other driver’s insurance company, and both insurers tell you they have everything they need
- You get a claim number from the other insurance company
How should you define “minor” property damage in this case? First, keep in mind that even seemingly minor damage to cars can be very costly to repair.
But more importantly, in every state drivers are legally required to file an accident report with the police if 1) anyone is injured or 2) property damage exceeds a certain threshold. You can find the property damage threshold for your state in the table below.
|Accident Report Is Required When Property Damage Exceeds …|
|Arizona||$300||Nevada||any property damage|
|Colorado||any property damage||New Mexico||$500|
|District of Columbia||$250||North Dakota||$1,000|
|Florida||$500||Ohio||any property damage|
|Idaho||$1,500||Pennsylvania||a vehicle is not drivable|
|Maryland||a vehicle is not drivable||Virginia||$1,500|
Source: AAA, state governments
Using our accident checklist above is the best way to protect yourself from the unforeseen. The other driver may seem agreeable at the scene of the accident, but sometimes memories blur and stories change over time. If there’s a later dispute, it will be your word against the other driver’s.
But if no one is hurt, damage is minor and you choose not to involve insurance, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself:
- Put any agreement in writing and get a signed copy. Your agreement may not be legally binding, but it at least documents your common understanding of who is at fault and how damage will be paid for.
- Get a signed receipt for any money that changes hands.
- Even if you don’t plan to file a claim, get the other driver’s insurance information.
Maybe you’re the driver who doesn’t want to report the damage because you’re worried about how it will affect your insurance premiums. If that’s the case, it’s important to remember two things:
- If you are not found to be at fault, there may be no impact on your insurance premiums at all.
- If damage is minor and there are no injuries, one claim to repair damage from a fender bender isn't likely to affect your rates much.
In any case, if you don’t file a claim right away, you have time to reconsider. Most insurance policies don’t set a fixed deadline for reporting accidents. You can probably still file a claim later if you feel you’ve made a mistake not to.
If your vehicle is the only one damaged, there are no medical injuries, and you think the cost of repairs will not exceed the cost of your deductible by very much, you should consider paying for the cost of repairs yourself instead of filing an insurance claim. In the long run, the repairs may cost less than what you’ll pay in higher premiums due to the claim.
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