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When you're hit by an uncooperative jerk

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CarInsurance.com

Parking lot car accidentNot everyone is nice. No surprise there.

But what if an uncooperative type slams into your car?

How do you get the bare basics from the other driver without risking your own safety? After all, no one wants you tackling the guy to the ground to extract his wallet.

Fortunately, you don't have to.

While the chance of encountering someone so difficult is likely remote - most drivers are either so contrite or upset that they sincerely want to swap information - the truth is that you need very little from the other driver.

Get the plate number

First, let's alleviate some potential anxiety: You don't need as much personal information from said obnoxious driver as you might think. You don't need to see his driver's license, let alone photograph it.

(To guard against identity theft, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners advises people not to provide their driver's license information to strangers following an accident.)

Here's the information you want to try and gather at the scene:

  • The driver's name. Ask him to write down his name, or get a business card. It's not your job to play detective or even assume he's lying. Leave that to the police and the insurance companies.
  • The name of the other driver's insurance carrier. Again, just request the name of the carrier. It's not your job to see proof of insurance, nor is the driver required to show it to another citizen.
  • The license plate number and a basic description of the other car. "That information alone is going to allow the insurance carrier to identify the vehicle's owner," says Glenn Greenberg, a spokesman for Liberty Mutual. "Beyond that it's not the onus of the driver to go to excess bounds to identify the other driver."
  • Description of the accident. Grab a name and phone number of a couple witnesses, if possible, particularly if you think the details of the accident will be in dispute later. Jot down your own notes about what happened and exactly where. Photos help.

The NAIC has a free smartphone app called WreckCheck that will guide you through the steps and record the necessary information.

But what if the driver resists even that?

In 30 years of trial work - including a good share of car accidents - Boston-area lawyer Daniel Malis can recall only one case in which a driver refused to provide insurance information to the other driver. The "idiot" in that case, however, did provide information to police.

"There's a simple solution," Malis says. "If someone at the scene of an accident is being an idiot, call a cop."

Easier said than done. In many jurisdictions, police will respond only to injury accidents. If the other driver is threatening, however, and you fear being harmed, tell that to police.

"Avoiding confrontation is advisable," says Greenberg. "Notify police that there's been an incident and you need some assistance. It removes that responsibility from yourself."

And remember, while motorists in every state except New Hampshire are required to carry car insurance, they are not required to provide proof of that insurance to other citizens. In other words, it's not your job. Drop it. There's no reason to escalate the situation.

Put your insurance company to work

Plenty of drivers complain online that they've been unable to reach an uncooperative driver later to resolve an insurance matter. After all, why would a driver who flees the scene without providing information decide later to return your phone calls? (See "Hit by an unlicensed and uninsured driver.")

In truth, there's no reason to put yourself through the hassle.

Insurance information is a matter of public record. With a plate number, you should be able to find the driver's identity and his carrier information through your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

If police aren't near and the obnoxious driver is leaving the scene, grab your phone camera or paper and pen instead and record the license plate number. Jot down later what the driver looked like, and some details of the accident, then let your insurance company or a lawyer do the rest.

"Let your insurance company protect your interests," says Greenberg. "That's your premium dollars at work. That's what you let your insurance company do for you."

Collision coverage is a powerful weapon

Your insurance company will go to bat for you only if you carry collision coverage or uninsured motorist property damage, putting it on the hook for repairs to your car if the other driver can't pay. That's often the case.

Drivers are uncooperative - or flee - for a reason. An uninsured driver faces not only the bills to repair your car, but also fines and even a license suspension by the state.

Your liability coverage won't repair your car or win you the help of your insurance company in pursuing the at-fault driver.

"The only sure way to make sure your car is repaired, no matter who hits you or even if you do the damage yourself, is collision coverage," says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "Most people don't carry uninsured motorist property damage, and even then, it rarely covers the full cost of expensive repairs."

When it's your word vs. the jerk's

Sometimes the other driver has insurance -- and gives his carrier a very different story than the one you told your insurer. In that case, his company is likely to deny your claim for damages or split the blame. You'd receive only part of the cost of the damages at best.

"In a case like this, you'd use your collision coverage to get paid for all of your car's damages," Gusner says. "If you're without collision coverage, you'd have to take him to court -- and if he's uncooperative or a jerk there, it should only help your case."

If there's even a remote chance you'll need to file a claim against your own collision coverage, says Malis, record the accident with your insurance company immediately. Any delay could be grounds for denying the claim. "Your insurance company can say that you didn't provide timely notice."

But, he warns, call a lawyer first.

"The truth is, the insurance company is out to use every fair and legal method to minimize what it pays," Malis says. "The way to even that playing field is with an attorney."

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