You might wonder precisely what kind of behavior your insurance company will cover if you're in an accident, and what kind of behavior is excluded.
What if you rear-end another car while texting?
What if you crash while street racing?
What if you sideswipe a guardrail while scarfing a double cheeseburger, extra mayo, while talking on a cellphone and tuning the radio with your pet dachshund on your lap?
In the end, the rules wind up being pretty simple, experts say. Stupidity tends to be covered. Intentional misbehavior usually isn't. (See whether you're covered under six of the most common accident scenarios with the Crash-o-Matic guide.)
Intentional acts are excluded from coverage
"When insurance companies describe accidents, you'll find words like unforeseen, sudden, unexpected or fortuitous," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst with CarInsurance.com. "And they are every bit as explicit about labeling what is not an accident."
Policies typically have an exclusion for intentional or criminal acts, such as fleeing from the police or crashing your car into other people's vehicles deliberately.
That includes any sort of road rage type of behavior, Gusner points out. "If you intentionally ram into the car in front of you, your insurance company will not cover you," she says. "That scene in 'Fried Green Tomatoes' was fiction."
(In the movie, Kathy Bates' character, cheated out of a parking space, rams the offender's car repeatedly. "Face it, girls," she drawls. "I'm older, and I have more insurance.")
Another example of an intentional act that would not be covered is if you set your car on fire to cash in on the policy, says Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California in Los Angeles. (See "Suspicious claims on the rise.")
Prohibited uses are excluded from coverage
But it's not necessarily criminal behavior that leaves you exposed. Most insurance policies exclude certain types of use as well.
Many typically won't cover your car if you use it as a taxi or act as a chauffeur, or if you rent it out to strangers through a car-sharing program. (See "Who can drive my car?")
Many policies will also have exclusions on where you can drive your car, Moraga says. "If you like to drive into the desert and you go off-road driving with a four-wheeler, many policies will exclude that if you crash into a creek bed," he points out. "Or if you have a fast car and go speed racing and then have an accident, you won't be covered," he says. "Some policies are very specific about what they exclude."
Yet if you accidentally drive off a cliff (and actually survive!), your insurance company will cover you, Moraga says.
Medical conditions may or may not be covered
In general, accidents caused by medical issues are covered by your insurer.
For example, if you have a heart attack while driving, the damage to your car would be covered, says Moraga.
But your own specific-state laws will dictate whether or not an insurer will pay, says Gusner. (As an example, see Maryland's medical self-reporting requirements.)
"You need to look into your current state laws to see if you need to report your medical condition to the DMV or your insurer," she says. "If you don't report your medical condition and you have an accident, you might be denied your insurance benefits. You also have to tell your insurer about any medical condition you have so that they can rate you according to your risk," she adds.
Distractions while driving are usually covered
In most cases, distractions fall under unintentional acts and would be covered: a spider crawling across your windshield as you're driving, a bee flying onto your window, or having to suddenly sneeze as you're driving down the highway at 60 mph.
Lap dogs? Covered. (We hope your car insurer threw in pet insurance, too.)
Herd of wild animals? Covered.
Of course, "if there is a herd of cows, and you intentionally hit them, you wouldn't be covered," Moraga notes.
Gusner recalls another very unusual claim that was denied.
"There was a claim put in by a couple who were making love while they were driving. That claim did get denied!" Gusner says.
And even though texting and talking on the phone is against the law in many jurisdictions, that behavior would be covered by insurers if you get into an accident, both Moraga and Gusner point out. (See "Please make me stop texting.")
Altering your car's equipment
If you alter your car in any way that affects the safety of your automobile, sometimes insurers will not pay claims. (Rocker Neil Young knows this well.)
"If you add a different exhaust system or you are a street racer and you add a different system, sometimes insurers will not cover that," Moraga notes. "And if you're driving in a car without a seat -- I knew of someone who had removed the seat in his car -- that wouldn't be covered," Moraga adds. (See "Aftermarket parts: What you need to know.")