You just bumped the car behind you. Do you leave a note or make a run for it?
Leave a note. It's what your mother wants you to do, but it's also what government says you must do. In most states, you're breaking the law if you hit and run, even if it's a minor fender-bender in a mini-mall lot.
"Hit-and-run can occur not only in parking lots as part of a backing-up accident, but can also happen on the street by those either speeding, driving erratically or driving under the influence," says Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC). "So, it can happen in other circumstances as well; and, in some cases, can result in drivers not stopping to leave information."
What can happen if you don't leave that information? Lehman says California is typical when it comes to a misdemeanor hit-and-run: If caught, a motorist can be fined $1,000, jailed for up to six months and have his license suspended.
Despite these consequences, a remarkable number of drivers choose to flee the scene. Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, points to numbers gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showing that, on average, there are usually more than 700,000 hit-and-run accidents a year.
Making the correct moves after the fact
So, you're a conscientious motorist and a good citizen -- but you dinged up another car and the owner isn't around. Get out that pen and paper and start writing.
What should the note say?
Make it simple, says Worters: Just give your name and number. It's not necessary to apologize or admit any fault; leave that up to the insurance companies to determine later.
"Well, you are admitting fault by (leaving a note) saying you hit the car," Worters says. "I wouldn't put the policy number down on the paper but provide it to the person when they call. That should satisfy your responsibility at that time." (Many car insurance companies offer an accident and claims checklists as part of their mobile apps.)
She also underscores the car insurance ramifications if you flee. "Hit-and-run incidents are more serious than regular at-fault accidents," Worters says. "It could stay on your driving record for five to seven years, depending on your state. And if your car insurance company discovers it's a hit and run, they may also cancel your coverage. This would mean even higher premiums (when you finally secure coverage) at your next carrier."
Lehman agrees that saying you're sorry or confessing how distracted you were is not necessary. What is, he points out, is making sure the owner can easily find the note. In fact, Lehman says, California is like most states in requiring you to put it in "a conspicuous place on the vehicle." The obvious -- secured under a windshield wiper -- is a good place to start.
Need a note example? Here's Lehman's suggestion:
To Vehicle Owner:
On date and time, I backed into your car, a color, make, model with license plate number 1ABC234. My car's (rear bumper/right rear/left rear/front left/front right/driver door/passenger door, whichever part) contacted your (bumper, door, quarter panel, etc). Please contact me so that I may provide you with my insurance company information.
John/Jane Doe. Phone number
Don't forget to notify the cops
Both Worters and Lehman add that drivers are legally required to contact the authorities where the mishap occurred. Most states have a reporting threshold of $500 to $1,000, but it doesn’t take much damage to reach that level.
If you're the one with the damaged car, Worters says, you need to take this step.
"Some insurers require that any hit-and-run damage be reported to the police within 24 hours for the claim to be considered a not-at-fault accident,” she says. “Otherwise, the claim may be considered a chargeable loss.”
If you’re the at-fault driver, a police report can document the damage and circumstances in a way that’s difficult to dispute later on. And, if the police don’t come to the scene, you’re at least able to tell your insurer that you called.
Danny Miller, spokesperson for Esurance, adds that you should document the damage to your auto and the parked car by taking photos, possibly with a smartphone if you have one. That will help facilitate any repair claims you or the other motorist make later, he says. (See “Can a parked car be at fault?”)
That’s advice echoed by most insurance and accident claims experts. If you don’t have a camera in your phone, a disposable version in your glove box might be worth the investment.
What’s the damage to your checkbook?
You can either pay for the damage yourself, or you can give the other car owner the information needed to make a claim against your property damage liability coverage.
You’ll pay less out of pocket by using your liability coverage, because there is no deductible. The downside is that you’ll have a claim on your record. Most minor incidents won’t raise your rates if it’s your first claim, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. (See “Sorting out a parking-lot scrape.”)
But your rates shouldn’t rise, Worters says. "Hit-and-run accidents are common and car insurance companies usually do not fault the (victimized) driver for the incident," she says.
Gusner warns, though, that if you have a couple or more hit-and-run claims within a few years your rates could rise due to the amount of claims. That and your insurer may begin to wonder what makes your car so attractive that people keeping hitting it without leaving a note.