As the new editor of State Farm's online Auto Learning Center, Jenny Li had spent several months researching car insurance issues when she got into a minor fender-bender last summer. Much of her research focused on how drivers should act after a car accident.
Despite all the training and research, though, as she and the other driver got out of their cars, she recalls, "We kind of looked at each other and said, 'What do we do?'"
People who have been in an accident can probably relate to that momentary confusion. Fortunately, Li quickly regained equilibrium, called police and followed the necessary steps. But her experience is a reminder of how easy it is to get discombobulated.
Survey reveals confusion
A recent survey commissioned by State Farm reveals that people have different takes on what they should do at the scene of an accident, including whether they're legally required to report the incident to their insurance companies and whether they should pull over if they witness an accident. Here are the basic steps on what you should do:
"The first thing you need to do is be concerned with the safety of the occupants of your car," says Greg Moraski, associate vice president of claims at Nationwide Insurance.
Call the police, and move your car out of the way of traffic as soon as possible.
"If your car can't be moved, stay in the car with your seatbelts fastened, and turn on the hazard lights," Moraski says.
Keep your cool
This isn't the time to assign blame and vent your anger.
"Accidents happen. That's why they're called accidents," Moraski says. "There's time later to figure out who was at fault."
Whether it's OK to say "I'm sorry" is a gray area. In the State Farm survey, 32 percent of respondents said saying "I'm sorry" admits fault and implies legal liability. But according to Li's research, the simple statement of "I'm sorry" is not legally binding.
Still you probably want to be careful about what you say in your shaken state. Keep your focus on making sure everyone is safe.
Get the name, address, phone number, car insurance company name, license plate number and driver's license number of the other driver in the accident, along with the year, make and model of the vehicle involved.
Take notes of what happened while the information is fresh. If it's safe, use your cell phone camera to take photos of the accident scene and vehicle damage. Many car insurance companies provide emergency kits for the glove compartment explaining what to do at an accident, and a growing number provide mobile phone applications. For example, Nationwide Insurance's Nationwide Mobile and State Farm's Pocket Agent take drivers through the process. These tools steer you through steps you might otherwise forget after the shock of a collision.
Contact your car insurance company
About half of Americans (46 percent) think that failing to report an accident to their insurer is against the law, and 41 percent think it's all right "not go through insurance," according to the State Farm survey.
Although it's not illegal to skip reporting an accident to your car insurance company, delaying a report could make the claims process more difficult. The Insurance Information Institute recommends reporting the accident to the insurance company from the scene, if possible. Your agent or claims center can save you time and money by recommending where to tow the car, so it can go directly to a repair facility instead of a storage center. Moreover, the sooner you report an accident, the fresher the details, Li says.
Use common sense if you witness an accident
According to State Farm's survey, 83 percent say they probably would stop if they witnessed an accident that didn't involve them. About three quarters (74 percent) say they are a witness to an accident if they are within 100 feet and two thirds (66 percent) say being a witness means not being involved.
A witness is anyone who saw an accident happen. It doesn't count if you just heard it. Whether you should pull over at the scene depends on the circumstances.
"If you feel like you're going to cause more of an obstruction in a high-traffic area, then don't stop," Li says. Instead, find a safe place to stop out of traffic, call 911 and leave your contact information, so police can contact you later to get your version of what happened.
Finally, there's one step you can now to make life easier in the aftermath of an accident: "Make sure you're covered before you get in an accident," Moraski says.
Many times people don't know what kind of auto insurance coverage they have until they file a claim. Review your coverage now to make sure it's adequate, Moraski advises.