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Car accidents: What you need to know

Accidents are the reason you bought insurance.

Instead of losing your car because of a moment’s inattention, it will be repaired or replaced. Instead of facing a battery of lawyers yourself, you have an experienced insurance company to represent you. Instead of trying to find a body shop and manage a repair, you have experts in collision damage overseeing the process.

You may move quickly from gratitude to worry when you realize there’s a price to be paid.

An auto accident can leave your rates untouched, or it can result in a surcharge that inflates your car insurance bill for years to come.

Here are answers to some of the most common questions we get about car accidents and the types of car insurance needed to make everything right.  If you don’t see the answer, search to see if we have already answered your question. If not, you can ask a new one.  

Top Accidents Questions

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What should I do after an accident? What information should I exchange?

State laws vary, but in general the steps to take after an accident include the following:

Stop at once.  Position your car so that you don’t needlessly block or endanger others. If you drive off from the scene, it will be considered a hit-and-run, which is a serious infraction in most states.   

Check to see if anyone is injured.  Some states require that you render reasonable aid if anyone is injured, but don’t do anything that could cause further injuries. 

Call the police for a report.  Insurers like to have a police report if possible, and it’s required in many states.  If you have a minor parking lot accident, the police may not have time to come to the scene, but you will be able to tell your insurer that you did make the call.

Exchange information.  The basic rule of thumb is to exchange the following information with the other driver:

  • Name
  • Name of the owner if not the same as the driver
  • Names of any passengers
  • Vehicle’s make, model and license plate number
  • Insurance information – company name, policy number and phone number to call for claims

You are not required to show your driver's license, proof of insurance or your contact information to anyone but the police. You do not need to ask for that information from anyone else.

We’d also suggest that you:

Find witnesses.  Get their names and phone numbers.  Encourage them to stay until law enforcement comes so that their statements can be taken down. Independent witnesses tend to give an unbiased description of how the accident happened, which insurance companies like. 

Take pictures. If possible, take photos of the damage to each car and the whole accident scene.  If you have a phone that takes good-quality pictures, use it. If you don’t, keep a digital camera in the glove box.  A picture can be worth a thousand words when making an insurance claim. 

Check with your department of motor vehicles (DMV) to find out what’s required after an accident. Some states require an accident report if there are any injuries and/or property damage over a certain monetary threshold.

Read more: Confusion at accident scenes: What must I do?

Who contacts the insurance company after an accident?

The drivers and others who are filing claims contact the insurance companies that are involved.

If the other driver was at fault, contact his or her insurer to make your claim. Also, contact your own insurer if your policy requires it, or if you are making any claims under your own coverages.

If you were at fault, contact your car insurance company to notify them of the accident.  Advise your insurer if others likely will be calling to file claims or if you need to file one.

The police and DMV don’t call your car insurance company and tattle on you.

Read more:  Can I file a claim if there is no police report?

Who determines who is responsible for the accident?

Both law enforcement and insurance companies make determinations on who is at fault, or if both drivers are partially at fault.

For the purpose of being ticketed and facing penalties for traffic violations, the police will determine who did what and charge the drivers accordingly.   For the insurance companies involved, a claims adjuster will be appointed and decide fault.  The police and the insurance companies don’t always agree on fault; for claim purposes, the insurance companies go by the decisions of their respective adjusters.

It may be that one driver is found to be fully at fault and will thus be liable for all damages, or both drivers may be found partially at fault for the incident.  If both drivers are found at fault, then state negligence laws will determine whose insurance pays what.

No-fault insurance applies only to bodily injuries. Your personal injury protection (PIP) pays for your own medical bills, but if the other driver was at fault, his liability coverage would pay for damage to your car.

Read more:  What is comparative and contributory negligence?

What type of accident is considered to be a collision?

An accident is typically claimed under collision coverage when your car hits or is hit by another car or object, regardless of fault.  Upset of your car, such as flipping your vehicle or rolling down an embankment, is also a collision claim. 

Hitting another vehicle or an inanimate object like a tree, pole, house, fence, etc., all would be considered a collision accident claim. 

Read more:  I just hit your car. Sorry!

What type of accident is considered to be comprehensive?

An accident that is “other than collision” is considered comprehensive if it is covered by your car insurance policy.  Damages to your vehicle from fire, vandalism or theft are comprehensive claims.  Damages from natural occurrences, such as floodwaters, high winds and hail, are covered by comprehensive coverages.

Also, making contact with an animal is a comprehensive claim.  So, if your accident is with a dog, deer, cow or bird, it will be considered a comprehensive claim.

Read more: You hit a deer -- will your insurance cover it?

Does an accident affect my car insurance rates? If so, for how long?

An accident’s effect on your rates depends upon the circumstances of the accident and how many claims you’ve had in recent years.

Comprehensive claims are less likely to be your fault, so they typically won’t raise your rates. Collision claims are more likely to hike up your rates. 

If you’re at fault, it’s your first accident and damages are minor, it may eliminate your good driver discount, but not much else.  If you weren’t at fault and the claims were through the other party’s insurance, it likely won’t affect you either.  If, however, you’ve already made a few claims in a short period of time, any type of claim may affect your rates since you appear to the insurer to be accident-prone.

For example, some car insurance companies won’t impose a surcharge if the accident didn’t cause damage or injury in excess of $1,000, unless you have had two or more of this type of accident within the last three years.

State insurance laws also come into play.  Some states allow insurers to surcharge drivers only for certain types of accidents or if damages were over a certain monetary amount.

An accident typically will affect your rates anywhere from three to five years; it depends upon state laws and the guidelines of your car insurance company.

Read more: Here’s how many car accidents you’ll have.

How long does an accident stay on my record?

It varies by state.  In some states, accidents don’t even go on your driving record, or only appear if you were deemed at fault and ticketed for a traffic infraction.  In other states, accidents go on your record and stay anywhere from one to five years.  You’ll have to contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to find out if the accident will go on your record and how long it will stay there.

Read more:  How long do we have to report an accident to insurance company?

If I don’t report an accident, does my insurance company know?

If there is no police report, nothing noted on your driving record and you paid out of pocket for any damages you caused, it would be unlikely that your insurer would know about a minor accident you were in. That's also true if you were in an unreported single-car accident that resulted in no claims.

If there are claims involved, your car insurance company will know about the accident even if you don’t get a police report or personally notify your insurer of the incident. When claims are paid out, auto insurance providers place the claims information into a central database.

When you apply for a new policy with a new insurer, it, too, will obtain your claims history, and see any previous accidents and claims you had.

Read more:  How do I obtain my CLUE report?

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