If airplanes make you nervous, you've probably heard the statistic from some well-meaning person that you're about 60 times more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash [source: Bailey]. That's great news if you're about to board a cross-country flight, but it's a little unnerving for daily commuters: At their worst, car accidents can be devastating, and at their best, they're a major and costly inconvenience.
Luckily for all the drivers out there, that's why auto insurance exists: to help alleviate the financial and logistical burdens of an accident. Regardless of the severity of the situation, any time you're involved in a crash, you're required to report it to your auto insurance company -- even if you believe you're not at fault [source: Insure]. While your insurance may cover your medical bills and repairs to your vehicle, the fair and speedy processing of your claim depends on the facts you provide following the accident.
But when exactly should you make that call, and what information should you convey?
Just the Facts: What, Where and When
Car accidents can be pretty traumatic, both physically and emotionally. Even if you're convinced it was the other guy's fault, the moments immediately following a crash aren't the time for finger-pointing -- which is why your insurance agent often should not be the first person you call. Instead, use your cell phone to record a quick voice memo or a small notebook or jot down key information. The best time to report the accident is when you're safely away from the scene of the accident and can clearly and objectively compile the details. The first things your insurance company will need to know are the basics:
- Date and time of the accident. In order for your claim to be processed as quickly and justly as possible, your responsibility is to help your insurance company recreate the scene of the accident, even down to seemingly trivial details like weather and traffic conditions.
- What really happened. This can be a challenge, as emotions and adrenaline run high after this type of incident, but a step-by-step documentation of how the accident occurred is crucial to getting your claim addressed. Be sure to include details like speed, direction of travel and location of all parties involved, along with who hit whom.
On the next page, we'll explore what your insurance company needs to know about the damage from the accident and how best to document and report it.
Bumps and Bruises: Report the Damage
We usually frown firmly upon the use of cell phones on the road, but this is where your phone's camera function really comes in handy. Try to document any damage to your vehicle, major or minor, from all angles while you're still on the scene of the accident. Make sure you also document any damage to others' vehicles. When you do report the accident to your insurance company, you'll need to match your verbal or written description to the photos.
It's also crucial that you report any injuries that you or anyone else sustains during the accident -- but only after they are stable and receiving medical attention. Also, don't forget property damage: If another driver's computer is sitting on their passenger seat and gets smashed when you hit their car, your insurance company needs to know about it [source: California DMV].
Just like the play-by-play of the accident, this is another area where objectivity is key: Not only does your insurance company need to know exactly what they might be paying for, but your claim will also look a lot more credible if you don't inflate the dent on your fender into a gaping chasm across the front of your car.
So we've got the where, when and what covered -- but what about the who? Read on to find out what details you should collect from the other person in an accident.
Give Up the Digits: Who Was Involved
After an accident, make sure you get the following key information from anyone involved [source: AAA]:
- Full name and phone number
- Driver's license and license plate numbers
- Company name and contact information for their insurance company
- Insurance policy number
- Names and contact information for any passengers
- Basic information about their vehicle -- make, model, year and color
You should provide your own information to anyone else involved in the accident as well so that your insurance companies can get to work on your claims as soon as possible.
Plenty of people borrow friends' or family members' cars, so it's also important to note whether the driver of the car is the primary driver listed on the insurance policy. If not, make sure to note the driver's own insurance carrier and policy number -- even if it's not his car, some of his own coverage may still apply.
There's another type of person you should be aware of at the scene of a car accident, though. Find out what to ask them on the next page.
Can I Get a Witness?
After you get in a car accident, you might not be thinking too much about onlookers. However, if everyone directly involved in an accident has their own ideas of what went on, outside witnesses can really come in handy.
Witnesses who are uninvolved in an incident usually better provide objective accounts of that incident -- the actual participants may be more limited (or biased). For starters, witnesses are usually in a better physical position to report what occurred -- it's easier to see what's happening if you're not in one of the cars involved in an accident. Most witnesses also don't have a personal investment in the outcome of the situation and may provide a unique and balanced perspective. They can also help identify patterns and causes in an accident: If this is the fourth crash Joe Onlooker has seen at a certain intersection, for example, that's important information for your insurance company to look into.
While many car accidents are resolved amicably, it never hurts to be prepared with the facts in case things turn ugly. Before leaving the scene of the crash, exchange names and contact information with any witnesses in case you or your insurance company needs any corroborating evidence down the road.
Report Red Flags: Signs of a Fraudulent Accident
When a crash gets us hot under the collar, it's helpful to remember that it's called an accident for a reason -- well, except if it's not. Fraudulent accidents aren't really accidents; instead, they can be caused or staged by perpetrators in order to receive payment from insurance companies or the individuals involved [source: Novak].
Ninety percent of accidents are honest-to-goodness accidents, but you should be aware of a few warning signs that could indicate otherwise. Watch out for older or luxury vehicles, damaged vehicles and vehicles driving slowly; frequent lane changing can also be a red flag. Driver behavior is also a good indicator: Perpetrators of fraudulent accidents often try to intimidate the victim into admitting fault and may behave in an aggressive or threatening manner [source: AAA].
If you suspect that you've been targeted in a fraudulent accident, you should notify your insurance company -- and the police -- immediately. The more concrete details you can provide about the car and the driver, the better chance you have of your claim being resolved quickly and fairly.
Take a look at the next page for lots more information on car accidents, insurance and how to handle them both.
Is your car over-insured? Learn how to tell if your car has too much insurance at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 5 Things You Should Tell Your Insurance Company Immediately After a Crash
What I found most interesting during my research for this article was that there's just as much information out there on what not to tell your insurance company as there is about what to tell them -- maybe even more. I also had no idea that fraudulent accidents existed, so it was very eye-opening to read about what to watch out for. I found it particularly interesting that perpetrators of fraudulent accidents are likely to be driving either older, beat-up cars or luxury vehicles, but nothing in between. I hope HowStuffWorks readers find this article as useful as I did!
More Great Links
- AAA. "Auto Accident Tips." (March 25, 2012) http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:CPxqTW92KPoJ:www.calif.aaa.com/en-ca/driving-resources/Pages/accident-tips.aspx
- Bailey, Ronald. "Don't Be Terrorized." Reason Online. Aug. 11, 2006 (April 3, 2012) http://reason.com/archives/2006/08/11/dont-be-terrorized
- California DMV. "Vehicle Collisons!" (March 25, 2012) http://dmv.ca.gov/pubs/brochures/fast_facts/ffdl16.htm
- FindLaw. "After a Car Accident: First Steps." (March 27, 2012) http://injury.findlaw.com/car-accident/personal-injury-first-car-accident.html
- Insure. "What to do after a car accident." (March 24, 2012) http://www.insure.com/car-insurance/after-car-crash.html
- Novak, Chrissy. "Automobile Accident Fraud." National Insurance Crime Bureau." (March 30, 2012) http://www.nicbtraining.org/Auto_Accident_Fraud.pdf
- Reed, Philip. "What to Do After a Car Accident." Edmunds.com. May 5, 2009 (March 26, 2012) http://www.edmunds.com/car-safety/what-to-do-after-a-car-accident.html