There’s nothing okay about having a car accident. But you’ll be okay (regardless of fault) once you take a deep breath and follow these six simple steps for getting through it.

An auto accident can throw a wrench in your plans and dampen your spirits if you let it. The grind of it all can test both your emotions and patience. Fortunately, there is a path to follow in terms of getting through the day of the accident and the claims process ahead.

Accidents are why we have insurance coverage in the first place, right? When shopping for the best coverage, you always want the most coverage you can get without going overboard financially. 

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Step 1: Safety First 

In the moments after an accident, the most important thing is ensuring the safety of you and those around you. There is plenty of time to determine fault or decide how to tell your significant other—after you’ve done the following:

  • If possible, pull your vehicle over to the side of the road and turn on your hazard lights to warn other cars. If your car isn’t safe to drive, leave it where it is and place safety cones or flares around the car if you have them.
  • Call 911 if you or anyone else at the scene needs medical attention. Do not move seriously injured individuals.
  • Alert the police. Even if you feel that the accident is minor, having a police report to establish who is at fault can be invaluable when it’s time to file the claim. In some states, it’s required to call the police anyhow, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. If the police cannot come to the scene of the accident for some reason, you can complete a report yourself at the nearest police station.

Step 2: Get the Facts

Once everyone is safely on the side of the road, it’s time to gather the details that you need for a possible claim. Remember that this isn’t the time to discuss fault or how the accident may have happened. Treat this exchange of information as a business transaction. You don’t want anything you say to come back and haunt you during the claims process. Most importantly, never admit liability at the scene of an accident, even if you think you may be in the wrong. 

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), the most crucial information that drivers should exchange after an accident includes:

  • Full name and contact information
  • Insurance company and policy number
  • Driver’s license and license plate number
  • Type, color, and model of vehicle
  • Location of accident

Tip: If you don’t want to worry about reading the other driver’s handwriting, ask to take a quick picture of their driver’s license, license plate number, and insurance ID card with your phone

Other information that is nice to have (and may also be found in the police report) include:

  • Names and contact information of any passengers
  • Names and contact numbers of any eyewitnesses 
  • Pictures of accident 
  • Police officer’s name and badge number

Step 3: Notify Your Insurance––Even When It’s Not Your Fault

Most insurers require that you notify them in the event of an accident, even if you didn’t cause it. Your insurance company can be very helpful, whether or not the accident is your fault. Specifically, they can work with the other insurance provider in processing your claim fairly and quickly. Don’t confuse alerting your car insurance company with filing a claim. Merely reporting an accident does not increase your premium. And you’re better off letting them know than trying to tackle things on your own in case damages and fault become complicated.

Step 4: Make a Claim

Yes, making a claim is step 4, but first, consider whether making a claim makes good sense. Many people choose to pay out of pocket for minor accidents and steer clear of the insurance company altogether. Why? Often, an accident on your record (even if it isn’t your fault) can cause your rates to rise. Another reason you might choose to pay out of pocket is if your deductible is similar to or higher than the amount it will cost to fix your car without filing a claim. If the damage is less than $5,000 (depending on the state), you can even take your case to small claims court if it makes better financial sense. Look over your coverage options and get a repair estimate first to see where you stand. If you’ve found you can’t afford to pay your deductible but also can’t afford to be without your daily driver, this article may help. 

Who do I call? My insurance or theirs?

If you live in a no-fault state (see list below), file a claim with your own insurance company, regardless of who was at fault for the accident. With no-fault insurance, an insurance company is responsible for covering its policyholders’ personal injury-related expenses following an accident, regardless of fault. This coverage is also known as Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance. Another similar insurance is called MedPay or Medical Payments Insurance, and requirements vary by state. You can read more about no-fault states and insurance claims here.

List of No-Fault States 

  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah

If you live in one of the 34 other states (called at-fault states), you can make a claim with either your auto insurance company or the other driver’s insurer. As mentioned earlier, it’s always good to begin with your own insurance provider for any accident, regardless of fault. They can guide you best with the next steps. 

When you make a claim with your insurance company, it’s called a first-party claim. When you file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company (either directly or through your insurance company), it’s called a third-party claim. Not at fault for the accident and unsure whether you should file with your insurance company or theirs? Consider these pros and cons:

  • You won’t have to pay a deductible when filing with the other insurance provider. If you file a claim with your insurance provider, you may have to pay the deductible and wait for reimbursement after fault is found.
  • You may be eligible for a rental car from the other insurance provider, whereas a rental vehicle may not be covered under your own policy.

In the end, it’s better to at least begin with your insurance company first as you navigate the claims process

Coverage Terms to Be Familiar With

Anytime you have a conversation with an insurance agent, a lot of terms get thrown around. Here are some coverage terms you want to be familiar with during the claims process:

Collision Coverage

This part of your policy covers damage to objects (not animals or people) and vehicles due to a collision, regardless of who is at fault. Collision coverage also applies to hit-and-run accidents. You can read more about collision insurance here.

Motorist Bodily Injury Coverage (also referred to as Bodily Injury Liability Coverage)

As opposed to covering the damage to a vehicle, this type of liability insurance is the coverage used to pay the medical bills of anyone hurt in the accident if you are at fault or the person at fault is an underinsured or uninsured motorist. Each state sets the minimum amounts of liability coverage, and you can’t buy insurance without meeting state minimum requirements. This guarantees that medical expenses can be paid.

Uninsured Motorist Property Damage (UMPD) Coverage

If an underinsured or uninsured driver hits you, uninsured motorist property damage coverage covers the damage to your vehicle.

Will My Car Insurance Rates Go Up?

Stating that some insurance companies are more unfair than others, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found that many major insurance companies increased insurance rates after a not-at-fault claim. Remember that notifying your insurance company of an accident and asking clarifying questions to make a good decision before filing a claim is not the same as filing a claim. Feel free to ask your insurance provider questions. That’s what they are there for!

Step 5: Affirm Liability

There are several ways that insurance companies determine the at-fault party or parties. Either 1) both parties can be assigned a percentage of fault, and each party pays based on those percentages, or 2) the party who is assigned the highest percentage of fault is obligated to pay for all the damages. Regardless of what an insurance representative says to you, you must have something in writing from the other driver’s insurance company accepting liability (or fault) in the accident before you can rest easy and proceed with settling your claim.

Step 6: Get Your Vehicle Repaired 

Now that your claim has been filed and liability has been assigned, it’s time to make those car repairs and get you back on the road. You should expect the following:

  • The insurance company sends an insurance adjuster to look at the damages and determine how much your repairs should cost. The adjuster reports this information back to the insurance company.
  • You can choose from a list of recommended repair shops, or you can use your repair shop. Insurance companies provide recommended repair shops not only to make things more convenient for the policyholder but also to guarantee the quality of work.
  • If the accident is your fault, you may still be entitled to a rental car under your policy. If you aren’t at fault, your insurance company will work with the other driver’s insurance company to provide you one while your car is being repaired.

Step 7: Follow Up

No one will look out for you better than yourself, so it’s essential to keep tabs on where you are in the claims process by following up and keeping a record of all your calls, emails, and in-person transactions.

This may be a very trying time for you, and it’s easy to feel like things are beyond your control. However, you are protected during the claims process by something called the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act (UCSPA). If, for example, the claims process seems to be dragging on and on or you aren’t getting any response at all, insurers are legally bound to certain reasonable timelines. The UCSPA also protects you from other unjust practices on a state-to-state basis. 

If you feel that your claim is being mishandled and you cannot resolve things with your insurance company, you can call your state insurance department and speak to them about your issues.

Policy Claims and Fault: Quick Questions

How can I be sure that I’m treated fairly during the claims process?

As a policyholder, you do have rights. And these rights are protected at the state level by the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act. If you feel that you are being treated unjustly during the claims process, talk to your state insurance department to determine whether your issues are protected under this act and how to move forward.

What’s the difference between first-party and third-party claims?

When you file a claim with your own insurance company, you are making a first-party claim. When you file a claim with another driver’s insurance company, you are making a third-party claim.

What do I need to be aware of if I live in a no-fault state?

If you live in a state with no-fault insurance laws, each driver’s medical costs are covered by their own insurance policy. The at-fault driver still pays property damage claims.

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Updated October 21, 2020

Jeannette Wisniewski is a technology writer whose passion is encouraging people to engage with technology by making it more understandable and more interesting. Though she enjoys writing business copy for a wide range of subjects, she is most inspired by emerging tech and its applications. She is a graduate of San Jose State University, a Georgia Peach at heart, and happy to call Boise, ID home.