What to do if you’re the at-fault driver in a car accident.
If you’re the at-fault driver in a car accident, it means the insurance companies have determined you were the one responsible for the accident
In most states, the burden of financial responsibility is on the at-fault driver
But this is what insurance is for! Assuming you’re properly covered, your insurance will cover the damage or injuries you caused
No one wants to get into a car accident, but they do happen — and the consequences can be devastating. According to the National Safety Council, there were some 4.6 million medically consulted injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents in 2017, and the total cost of injuries from car accidents was $433.8 billion. Then there’s also the astronomical costs of the property damage resulting from car accidents.
Car accidents can be even more upsetting if you’re the one who was at fault, whether you weren’t looking while you backed out of your driveway, or you didn’t stop in time and drove right into the bumper of the car in front of you. Maybe you didn’t even think you were at fault, but your insurer determined you were.
You may be feeling guilty about causing an accident, or anxious about what the fallout will be. But don’t panic, this is exactly why you have car insurance in the first place. We’ll walk you through what to do after an at-fault accident.
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Most states follow a “fault” system when it comes to car insurance, meaning that, after an accident, the driver who is determined to be at fault is financially responsible for any damage or injury they cause.
Fault is determined by the drivers’ insurance companies after an accident — they’ll look at the police report that was taken at the scene, as well as information like statements from drivers and witnesses and photos of the accident in order to determine who was at fault.
Some states use a percentage-based system for determining fault in a car accident, also called comparative negligence. You might be found responsible for 70% of an accident while the other driver is responsible for 30%, meaning the money the other driver gets from your insurance company will be reduced by the amount they were found to be responsible.
If you’re found to be at-fault in an accident, it means that your insurance company is responsible for paying for the damage or injuries sustained by the other driver or drivers and their passengers.
First of all, immediately after an accident you should follow all the same steps you would in any other accident, even if you believe you’re responsible. Those steps are:
Call 911. Even if no one seems seriously injured, first responders will be able to evaluate everyone. And the police report will likely be the most important factor in determining who was at fault in the accident.
Collect all the required information. That includes names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone involved, as well as insurance provider names and policy numbers. You should get the names of any witnesses who saw the accident, license plate numbers for all the cars and badge numbers for the responding officers.
Document the accident. Photograph everything, including damage to vehicles, property, injuries and license plates. You should also take photos of the accident location, and even diagram the accident while it’s still fresh in your memory.
File a claim. Your insurer will work with the other party’s insurance to determine who was at fault, and how much of the damage insurance will cover. Even if you’re determined to be at fault, your collision coverage will still cover damage to your own vehicle.
Stay on top of the process. You can check in with your insurance company to get updates about your claim, find out if there are local repair shops they want you to use, and submit any bills or medical records they need.
One important note: Even if you believe you’re responsible for a car accident, don’t announce it to the other drivers or the responding police officers. There may have been factors you didn’t know about, and it’s up to the insurance companies to determine who was at fault. Just state the facts, be honest and upfront and allow the process to move forward.
Whatever you do, don’t flee the scene of an accident. Leaving the scene of an accident before police arrive could turn a normal fender bender into a much more serious offense.
Your insurance exists to protect you from the financial burden after an accident, so this is exactly what it’s meant for. In fact, this is why almost every state requires drivers to have at least a minimum amount of insurance. Your liability coverage is the backbone of your insurance, it covers the costs when you damage property or injure someone with your vehicle. So if you’re the at-fault driver in an accident, your liability coverage is what will pay out to the other driver.
But will your insurance cover you if you're the at-fault driver? The answer depends on what kind of coverage you have. If you’ve sustained injuries in an accident and you were the at-fault driver, your health insurance should cover you. If you have disability insurance, that will also kick in to cover any lost wages while you recover.
And if you have collision insurance, which goes hand-in-hand with comprehensive insurance, damage to your own vehicle will be covered too. Collision insurance covers repairs to your car after an accident, regardless of who was at fault. So even if you’re the reason you have a huge dent in your passenger-side door, your insurance will cover that, assuming you have collision coverage.
One caveat: Collision insurance requires you to pay a deductible before it kicks in. So if your deductible is $500 and the cost to repair your car is $1200, insurance will only cover $700.
The truth is that an at-fault accident will probably raise your rates. What will happen is that the next time your policy term is about to expire, when your insurer offers you the option to renew, it will likely be for more than what you pay now. In fact, one study found that making just one claim for an at-fault incident could raise your rates by 41%.
But the amount your rates will rise after an at-fault claim will depend on other factors, like the circumstances and severity of the accident and your past driving history. If your rates rise significantly after an accident, you may want to shop around and compare quotes from other carriers to see if another car insurance company might be more forgiving — just make sure to disclose the accident when you’re applying for new coverage.
A good thing about accidents on your driving record is that they don’t affect your insurance forever.
Most car insurance companies will only look at the past 3-5 years of your driving history when calculating your rates, so after a certain amount of time, your at-fault accident will “fall off” your history and won’t factor into your premiums any longer, assuming you continue to maintain a clean record going forward.
Accident forgiveness is an optional car insurance add-on that allows you to pay a little more each month in exchange for the guarantee that your rates won’t go up after your first at-fault accident. Some insurance providers offer accident forgiveness as a loyalty perk.
If you have accident forgiveness as part of your policy and you’re the at-fault driver in an accident, you won’t need to worry about a rate increase. But accident forgiveness isn’t available to everyone, to qualify for accident forgiveness you usually need to have a clean driving record, meaning no accidents in your driving history.
Anna Swartz is a Managing Editor at Policygenius in New York City, and an expert in auto insurance. Previously, she was a senior staff writer at Mic, writing about news and culture. Her work has appeared in The Dodo, AOL, HuffPost, Salon and Heeb.
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