One minute, you’re driving, going about your day. Next thing you know, you’re on the side of the road (or worse, smack dab in the middle of the freeway). Traffic stops, and horns are honking.
A car rear-ended you … or maybe you rear-ended them.
It’s hard to tell.
Even the smallest fender bender can leave someone frazzled and unsure of what to do next. Or, if you were in a fender bender with no damage, someone (not you, of course) might suggest just riding off into the sunset, no car insurance information exchanged.
There are many reasons why that’s a bad idea (all rounded up right here, BTW), but if you’ve always wondered how to handle a seemingly minor car accident, well, we’re here to help.
Here’s a step-by-step guide of what to do after a fender bender.
1. Check to see if everyone’s OK.
Never mind damage to your car. Above all else, see if you, any passengers, or pets in the car are injured.
"After hitting another car, the first thing you'll want to do is make sure everyone in the car is physically safe and sound," Jennifer Kain Kilgore, an attorney and editor of personal injury website Enjuris.com, says. "Even a fender-bender can result in whiplash injuries, which can lead to headaches and muscle tenderness."
If anyone is hurt in the slightest, don’t hesitate to call 911.
2. Move your car or stay where you are.
"Depending on the severity of the accident, determine whether it is safer to move the car to the side of the road or stay where you are," Mike Kariotis, president of Chicago-based Insure on the Spot, says. "In most cases, it is safest to move away from traffic."
"If everyone is okay and the car is drivable, you should drive to the side of the road," Kilgore says. "Custom dictates that the other driver will stop as well."
3. Call the authorities.
Barring any injuries (where you call the authorities first), call the police to come to the scene of the accident and file a police report, regardless of who’s at fault. Wait for their arrival, and keep calm. Don’t worry about rubbernecking motorists or if the other driver’s temper is flaring. Let the police handle the situation.
4. Prepare for unexpected surprises.
Not every motorist is going to be cooperative during a fender bender — some simply drive off without checking for damage.
"If the other driver decides to simply speed away — or if it's a hit-and-run — call the police anyway," Kilgore says. "This is normally when you would exchange insurance information with the other driver. If it's just you stopping, then you will just give your side of the story to the cops in order to preserve the record and get the scene preserved for the insurance company."
Before you even exit your car, pay attention to details about the other car that the authorities and your insurance company can use to track the driver down and resolve the insurance claim or court case in your favor. Even remembering a partial license plate number helps.
"Try to remember any details you can about the other car," Kilgore says. "Was the car a specific color? Did it have rust? Certain bumper stickers? The police will have to use whatever you can remember to find the other vehicle."
5. Exchange information with the other party.
When the other driver does cooperate (they usually do), move to exchange personal and insurance information with them. First, check to see if they’re alright or if they need assistance, but don’t do or say anything incriminating, even if you were the one who caused the fender bender.
"Do not apologize or admit fault," Kariotis says. "No apologies – it’s better to leave any comments to your insurance company. Remember, even in a civil case, the other party can use your apology as an admission of guilt."
Kariotis says to obtain the other driver’s key information:
Car insurance information (company name, phone number, policy number)
Of course, you’ll provide the same information to them (don’t turn over your Social Security number, however. There are plenty of problems associated with giving those digits away, most notably identity theft.).
"If you or the other party involved do not have this readily available, contact your carrier," he says.
If, for any reason, the other driver tries to talk you out of getting the insurance or police involved, — say they were driving without insurance, or texting while driving — don’t give in to pleas or threats. Let the police handle the situation and draft an official report. Letting the accident go unreported means, among other things, that the other party can deny their involvement and refuse to pay for damages.
6. Document the scene.
Swapping info and waiting for the police isn’t enough. Take detailed photos of the scene for your records — not just of the damage to both cars, but also the surrounding area. Those pics might come in handy for an insurance claim or in traffic court.
"Take pictures of everything, if you can," Kilgore says. "Use your phone and snap pics of the car, the license plates, the damage, the road conditions, the weather, traffic, and anything else that looks relevant."
Again, don’t let the other driver bully you out of taking pictures of their car, your car, and/or the immediate surroundings. If they become irate, report the request or the aggression to the police when they arrive.
7. Gather up eyewitnesses.
Even when you kept your cool and paid attention, you might miss details of the accident that other pedestrians or motorists didn’t.
"If anyone else saw the accident, ask for their names and contact information so they can act as eyewitnesses if they agree to it," Kariotis says. "This is important to do, especially in hit-and-run cases when the other driver leaves the scene of the accident. Your insurance company may ask you questions about details you may not have thought about at the time of the chaos."
8. Cooperate with the police.
So now the police have arrived at the scene of the crash. Tell the officer(s) your side of the story. Let the other party tell theirs, for the purposes of the police report.
"When police arrive, answer any questions that they have and get medical attention if necessary," Kilgore says. "[They] will likely issue tickets there at the scene based on information provided, so make sure you are thorough."
One other big, important piece of advice? "Be honest. Don't embellish, and don't lie," Kilgore says.
The report should have the officer’s contact information on it, but if missing, ask for it directly.
9. Start the auto insurance claims process.
Now the insurance process begins.
"Whether you are at fault or not, you are required to contact your insurance company," Kariotis says."Contact the other driver’s company as well."
Next, formally file a claim. (Often, you can do so right through your insurance company’s mobile app.) Schedule an appointment with a claims adjustor, who will determine the extent of the damage and the cost to repair it.
"Your adjustor will study your policy and tell you how much money to which you are entitled [to]," Kilgore says.
Once you have the estimate, you can get your car fixed. After paying your car insurance deductible (the amount you agree to pay out of pocket), your policy will cover the rest. (In an ideal scenario where you were not at fault, your insurance company will get the other party to cover the deductible.)
Sometimes, your insurance company will direct you to one of their authorized body shops or garages for repairs. Still, you can choose your own shop; just make sure the claim will be honored.
10. Extra steps
Depending on state law, you might need to report the incident to the local Department of Motor Vehicles. You could also wind up in traffic court, and, depending on the severity of the fender bender, you might want to hire an accident attorney. True fender benders (read: minor) don’t always necessitate court or representation, but if you must put in a appearance, bring your police report and insurance claim information.
What happens after a major car accident? The protocol is surprising similar. You can find a first person play-by-play of how one auto insurance company handled a claim for a totaled car here.