What exactly do you do after a fender-bender?
June 12, 2011 6:13 PM   Subscribe

I feel like everybody else in America knows this, but what, precisely, do I need to do if I'm in a minor car accident?

A friend of mine was in a very minor fender-bender the other day, and it made me realize that, even though I've been driving for nearly 10 years, I have no idea what I would need to do if I were in a minor fender-bender. In a serious accident, I'd call 911 and the police and paramedics would do their thing. But suppose I'm in a minor fender-bender in which no one is hurt and damage is minor. What do I need to do?

Obviously, pull off the road and exchange information, but besides the driver's name, what information is needed? Do we sort out who was at fault at the scene of the accident? What is the threshold for when you should / should not call the police? Do you need to contact your insurance company from the side of the road, or can you do that later in the day? Any other advice?
posted by fogster to Law & Government (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In most states, you're required to contact the police. In Michigan, if the damage is over $100 (I believe this is still the amount) you are required to make a police report.

My advice:

Check for injuries, if there are any, attend to that first.

Call the police.

Never "sort out who is at fault' you could do or say something that would shift liability to you. If you're calling the police, let the other driver know that is the case, then get back into your car (or a safe place) and wait for the police to arrive. You can call your insurance company when you get home.
posted by tomswift at 6:18 PM on June 12, 2011

I've been in a fender bender where the driver at fault just offered to pay cash in order to keep the insurance companies out of the loop.

I doubt in the state of California cops would come to the scene of a fender bender. So you need to get the name off the other driver's license, the driver's license number, license plate number, model and make of car, and address and phone numbers of the other driver. Then contact your insurance company with this info and report what happened.

If it's under $500 worth of damage, many people prefer to settle it without involving insurance companies.
posted by zagyzebra at 6:24 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

It all depends on the attitudes of the drivers and the circumstances surrounding the accident.

I was recently in a semi-minor accident (no one was hurt, but my car wasn't drivable). I was pretty darn freaked out and had no idea what to do, so I called my father-in-law. He instructed me to call the insurance company, and they would tell me if we needed to call the police. My insurance company, once I got in touch with them, let me know that the police were only really needed if there was a disagreement about the circumstances of the accident. Luckily, despite the fact that I was freaked out and shaken up, the other driver was fairly calm and reassuring (it may have helped that he was a neighbor, and in fact, the accident happened right in front of my house).

So what we ended up doing was just both calling our insurance companies and filing our claims, after exchanging information. I gave my statement to my insurance company, presumably he made his statement to his insurance company, and the two entities worked out whatever they needed to work out.

Now, I've also been in a situation where I barely tapped a car, and they insisted on calling the police. Fine. The cop came out, and he couldn't even see any damage on the other car. The other driver wanted to know if I would get a citation. The cop wrote me a warning in response :).
posted by litnerd at 6:27 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: The one thing that every cop, tow truck driver and paramedic I know says about minor accidents is that, if it's possible to do so, move your cars to the side of the road. It's not a murder investigation, and the police don't need to keep the scene pristine. It helps keep traffic flowing and you and the other driver out of danger from passing cars.
posted by xingcat at 6:31 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few months ago, I researched and wrote an article on what to do after a car accident. (self link: http://www.bcliving.ca/self/what-to-do-after-car-accident-bc). I think it's important to consider how to protect yourself against whiplash and to create a paper trail.

Moving your car out of the way and not getting out until you are CERTAIN it's safe are important. A guy I grew up with died after getting out of his car to direct traffic, so that's always stayed with me.
posted by acoutu at 6:42 PM on June 12, 2011

File a police report, and call your insurance company. I have never heard of a car accident since 1990 or so that managed to be below the "file a report" threshold - I once hit a barn at 4mph and it cost $500 to fix it.

I've also been in a minor hit-and-run (we got hit as my sister was opening her door in a parking lot, the kids got out, saw what they did to the door, jumped back in the car and took off while we were still in "I can't believe they almost killed you" mode) and the police took the report and, because the car was old and only had liability on it, our insurance company didn't care.

Out here, the only time the police don't come out is when they make an announcement - usually during severe storms. I've never been in a fender bender in a heavily populated place.
posted by SMPA at 6:47 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The California DMV says this:
You or your insurance agent, broker, or legal representative must do the following:

Move your vehicle off the street or highway. If you do not move your vehicle or have it removed from the street or highway, any peace officer or authorized personnel may have your vehicle removed and impounded. (CVC §§22651 and 22651.05)

Pull over to the side of the road and stop if you kill or injure an animal. Try to find the owner. If you can’t find the owner, call the nearest humane society or call the police or CHP. Do not try to move an injured animal. Never leave an injured animal to die.

Try to find the owner if you hit a parked vehicle or other property. Identify yourself before you leave. If you can’t find the owner, leave a note with your name and address (and the name and address of the owner of the vehicle you are driving) in the vehicle or securely attached to it. Report the accident without delay to the city police or, in unincorporated areas, to the CHP.

Report the accident to the police or CHP within 24 hours of the accident if someone is killed or injured.

Report the accident to the DMV within 10 days, if there is more than $750 in damage to the property of any person, or anyone is injured (no matter how slightly) or killed.

A recount of an accident I was (sort of) the cause of, but not involved in (I was crossing in a crosswalk, a car was waiting for me to cross & got rear-ended at about 5 mph):
- they both pulled off the road
- they made sure everyone was alright
- they exchanged contact information and insurance information
- the driver that got hit got my contact info, since I had seen the whole thing
- they decided both cars were basically ok, but no one could remember what the rule was about reporting. one of them had the non-emergency police number on their phone, called, and was told to file a report when they got home, but if there was no debris on the road and no injuries they weren't going to send anyone out.
posted by devilsbrigade at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2011

Take pictures - of everything and everyone. Positions of the cars, what people looked liked afterwards , damage done if any. If you don't carry a cellphone around that takes decent pictures carry a cheap camera in your glove compartment.

I was once in a fender bender where the car in front stopped suddenly at an intersection and I read ended them in a very minor way. No damage and no injuries. It was a set-up. Several weeks later they sued my insurance company for major facial damage and dental work - I emphasize - there were no injuries at all. The insurance company settled for 15K and my rates went up.

Take pictures.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 7:09 PM on June 12, 2011

FYI - User's profile says he's in Boston, MA.
posted by marsha56 at 7:16 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: If you only have liability coverage (you don't have full coverage including collision), you may also need to call the other party's insurance carrier to file a claim against them. If you just call your own insurance carrier, they're only concerned about damage you caused - they won't be concerned about damage to your own car. If both parties have the same insurance carrier, you need to call the insurance company twice, one for your own adjuster and again to file a claim against the other person.

If your car gets towed to a towing yard, you need to contact your insurance company immediately and figure out how to get it out of there (either to a body shop, junkyard, or your private property). After a week or so the bill will be in the thousand dollar range.
posted by meowzilla at 7:25 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: Agree with everyone above who said take pictures, especially of their license plate. Write down their license plate too. Get their driver's license number if possible and insurance number. Be aware they may lie about insurance.

A few months ago, I was waiting to turn left at an intersection and had someone plow into me at probably 35 mph. She thought about driving off (it was pretty obvious) but pulled over into the parking lot I pulled into. She tried to get me to shrug it off as "there isn't really any damage" but I really wasn't having it given the force of the impact (my partner's glasses flew off his face and every drawer in the car popped open). My partner had the foresight to write down her license plate (thank goodness) while we exchanged names, phones and insurance. Which she lied about.

My car cost over $5000 to repair in the end. It turns out that she didn't have insurance (although she went home and tried to set some up, that insurance agent was glad we took such careful notes). My uninsured motorist policy paid for it in the end.

We also talked to everyone we could at the intersection (it was a busy one) and it turns out that the convenience store we pulled over at had seen more than a few accidents and had written down exactly what they saw.

We called the police so they had it on file.

So yeah:

Pull off to where it's safe.
Exchange info.
Write down their license plate.
Take pictures.
Talk to any witnesses, get their contact info.
Call your insurance agent as soon as you can.
Watch yourself for injuries, in the end, you are so much more important than your car.
posted by ugf at 8:06 PM on June 12, 2011

Its really hard to estimate the extent of damages, in monetary terms, on the scene. Whatever your estimate is, multiply by 2x-3x. Even minor-looking dents can turn out to be $1500+. Modern auto finishes (with clearcoats, pearlescence, metallics, etc.) require a lot of materials and shop time to work on.

So the only time I *wouldn't* file a police report is if I could literally fix the damage myself with one of those tiny bottles of touchup paint you can get from the dealer, and a toothpick to apply it.
posted by Hither at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: You might want to look at your state's motor vehicle accident report form in advance to figure out what you need to record at an accident if the police don't take care of it for you. Maybe even have a copy in your glove box.

Keep in mind, even if you have damages over your state's threshold, that doesn't mean the police will actually come when you call them. When my car was totaled during a major snowstorm, the 911 operator said that, unless there were injuries, we should just take care of filing the report ourselves. And when I got the form from the police station a couple days later, it was surprisingly hard to remember details like the color of the other persons car, because it hadn't occurred to me at the scene to write it down.
posted by Hither at 8:56 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: Ask your insurance company if they have a checklist.
Some have little cards or forms you can put in your glovebox.

They can be invaluable, even if you are in a minor fender-bender, remembering all the things you are supposed to do can be near impossible.

You can also google one up, but the insurance specific ones often have handy phone numbers on them.
posted by madajb at 9:07 PM on June 12, 2011

If you carry a smartphone, many large insurance carriers have a how-to built into their mobile apps to walk you through recording/reporting an accident, and you can also get third-party apps with similar functionality.
posted by evoque at 10:15 PM on June 12, 2011

Best answer: I've said it many times here in the Green. Call the police. No matter how minimal the damage, you do not have an official witness without an officer at the scene. From personal experience, I was rear ended, we passed papers. I then called my insurance, and they proceeded to investigate the claim. At that point the other driver said he was never there, never had an accident, didn't rear-end anyone, etc. The insurance company said that withut an officer's report it was just my word against his.
posted by Gungho at 6:17 AM on June 13, 2011

You will be tempted not to wait for the police - it can take a long time for them to show up. But wait, even if the other driver seems super nice and cool. You may need the report for insurance, and you really do need it just to be sure you have a record of what happened. And take photos before you move the vehicles.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:53 AM on June 13, 2011

I was involved in a minor accident in NYC last summer. I was maneuvering around a double-parked car and a third car hit me while pulling out of a parking space. I pulled over a couple of spots up, and walked up to the driver.

The guy said "this is your fault, buddy" and said I was speeding. This made me very, very angry because a) This was in a 30mph zone, and there is no way you can maneuver through a tight space - there was a truck parked across the street from the double-parked car - going that fast. I'd say I was going 15 mph, 20 at most. And b) I quite clearly had the right of way.

It was entirely obvious to me that he said in an attempt to frighten me into agreeing to pay for his damage without getting insurance involved. I refused to buy it and we called the cops, who came promptly and determined that the driver of the double-parked car was at fault. They filed a report with all our information, which I obtained a copy of at the precinct house about a week later. I took several pictures of the scene, just in case, but that proved not to be necessary.

The damage to my car was very minimal and entirely cosmetic - I actually drove to Vermont straight away after the accident. There was a small dent above the right passenger side wheel, and the glass by the headlight was smashed (the light itself still worked, though). I didn't bother fixing the dent - my car is old and pretty dinged up already, it's expensive to fix that stuff and I'm mistrustful of insurance companies. The glass cost $30 to fix. I called my insurance company to make sure I didn't have to file a claim, and they said I didn't, so I just paid for it myself.

That was pretty much it. I think these things tend to play out in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the accident and the people involved.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:22 AM on June 13, 2011

Best answer: In MA you are required to call the police. They get really snippy if you call a tow company before you call them. There is a form they'll give you to fill out, copies of which go to the police dept and to your insurance company.

Write down the exact location of the crash, date and time of day, which direction everyone was going and how fast, etc.; basically you want to capture as much detail as you can. If possible get the names and phone numbers of any witnesses (you may not need this, but it'll be handy if there's a dispute.) Photos are a good idea too.
posted by ook at 12:56 PM on June 13, 2011

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