5 essential steps to take after a car crash

You have just crashed into another car -- or a vehicle has banged into you.

A lot can happen between the moment you step out of the car to examine the damage, and the instant you drive away from the scene.

steps to take after a car crash During this time, the steps you take determine how smoothly the car insurance claim process unfolds.

Auto insurance policies spell out the duties of policyholders in the aftermath of an accident, says Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute (III), an industry group whose mission is to improve public understanding of insurance. You can find that information inside the policy itself.

"If the policyholder is not in compliance with those duties, then the insurance company may not provide coverage," McChristian says.

Talk to your insurance agent to make sure you understand your responsibilities. Completing the next five steps should keep you in compliance with most policies.

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steps to take after a car crash call police 1. Call the police

Of course, your first step is always to make sure nobody in either vehicle was hurt, and to move your car out of harm's way. If someone is injured, cover her or her with a blanket.

Once you have taken those steps, pull out your cellphone and call the police.

"You want the accident to be officially reported," McChristian says. "Even if the damage to the vehicles involved is minor, it's wise to call police."

If there were injuries, tell the police, who will notify the nearest medical personnel, according to III.  

In some cities, police may not respond to minor crashes. However, McChristian notes another reason why it is still a good idea to call police. "A bystander may have witnessed the crash and called police," she says. "If you drove off without making the call, you may be accused of leaving the scene of an accident."

If police do arrive, write down the police officer's name, badge number and department, as well as the accident's incident number, says Janet Patrick, spokeswoman for the Illinois Insurance Association.  "The police officer may ask you to sign papers following the crash investigation," she says, referring to crash report documents or citations. "These are the only documents you should sign at the scene of the accident."

Also, if anyone was injured, make sure to tell the police officer. Ask the officer how you can get a copy of the accident report for your records. It’s likely you’ll need this if you file a claim.

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steps to take after a car crash exchange info 2. Exchange important information

While waiting for the police, make sure to get the names and addresses of the other driver, all passengers and any witnesses.

McChristian says getting this information up front can help prevent fraud later on, so be sure to ask for the other driver's license number, name, address, phone number and email address.

Also ask to see the other driver's insurance identification card, Patrick says.

"Identify the name of the insurance company and the coverage expiration date," Patrick says. Record the policy number, insurer's address and contact number.

Although it’s good to exchange key information, remember not to go overboard, Patrick says.

"Don’t discuss fault -- who caused the crash, how it could have been avoided -- with the other driver," she says.

Also, avoid disclosing sensitive information, such as your Social Security number or financial information. It’s best not to discuss your policy limits or other coverage details with the driver. Keep that information between you and your insurance agent.

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steps to take after a car crash record details 3. Record details about the other vehicle

In addition to gathering the driver's information, document the make, model and license plate of the other vehicle.

"This is good information to have, especially if discrepancies arise during the claim process," Patrick says.

A few quick cellphone pictures of the car and its license plate can help you record this information. 

"The same information can also be found on the police report," Patrick says.

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steps to take after a car crash take notes and pictures 4. Take notes and pictures of the scene

Documenting damage at the scene of the accident -- along with specifics regarding the crash -- can help the insurance company process your claim, says Lori Conarton, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of Michigan.

"With cellphone cameras, it's easy to take photos to send to your agent or company," she says.

Patrick recommends recording all relevant details surrounding the accident as soon as possible.

"Write down accident details -- how it happened, time, date, location, weather conditions -- while they are still fresh in your mind," she says.

If there are injuries, III also recommends that you take note of them as well as where the injured parties were sitting in the car at the time of the accident. It may help to draw a diagram of the accident.

Many insurance companies -- including State Farm, Allstate, Liberty Mutual and others -- now offer mobile apps with checklists that can help you zero in on the information you need to record after an accident. You can even upload photos of the accident scene.

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steps to take after a car crash call insurer 5. Call your insurer

Finally, once all details have been resolved at the accident scene, make one more phone call.

"Call your insurance agent as soon as possible after an accident," Conarton says.

Your agent will tell you what information he or she needs. However, it’s likely to include:

  • A description of what happened, including the damage incurred by all parties.
  • Names and addresses of everyone involved.
  • Information about any tickets issued by police.

Conarton says time is of the essence.

"There may be a time limit for filing a claim, and you want to get it on the track for processing," she says.

McChristian says such time limits vary from insurer to insurer. Some simply request "prompt" notification. Others may specify a number of days, such as seven days, she says.

Talk to your insurance agent to find out which time limit applies to your policy.

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