So You Got into an Accident. Now What?

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: February 4, 2021

Auto accidents can be stressful and a bit scary. The stress is only amplified because there are many details to retain to ensure being made whole afterward. While having an accident is certainly not in anyone’s plan, having a plan for what to do after one is essential.

After an accident, steps must be taken to protect yourself legally and financially. If you keep a checklist similar to this one, you can save yourself much time, energy, frustration (and money).

Nobody ever plans for an accident to occur, but when that time comes, there’s a whole lot that you have to be prepared to do. Before you ever get into an accident, it’s important to know exactly what you should be doing to respond properly and ensure that your insurance gets sorted out properly. Knowing what to do helps you avoid liability when it isn’t your fault, and it will make the whole situation much less stressful for you.

While a crash may scare you and maybe even make you angry, it’s important to remain cool after a crash occurs. Even if it was the other driver’s fault, it’s likely that they didn’t intentionally cause you to crash. Not only is it unfair to unload your anger and frustration on the other driver, but it’s also unproductive. Instead, focus on getting the information you need and ensuring that your damages will be covered so that you aren’t left picking up the bill later on.

Ten Post-Accident Strategies

The following steps should be taken in the event of an accident. The first ones apply to any collision; the later ones become important if you sustained any injuries in the crash.

Check the Well Being of All Involved

Much more important than vehicle damage or determination of fault is evaluating all drivers and passengers’ physical condition. What it will take to get your car fixed can certainly wait.

Get a Police Report

Getting law enforcement involved to document the incident is vital to provide you a resource moving forward. Without a report prevents adjudication of any future claims from deteriorating into a “he said, she said” situation.

An official accident report will help you substantiate an insurance claim. Although it may not establish a clear declaration of fault, it will be of great benefit to your insurance company as they begin their investigation.

In the event of a minor collision, an official report may not be necessary, but you will still want to gather as much information about the incident and the parties as you can.

Getting a Copy of an Accident Report

Speak to Witnesses

If there are observers to the accident who are willing to get involved, speak to them about what they saw. Take detailed notes of what they remember or, better yet, record their account on your cellphone. Be sure to obtain their contact information if your insurance company or other investigators wish to speak to them later.

If possible, acquiring witness accounts should be done as soon after the occurrence as possible. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to have their input, so talk to them quickly. They may not have the time or patience to remain until after the police arrive.

Contact Your Insurance Carrier

Your insurance card will likely have an emergency number you can call in the event of an accident. The representative there will prove very helpful in instructing you on the next steps, including securing a tow truck (if necessary) and direct numbers to the claim specialists you will be dealing with very soon.

Gather as Much Data as You Can for Your Own Records

Don’t trust your memory in a situation as stressful and an environment as chaotic as an accident scene. Here’s where that cellphone will come in far more helpful than for just playing Candy Crush.

You will want to record (at minimum) the following information:

Use your camera to document everything about the accident scene, including the condition of all vehicles. If you are one of the six people on the planet without a cellphone and you can’t find a passing ten year old to borrow one from, keep a disposable camera in your car.

If you do have a phone, there is a wide selection of apps available to help. Many of these have checklists built in to prompt you as to what information to gather. There are all-purpose versions available in your phone’s app stores, and some insurance companies have them available, too. This allows the advantage of initiating your claim directly from the accident scene.

After Leaving the Accident Scene

In the days and weeks following the accident, there are still lots of details to attend to.

Assess Your Own Condition

In the adrenalin-fueled moments surrounding an accident, injuries often go unnoticed. In fact, the discomfort of soft tissue damage may not become evident until a day or two after the collision.
If you believe that you were injured in the accident, see a medical professional. Get copies of all doctor’s reports and receipts for any fees paid as you may be repaid for them later.

Hurt in an Accident? Here’s What to Do

Obtain a Copy of Your Accident Report

Contact the office of the law enforcement agency that wrote up your accident report. Your insurance carrier will likely request one, and you’ll want one for your records as well. Don’t attempt to get the record the day after the accident, as it will take 24-48 hours to appear in the system. You should also expect to pay a nominal administrative fee. Add the receipt of this transaction to your records for possible future reimbursement.

Once you have it, compare the official report to your own records, noting any discrepancies.

How (and When) to File an Insurance Claim

Speak Again with Your Insurance Company

Initiate communication with your insurance company, specifically with the adjuster who will be handling your case. Attempt to build a positive rapport as this will be someone you will be speaking to regularly in the days and weeks to come, and you definitely want them as an ally.

Unless there is irrefutable evidence that you were at fault, make no claims to the adjuster. As much as you would hope your insurance would have your best interests in mind, that’s probably not the case. An insurance company’s first fiduciary responsibility is to its shareholders. The reality is that they will pay you as little as possible, no matter how long you have been faithfully paying premiums.

Continue to Maintain Your Records

Keep a journal of each step of the process and a file with receipts for all expenses. This especially extends to changes in your condition if you were injured. Don’t forget to log mileage to doctors, lost time from work, and any out-of-pocket expenses for medications or copays. Be sure that all of your treatments and related therapies are complete before discussing settlement.

Be Prepared to be Patient

Be prepared to face many setbacks during the settlement process. The resolution of a situation that only took seconds to transpire can take weeks (or even months) to complete. Bodies take longer to heal, cars take longer to repair, and checks take longer to be cut than estimates would lead you to believe. You will need the patience to weather these delays and to prevent the possibility of accepting a less than adequate settlement.

Another note—If progress is slow or you perceive undue delays or resistance from the insurance company, you may consider contacting an attorney to weigh your options.

While You Wait

If the damage to your vehicle was extensive, prepare for the possibility that it will be declared “totaled” by the insurance company. Before that determination and subsequent settlement offer, be sure you have a clear idea of what your car is worth. The insurance company’s first offer will be based on “fair market value,” but this number may not reflect what your car is worth.

To get the most accurate value for your vehicle, do the following:

consult a site like Kelley Blue Book for the estimated value of a vehicle with the same mileage and in the same conditions as yours before the accident. Try to provide photos of the interior taken before the damage was done. It’s a good idea to take pictures regularly just in case. To further bolster your value claim, include a list of repairs, maintenance, and customizations done to the vehicle throughout your ownership.

With all of this information, you should be able to calculate a fair idea of what your totaled vehicle is actually worth. Some of the money is removed from the amount to cover your auto loan, and whatever is left is passed on to you. In many instances, it’s not enough to buy another vehicle of the same quality, and you’ll be left paying more out of pocket to get another vehicle or settling for a lower-quality option. That’s why many car owners pay for gap insurance, which ensures you get the same quality or better vehicle if yours is totaled.

If you do a thorough job of documenting your vehicle after an accident, you’ll have an easier time getting your money in the end, and you won’t have to worry about being blamed for an accident that wasn’t your fault.

If you have more questions about what to do after a crash, check out our After Accident Guide.