Fending Off the High Cost of a Fender Bender
Life + Money

Fending Off the High Cost of a Fender Bender

‘Tis the season for fender benders. Roughly 13 percent of car accidents occur in parking lots, according to Nationwide Insurance, and during the holiday shopping season those lots can get crowded and drivers can get distracted. Dangerous winter weather has already made an appearance in many parts of the country, too – adding to the risks.

Getting into a car accident – even a minor one – can really shake you up. It can also have a big impact on your finances if you don’t take the proper steps to document an insurance claim and protect yourself from potential lawsuits.

Odds are, even the best drivers may be in a wreck at some point in their driving career. Claimed economic losses after an accident grew 8 percent in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, to more than $10,500, according to the Insurance Research Council.

In the unlikely event of an extreme injury or even a fatality, the police will make sure the scene is well documented and that they’ve taken the information of all involved parties and potential witnesses. If you’re involved in a wreck like that, follow these steps, but be sure to call a lawyer as well to find out your rights and any potential liability.

For more minor car crashes, here’s what to do.

ONE: Watch what you say.
Being polite to the other driver can do a lot to diffuse what can be a very emotional situation. If the person looks like he might need medical attention, be sure to ask if he’s OK. However, don’t speak about how the accident occurred or who might be to blame.

“Don’t discuss details with anyone except police officers, the insurance company, and your attorney,” says Christin Wiley, a personal risk advisor at William Blount & Associates, a law firm in Knoxville, Tenn.

TWO: Use your smartphone.
First, take pictures of all THE involved cars, as well as the scene of the incident. Be sure to photograph any property damage or skid marks on the road. You’ll also want to get a picture of your dashboard, showing how many miles your care has.  

Related: Obamacare Could Drive Down Your Car Insurance Costs

Many insurance companies also have apps, which you can use to begin filing a claim immediately. The sooner you get the process started, the better.

THREE: Exchange information.
You can also use your phone to take photos of the other driver’s license and insurance info. That way you won’t lose it or make a mistake writing it down. Be sure to get the other person’s information, even if it looks like the damage is really minor.

“The damage is always worse than the lay person think it is,” says William Crowley, worldwide auto claim manager with the Chubb Group.

If there are witnesses at the scene, be sure to take down their contact information as well.

FOUR: Call the police.
Many insurance companies require a police report in order to file a claim. If officers come to the scene, they’ll do their own assessment of the accident and create official documentation, which could be important later if there’s a lawsuit. Take down the officers’ name and badge number, and ask for a copy of the accident report.

Related: 5 Things Consumers Don’t Know About Car Insurance

Rather than assigning blame in your conversation with the police officer, just convey the facts as you remember them.

On private property, such as a driveway or parking lot, police may not appear at the scene unless there are injuries. You may also be unable to get a police officer to the site in some busy cities like Los Angeles or Las Vegas, or when there’s a snowstorm or other event preoccupying the officers. In that case, go to the police department, or its website, to at least make an incident report with them to get the accident on record.

FIVE: Get medical attention right away.
If you think you’ve sustained any injuries, you’ll want to go to the emergency room and get checked out as soon as possible. Claimants can run into trouble proving an injury occurred during a car accident if they allow days to pass between the wreck and documenting the injury.

If the impact was enough to set off an airbag, it’s worth a visit to your doctor, says G. Grant Dixon III, an Illinois injury attorney. “The [human] body has been developed over time to endure an injury in the short term to survive, and you may be running on adrenaline right after an accident,” he says. “You may have pain and injury you don’t even realize is there.”

SIX: Find out where your car is headed and who’s paying for storage.
Most municipalities have contracts with towing companies that will haul your car away from the scene of an accident if it’s not drivable. Unless directed otherwise, these companies will typically take the car to their lot, where it will accrue daily storage charges – which can add up fast. Before they leave, find out whether your insurer will cover those charges.

If not, have the car towed to a mechanic (who will likely charge lower storage fees than the tow yard), or to your home until it can be assessed and repaired.

SEVEN: Wait to get your car repaired.
If your car is towed to an auto body shop, the mechanics may push you to get it fixed as soon as possible. Don’t do anything until a claims inspector from your insurance company can take a look at it.

Otherwise, you may be on the hook for repairs that could have been covered by insurance. Your policy may cover the costs of a rental car while yours is in the shop, but be sure to read the small print to find out what type of car is covered and how long you can use it.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: