When to report a car accident to an insurance company

Consumer Reports News: July 18, 2013 06:08 AM

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They are called "accidents" because they are unexpected and unintentional, and as the saying goes, accidents happen. In fact, research shows that drivers can expect to be in a claim-worthy accident at least once a decade. Before your next fender bender, though, be sure you understand when you should inform your insurance company and when you should resist the temptation to put in for a claim and pay out of pocket.

When a crash occurs, there are numerous things to think through and do. After a car accident, if possible, move your vehicle safely off or to the side of the road; turn on flashers; check for injuries; summon medical help as needed; and call the police.

From the insurance perspective, obtain the name, address, phone number, driver's license number, plate number, and insurance information of any other drivers involved in the accident, along with the names of anyone with injuries and any witnesses. But don't argue over who is at fault or admit blame. (Learn about car insurance.)

If possible, take photos of the scene (a cell-phone camera can come in handy) and draw a diagram showing the cars' positions. (We have found some smart-phone apps that can help after a car crash.)

Should you report the fender bender?
If the accident involves another vehicle, as about 7 in 10 accidents do, then contact your insurance company. In speaking with experienced insurance agents, we were told the promise of seeking a private arrangement between drivers seldom works out. It may seem reasonable at the time, but the car damage may be more severe than it appears and soft-tissue injuries often don't manifest until a day or two later. Of course, false claims are also a concern. If you don't report the accident in a timely and detailed manner, the insurance company will be limited in providing the protections for which you have long been paying.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) provides a wallet-cringing reality check on repair costs with its assessment of low-speed crash damage. In a staged 10-mph crash that had a 2010 Toyota Corolla rear-end a 2010 Toyota RAV4, the IIHS found the visible damage to be very slight. Yet, the Corolla had more than $3,800 in repairs and the RAV4 suffered $6,000 of harm. Even the cheapest damage in 14 such trials by the IIHS involving seven vehicle pairings produced almost $3,000 in total losses—six times the typical $500 collision deductible.

When it is less clear
A one-car accident involving just your vehicle and/or property creates a hazier situation. In some cases, depending on state law and your policy, minor accidents may be "forgiven" and not impact your insurance premium. This is especially true for long-time customers with a blemish-free driving record. However, a significant payout will likely have the bean counters considering you a profit risk and may adjust your premiums accordingly.

Unfortunately, it's impossible for consumers to know in advance how much their premiums will increase, and for how long, to weigh that against a claim payout. Of course, if a solo crash is well beyond a driveway mishap, see the steps above for chronicling the accident and reporting to ensure support for vehicle repair and medical care.

When you shouldn't report
The only time when you should choose not to report an accident to your insurer is when it is a low-speed, single-car mishap, such as backing into a fence or garage. If the damage is close to your collision deductible amount and clearly there isn't an injury concern, you may skip the reporting.

Jeff Bartlett

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