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9 costly mistakes to avoid after a car crash

Heading out on the road? Buckle up, drive safe -- and be prepared.

About 5.4 million crashes were reported to police in the United States in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As a result of these accidents, 2.2 million injuries and nearly 33,000 deaths occurred.

The total price tag for even a seemingly minor collision can add up – fast.

crash_mistakes“Most auto accidents result in damages well in excess of the $500 figure, (which is) the deductible in most auto insurance policies,” says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

Knowing what steps to take after you're in a crash can reduce your stress, speed up the auto insurance claims process, and lower the overall price you’ll pay for car repairs and medical treatment.

Here are nine costly mistakes to avoid following a car wreck:

1. Admitting fault. “You don’t know all the circumstances surrounding the crash,” says Shane Fischer, a personal injury attorney in Orlando, Fla. “The other driver could be partially responsible.” If the driver later sues you, claiming you caused the accident, the fact that you didn’t admit fault could prevent or limit that person from collecting money.

2. Not calling the police. If you're in a crash and don’t let the police know, no one can independently back up your story, Fischer says. Also, if a police report hasn't been filed, your insurance company may suspect you're trying to cover up some sort of fraud.

3. Not getting detailed information at the crash scene. It can be easy to overlook key information in the frenzy after a crash; later on, however, you’ll need to know details to fill out insurance claim forms.

Following a crash, gather the following: the names and addresses of all drivers and passengers involved; the make and model of each car; license plate numbers; driver's license numbers; insurance information for each vehicle, including the company name and policy number; names and phone numbers of any witnesses; and the name and badge number of the police officer who responded.

4. Not taking pictures. A crash can have a greater impact on your vehicle than first meets your eye. For accurate records, take pictures of all four sides of the car, plus the odometer, air bag and general crash scene. Share them with the insurer's claims adjuster to help assess the damage.

The pictures may help support your side if a claims dispute or lawsuit crops up. If you have a picture of a deployed air bag, you’ll be able to show the impact the accident had on your vehicle. Also, the odometer reading can help settle any confusion over the car’s mileage when negotiating the insurance claim.

5. Avoiding medical help. After a crash – especially a minor one – you may feel fine physically. However, the full effect of an accident often isn't felt until hours or even days afterward, says Joshua Ketover, a personal injury attorney in Garden City, N.Y. If you wait a few weeks to see a physician, it may be difficult to prove to your insurer that the crash triggered your injury.

Rather than waiting, ask for a medical exam immediately. Your doctor may find an injury you weren’t aware of, and the early detection can speed up the process for receiving medical payments from your insurer.

6. Not notifying your insurance company. “Some policies state a claim must be filed within a certain timeframe of an accident’s occurrence in order to be valid,” Barry says. If you don’t notify your insurer within that specified period, you may not be eligible to receive payment for repairs and injuries.

7. Not getting a copy of the police accident report. Since most insurance companies require a copy of the accident report, ask the police officer how to obtain one. Once you receive it, check it for accuracy and ask to have any errors corrected. If you don’t, a mistaken police report could be used to wrongly find you at fault for the crash.

8. Not knowing where to have the vehicle towed. If your car needs to be towed and you don’t have an auto shop in mind, it may end up at a storage facility, says Dan Young, senior vice president of insurance relations for the Carstar auto body repair group. Daily storage fees can range between $20 and $100; you’ll have to pay for another tow if you move the car to a repair shop.

To save on fees, know which repair shop you’ll want to use, Young says. Then call the shop and ask whether it has a tow service or can refer you to one.

9. Accepting the adjuster’s estimate immediately. After a crash, a claims adjuster will offer an estimate for the cost to repair your car. Before accepting it, get another estimate from the mechanic or auto shop of your choice. Then negotiate a total claim payment that will cover – to your satisfaction – the cost of getting your vehicle fixed and on the road again.

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