You've been in a fender-bender. Your slightly damaged vehicle is blocking traffic. The guy in the other vehicle is screaming obscenities at you.
The answer to "What next?" may seem like a simple one. But according to a survey by State Farm Insurance, many consumers disagree about the steps to take following an automobile accident -- especially about whether you should say you're sorry or whether you should report the accident to your auto insurance company.
"People are confused," says Jenny Li, editor in chief of State Farm's auto learning center, which provides consumers with information about auto insurance. "We get people who wonder 'Is it against the law if I don't call my agent -- is it a law or just a responsibility?' "
State Farm surveyed 1,009 auto insurance consumers about how they would react following an accident. Among the key findings:
• Fifty percent of men and 40 percent of women would pull over to help after witnessing an accident in a bad neighborhood.
• Seventy-four percent would report the accident to their insurance company even if the other drivers suggested otherwise.
• Eighty-nine percent who damaged a parked car would leave a note, and 80 percent would report the accident to their insurance company.
• Fifty-six percent said that apologizing at the scene of an accident does not mean a person is admitting fault, while 32 percent believes that saying, "I'm sorry" admits faults and implies legal liability. "Sometimes people say they are sorry because they feel bad for the situation and they are just being nice," Li says.
Jonathan Stein, a personal injury attorney in California, says: "It's OK if you ask the other person, 'How are you feeling? Do you need an ambulance or the police?' You don't want to be a jerk. But at the same time, you don't know the other person."
Tips on what to do
Even before you get in an automobile accident, you should keep an emergency kit in your glove box. At a minimum, stash a flashlight, road flares or reflective triangles in your car, as well as a basic first aid kit, and tools in case your car breaks down. If you live in area where cold weather is common, you may want to keep a blanket in your car and other items to keep you warm.
"I tell teenage drivers they should keep their insurance information printed on a piece of paper in their glovebox so they can give it to the other driver," Stein says. "I see it all the time. A kid gets in accident for the first time, Mom and Dad are not there, and they don't know what information to give. I've seen it with adults, too -- not knowing what to do. This way, with something pre-printed, there is no confusion."
Once you're in an accident, the first thing to do is check to see whether there are injuries and call an ambulance if someone needs medical care. Medical professionals warn against moving severely injured crash victims, but it's obviously better to get someone out of a burning automobile and risk further injury than to leave him in the car and risk death.
In a minor accident with no serious injuries, you should move your vehicle out of the way. If your car cannot be moved, turn on your hazard lights, and set out flares or cones so that oncoming cars can see you.
You then should exchange insurance and contact information with the driver of the other vehicle. Get names, addresses and phone numbers of the driver, passengers and any witnesses. Don't admit any wrongdoing, even though the State Farm survey indicates the majority of drivers do not think that apologizing at the scene of an accident is an admission of guilt.
The next step: Document information about the vehicles involved in the accident. Make sure to jot down license plate numbers along with the make and model of the vehicles, and use a disposable camera or smartphone to take pictures of the accident scene and vehicle damage. Many auto insurance companies have smartphone apps that help you categorize accident photos.
The police typically will not show up at the scene of an accident where there are no injuries. In this case, head to the nearest police station and file an accident report yourself. This will help speed up your insurance claim.
Finally, if someone is injured or your car needs repairs, report the accident to your auto insurance company, and be sure you understand what your insurance will and will not cover.
All states require you to carry liability insurance, which pays for damage your car does to other vehicles, property and people. If you have collision coverage, you'll be reimbursed -- or given a check -- to pay for damage to your vehicle. If you have uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage, you can recoup costs of medical bills and vehicle damage incurred during an accident with a motorist who was uninsured or lacked sufficient coverage.
Making the right call
Be careful when you make the initial call to your insurance agent, Stein warns.
"You wouldn't call the IRS the minute they send you an audit letter without talking to somebody, and it's the same with insurance," says Stein, the attorney. "People just automatically think the insurance company is doing the right thing or is 'On your side.' But you shouldn't talk to them without knowing your rights."
You'll also need to check your auto insurance policy to see how an accident will affect your premium. If you were not at fault or the accident was minor, your auto insurance company might not raise your rates. Some insurance companies also write accident forgiveness clauses into their policies for consumers who've never been in an auto accident. You may want to consider hiring an attorney if your insurance company does not adequately reimburse you for medical or vehicle repair expenses.
Not reporting the accident to your auto insurance company is a mistake, says Peter Foley, vice president of claims administration for the American Insurance Association, a trade organization representing more than 300 insurance companies.
"If you are not at fault, reporting an accident won't increase your premiums," Foley says. "And even if it's your fault, there has to be a significant amount of damage. And now, a lot of insurers offer accident forgiveness. Auto insurance is a competitive business, and good drivers get better rates."
Above all else, it's important to use common sense, State Farm's Li says.
"Get out of traffic, turn your hazards on, notify the police and use your best judgment call," she says.