Thursday, January 20, 2011

Insurance, Car Crash or other accident

By information from, Your heart is beating hard, you're breathing fast and you can't believe you just got into an accident. Look around. You're alive? Good. Everyone else? Even better. Now here's what you need to do once the dust settles.

You should:
  • Keep your auto insurance information in the glove compartment, including a pre-printed form allowing you to provide the particulars of any accident, including a sketch of the scene. (Even better, use that disposable camera you keep in the car. You don't? You should.)
  •  Stay at the scene of the accident until police have come and gone, making sure you have the name of the officer(s) and that they have your version of what happened. Do not assume a police report will "take you off the hook" or even that one will be generated in the event of a minor accident ("minor" may mean no one is injured even though your car suffers a direct hit).
  • Exchange names, addresses, driver's license and insurance information with the driver of the other car.
  • Review your policy to make sure of your coverage. Make a list of questions and related information you want to know.
  • Report the accident promptly to your insurance company. This may not seem wise or necessary to you. The accident may be minor, you may not want to risk seeing your rates rise or you may live in a no-fault state and think that the other driver's insurance company will pay for everything. But state laws generally protect you from higher rates unless an accident was your fault. And even though you may think no-fault lets you off the hook for the other driver's medical expenses, it does not. It simply says his insurance will pay for his expenses (up to the limits of his coverage), regardless of who is at fault. But rest assured his insurance company will come knocking on your insurer's door seeking repayment if it believes you were at fault in the accident. The point is, your insurer should be informed.

Think that's the end of it? Read on.

The policy
Admit it. You've never read your auto insurance policy, you don't want to read it and even if you're in an accident, you're still not sure if it would force you into those endless lines of fine print and insurance-speak. Assuming you can even find the policy.

If you can, look in the back for what are called the conditions of your policy -- what you are supposed to do in the event of an accident. These requirements are pretty straightforward, although compliance may seem like a hassle when you're already upset by the accident itself. But you may forfeit some of your rights if you don't follow these instructions.

If you don't understand, keep calling

Next, look at the cover sheet of the policy, which is called the declarations page and which lists the types and dollar limits of your coverage, including short-hand references to any discounts or special provisions you have elected to purchase.

Last, there's the actual insuring agreement itself, which explains what your insurer is protecting you against, including definitions of terms used in the agreement and explanations of what's not covered (called the exclusions).

If you don't understand your policy, keep calling your agent and/or state insurance department until you get clear answers to your questions. Most people have heard that ignorance is no defense under the law, but they don't think they'll ever have to find out. Auto accidents are one of the most common ways to discover the sobering cost of ignorance.
The payments
Hopefully, your accident involves only damages to things and not to people. And, hopefully, it wasn't your fault.

Even if it's just your car that's banged up, repairs can be a major headache. This is where the reality sets in that replacement cost is not the same thing as market value. Your car can easily be declared a total loss even though the money you'd receive is nowhere near what it would cost you to replace the vehicle.

The best advice about getting your car fixed is to remember that the money may be coming from the insurance company but you should control the repair process. This means refusing to settle for a repair job you don't like. And it may also mean refusing to accept the use of generic replacement parts instead of the original manufacturer's parts (your policy may give your insurer the right to use generic parts, so it's important to check the fine print to know your rights). Even if your favorite shop doesn't do the repairs, you can still have your mechanic look at the car (although this may be at your personal expense) and provide an assessment of what should be fixed. Ultimately, it's your car and your call about what's done to it.

Talk to your agent and/or insurer about your rights (better still, you should really ask these questions before you buy a policy). And if you don't like the answers, call your state insurance department.

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