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What you do after an auto accident is important not only to your safety but to the safety of your finances.
There are things you can do to make the claims process easier down the road, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. But your actions also can have adverse effects, ranging from increasing your insurance costs because you admitted liability to exposing you to possible identity theft.
The first priority is always to get to safety and get help right away. If anyone needs medical attention, call 911.
"If your car is driveable, get it safely to the side of the road," said Jimmy Spears, assistant vice president for USAA's Loss Center of Excellence, dealing with claims. If debris is in the road, don't remove it; let properly trained people deal with it. Once those details are squared away:
• Don't leave the scene.
• Whether you're on base or off, always call the police. "This allows you to get a permanent record of the facts of the loss," Spears said. "And it allows you to exchange information safely if the other party is reluctant."
Nearly 20 percent of people who responded to a 2012 NAIC survey said they believe the only reason to call police after an accident is if someone is injured. NAIC advises that if police are not sent to the scene, file an incident report.
• Never admit fault — one of the most common mistakes drivers make, Spears said. "You can talk to the other drivers, but don't admit fault or disclose details of your coverage or the dollar amounts."
Even when you think you're at fault, "you may be caught up in the moment and not know all the facts."
Some accidents are setups, designed to make you crash into another car to trigger insurance payouts. Revealing too much information to anyone can make you more vulnerable to these and other situations.
If you're not at fault in the accident, premiums generally will not go up, Spears said. Your insurance company also can help you collect your deductible and any other money owed to you by the other party.
• Be very careful about the information you share. Never give someone your Social Security number or show them your driver's license if the SSN appears on it. Sharing that information can expose you to identity theft.
NAIC warns consumers that they shouldn't allow others to photograph their driver's license.
Provide your name and vehicle insurance information to others involved in the accident. Include the phone numbers of insurance providers. Get contact details and driver's license information if the person doesn't provide you with insurance information.
Spears said USAA believes it's safe to record the driver's license numbers of others involved.
He also advises getting names and contact information of other drivers on the road and any witnesses to the accident before they leave the scene.
• Take any possible photos of the scene — the accident, damage to your car and other vehicles, and license plates. NAIC advises photographing landmarks, street signs and other markers to identify locations, and damage to other property at the scene.
Take a picture of the Vehicle Identification Number of each car, or write it down. Record the year, make, model and color.
Spears also advises getting the number of passengers and their names.
• Prepare ahead by ensuring you have proper auto insurance coverage, and make sure every car has roadside assistance, Spears said.
• NAIC's http://www.insureuonline.org">www.insureuonline.org has more information about what to do after an accident, including a downloadable checklist. If you carry that with you, it can help you focus on what you need to do in the heat of the moment, despite the stress. Your insurance company may have similar checklists.
NAIC also has a mobile app called WreckCheck, available free for iPhone and Android smartphone users. It outlines what to do immediately following an accident, takes you through steps for creating your own accident report and helps you document necessary information.
Your own insurance company may have a similar app. USAA has one that lets you report a claim and upload accident pictures and information.
When you report the loss using the app, it becomes the first building block of the claim. "They're actually opening that claim file for us," Spears said.
The USAA app allows customers to get coverage information, reserve a rental car, schedule an appraisal, and check back later on the status of the claim at any time, he said.