By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
If you get into an accident — especially a relatively minor, “fender bender” type of accident where there are no major injuries involved, just some bent metal — how do you proceed?
The following checklist might be helpful:
1) Make absolutely sure no one is seriously hurt.
Anything more than minor scrapes and bumps means call 911 first. Request that EMS and police (in that order) be dispatched to the scene; make it clear to the operator that there are people who need medical attention.
2) Wait for the police to arrive.
Some recommend moving the vehicles off to the shoulder — for reasons of courtesy and safety. However, moving the vehicles may also make it less clear who is at fault — and who gets a ticket, as well as the blame when it comes time to settle the bill with the insurance company.
Best advice: Turn off the engine, turn on the hazard lights, remove the keys — and wait for the law to arrive. In states that have “no fault” laws, obviously, this is less of an issue. In that case, and assuming the vehicles are operable and it’s safe to do so, go ahead and move them out of the way.
If possible, you can direct traffic around the accident scene. If the conditions are dangerous — lots of cars, heavy traffic — it is smart to get away from the cars and just wait for the cops to show.
Other drivers may be annoyed by the inconvenience, but given that even a minor accident can involve thousands of dollars in damage — and given that if you are found to be at fault, your insurance premiums may go up for several years to come — creating a temporary and probably minor obstruction to the flow of traffic seems more than justified, especially if you are certain the accident is the other driver’s fault.
3) Keep your conversation with the other driver pleasant, but minimal.
You are required by law to provide your driver’s license and insurance information to the other driver; but you are not required to discuss who is at fault or anything else about what happened. You want to avoid making any statement that could be used against you in court — or possibly in a lawsuit. For example, don’t talk about your state of mind, that you were “in a hurry,” or “didn’t see” the other car.
Express no opinion, one way or the other. Leave that to the police — and your insurance company — to sort out.
4) Deal with the damaged cars.
If there’s any reason to suspect that the vehicle may not be roadworthy as a result of damage sustained in the accident, you’ll want to get it towed to a dealership or repair shop. (Ideally, the one you will have do the repair work.)
If the front of the car was hit — even if only seemed like a minor impact — look carefully for evidence of leaks. Green/orange drips are a tip that the radiator may have been damaged; driving could cause the vehicle to overheat in short order — and possibly cause major engine damage. If you see oil drips, it’s a clue there may have been damage to the oil pan or some other part — and again, you don’t want to drive the vehicle and risk further damage (or another wreck).
If the vehicle was rear-ended, be certain that the gas tank is not leaking before you attempt to drive (or even start) the car. Pretty much any type of puddle or significant drip is cause for concern — and probably, a tow.
Look for bent metal around the tires; if you see metal contacting or even close to any of the tires, a tow is probably the best bet.
If none of the above problems are evident, be aware that the car may still not drive properly; an impact can, for example, throw off the alignment and make a car difficult to steer. Use common sense and have it towed if it’s not more or less in the same operating condition it was in prior to the wreck. Paint scrapes and minor body damage is one thing; anything that affects the functionality of the vehicle another thing entirely.
5) If you have to get towed, remove all valuables from the car first.
You’ve probably seen the same sign countless times: “Not responsible for theft, loss or damage to items left in the vehicle.” Take those words to heart. Remove any portable electronic devices (MP3 players, GPS units) as well as any valuables you may have in the glovebox or trunk.
It’s also a really good idea to take with you any personal paperwork you might have in the car that has details about where you live, or personal data such as driver’s license number. People can be dirtbags; and the stress-filled and confusing post-accident hurly-burly is a fertile field for grifters looking to take advantage.
6) Be sure the tow truck is the right type for your vehicle and that proper procedures are used to tow it.
The drive wheels (front or rear) should never be on the ground, especially if the car has an automatic transmission. Towing it this way can cause massive transmission damage because the lubricating fluid that would normally circulate and protect the internal moving parts is not being circulated with the engine off. All-wheel-drive cars (and vehicles with any type of permanent 4WD) should be carried on a flatbed.
In fact, flatbed (or “rollback”) tow trucks are the best for all vehicles because they do not drag the car behind them, which risks mechanical damage as well as cosmetic damage caused by scraping it too close to the ground or by deforming the front (or rear) end by hoisting it up in the air.
7) Call your insurance company, pronto.
It’s important to file a claim promptly; and it’s at least as important to get “your side” of the accident told just as promptly. Discuss with them where the car has been taken or — if you drove home — where you intend to take it. Remember that in most states, you have the right to choose the shop that will repair the car — not the insurance company.
You also have the right (usually) to insist that factory replacement parts (not “generic” or used/junkyard parts) be used to repair your vehicle. Be sure to carefully read the estimate written up the adjuster – and determine whether it includes factory new parts – of generic aftermarket/used parts — before you sign it. Finally, never accept a settlement check until the repair work has been completely finished to your satisfaction.