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Insight from WFPD: So you have been involved in a motor vehicle crash; things you need to know

It is an unfortunate fact, but there is a fairly good chance you will be involved in a motor vehicle crash sometime during your life. Knowing what to do after the crash has occurred can be lifesaving, but more frequently, it can save you a headache as you attempt to have your vehicle replaced or repaired.

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Action Plan to Deal with Crashes:

1. Keep an Emergency Kit in Your Glove Compartment. Drivers should carry a cell phone, as well as pen and paper for taking notes, a disposable camera to take photos of the vehicles at the scene, and a card with information about medical allergies or conditions that may require special attention if there are serious injuries. Also, keep a list of contact numbers for law enforcement agencies handy. Drivers can keep this free fill-in-the-blanks accident information form in their glove compartment. The DocuDent Auto Accident Kit ($19.95), supported by AAA and insurance companies, offers a comprehensive kit that includes a flashlight, reusable camera and accident documentation instructions. A set of cones, warning triangles or emergency flares should be kept in the trunk. Be cautious with emergency flares when there are fluids leaking from a damaged vehicle. It is also a good idea to have a small fire extinguisher available and to know how to use it.

2. Keep Safety First. Drivers involved in minor crashes with no serious injuries should move cars to the side of the road and out of the way of oncoming traffic. Leaving cars parked in the middle of the road or busy intersection can result in additional crashes and injuries. If a car cannot be moved, drivers and passengers should remain in the cars with seatbelts fastened for everyone's safety until help arrives. Make sure to turn on hazard lights and set out cones, flares or warning triangles if possible. While outside your vehicle pay special attention in the direction vehicles are approaching the crash scene.

3. Exchange Information. After the crash, exchange the following information: name, address, phone number, insurance company, policy number, driver license number and license plate number for the driver and the owner of each vehicle. If the driver's name is different from the name of the insured, establish what the relationship is and take down the name and address for each individual. Also make a written description of each car, including year, make, model and color - and the exact location of the collision and how it happened. Finally, be polite but don't tell the other drivers or the police that the accident was your fault, even if you think it was. If possible copy the information from an actual document. This helps to ensure you have recorded the information correctly. Also ask to confirm the address and telephone number listed is current and correct. As soon as possible following the crash contact your insurance company and provide the detail collected following the crash.

4. Photograph and Document the Crash. Use your camera to document the damage to all the vehicles. Keep in mind that you want your photos to show the overall context of the crash so that you can make your case to a claims adjuster. If there were witnesses, try to get their contact information; they may be able to help you if the other drivers dispute your version of what happened.

5. File A Crash Report. Although law enforcement officers in many locations may not respond to crashes unless there are injuries, drivers should file a state vehicle crasht report, which is available at police stations and often on the Department of Motor Vehicles Web site as a downloadable file. A police report often helps insurance companies speed up the claims process. In North Dakota any crash resulting in injury or a total damage amount greater than $1000 must be reported to the state. West Fargo requires all crashes to be reported. If the driver of the other vehicle asks you not to contact the police use that as a red flag that something is wrong. The other driver may have had their driving privileges suspended or they may not have insurance. Contact the police department and ask that a report be completed relating to the crash. Neither West Fargo nor the State of North Dakota has an on-line reporting system.

6. Know What Your Insurance Covers. The whole insurance process will be easier following your crash if you know the details of your coverage. For example, don't wait until after a crash to find out that your policy doesn't automatically cover costs for towing or a replacement rental car. Generally, for only a dollar or two extra each month, you can add coverage for rental car reimbursement, which provides a rental car for little or no money while your car is in the repair shop or if it is stolen. Check your policy for specifics. Your insurance company should be the one to request a copy of the crash report. It is one of the services you pay your premium for. There is a small fee associated with receiving a copy. The report will normally be available to your insurance company within five days of the filing of the report.

The final question in dealing with a crash is usually who will pay for the damages? If the accident was minor, you and the other drivers may decide to handle the damages yourselves without the involvement of an insurance company. But this isn't always the best idea, for several reasons.

While the other driver may agree to pay for the damage to your car on the day of the crash, he may see the repair bills and decide it's too high. At this point, time has passed and your insurance company will have more difficulty piecing together the evidence if you file a claim.

Also, keep in mind that you have no way of knowing whether another driver will change his mind and report the crash to his insurance company. He may even claim injuries that weren't apparent at the scene of the crash. This means that your insurance company may end up paying him a hefty settlement, or worse yet, you could be dragged into a lawsuit. So make sure that your company has your version of what happened and check your policy - if the damages paid out by your insurance company are below a certain amount, the crash may not be considered chargeable. And you will avoid the penalty of a premium hike.

Auto crashes take a tremendous toll on everyone involved, both financially and emotionally. The chances are high that at some point you will be involved in a minor crash. Just keep your head and make safety your primary concern. You'll have plenty of time to deal with the consequences later.

There are several steps you can take to avoid being involved in a crash. Drive defensively and watch out for changing conditions. Pay particular attention to vehicles ahead and approaching from the sides. Do not become distracted by your passengers or other items or activities within your vehicle. Follow the basic safety rules you have learned through your driver's education training. Obey the traffic laws. Drive only when you can remain focused and you are well rested. Avoid alcohol or medications that can interfere with your ability to recognize and react to a hazard. Slow down. Buckle up. Stay alive.