Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dealing with car accident

They say there is a first time to everything. So is to an auto accident too. Recently I was in a car accident  and capturing some lessons learnt here. Hopefully nobody ever needs it. Last thing you want to be in is a messy car accident and not certainly a fatal one. May the force be with us all :) But, still if one ever has the unfortunate experience my lessons may be of some use. For many of us dealing with accident, paper work, insurance, police etc. is alien. It may help to arm ourselves with as much information as possible.

Accidents where somebody has hit your car and has run away are easy to deal with. They may not be easy on your wallet but the complexity of the process is simple. You file a claim, get it repaired, pay your deductible and insurance company pays the rest. It is considered as a no fault accident and your insurance premiums do not (should not) go up. This is assuming you have comprehensive insurance. If you do not, you will have to pay for the repairs yourself. Also, if your deductibles are high and the cost of the repair is less than that, it may make sense not to file a claim at all. Every time you file a claim, it is recorded and available to people through agencies.

Many people (including me before researching on the Internet) think that if you get your car repaired, that's the end of the story. Is it? Have you ever given a thought to what happens to resale value of your car after you have claimed insurance and the fact is public via numerous vehicle history verification agencies. When you go to sell a car after few years, the prospective buyer will offer less than what he may have offered for a similar car with no accidents. This is where the concept of 'diminished value claim'. In theory, it seems, insurance company not only fix our vehicle but also pay us additionally for the 'diminished value' due to an accident. This is applicable any time you get your vehicle damages repaired. Does not matter your fault or other person's fault. However, there is a lot of legality involved. If you search on the Internet for 'diminished value claim', you will find all the details. This varies from state to state, situation to situation etc. It is not something you can expect to get easily. But, we should remember that value of the vehicle is lowered due to accident. If you do not manage to get this rare insurance compensation, you can always right off the diminished value in your tax returns.

Now, let's see the insurance process when you are involved in an accident with another vehicle.

In my case, it so happened that I was going straight, had green light, a person attempted to make a left turn in front of me, BANG, we crashed like a T right at the intersection (Sepulveda Boulevard and Washington Place in West LA). Big BANG. My car won't drive due to severe damage to the front. His is damaged on the side but moves.

Take a moment or two to collect yourself. Don't just open the door and come out. Especially in this situation when the accident has happened right at the intersection. First step, turn on the emergency flashers. Check for injuries. Only if you are ok, move your limbs slowly. Muscle injuries may not show outside but sudden movements can trigger them. If safe, get out and walk to the nearest safe area like safe side of the street. Forget the car. It's damaged, your are ok, that's what counts. Your flashers are on and other motorists will exercise caution. How many time we have not gone around such accident scenes. This what I did.

The other guy too had pulled over in the middle of the cross road and his vehicle was in the median. Median seemed OK to meet and exchange information with him as it was not a busy street. It is better to move to some other safe area and not the median even if it is an isolated stretch.

Be extra careful if the accident happens in the night. Lack of light only adds to confused state we are already in.

Information exchange is critical. It is easy to forget important things at such moments of confusion. You need to get his name, license number, vehicle registration number, address, insurance policy number, phone number. Normally the other person writes it for you. But, make sure to verify against their documents such as license, insurance policy etc. Even a good person can make honest mistakes while copying it down. Lesson learnt - make a template. Fill up your information on one side and leave rest blank. Take a few printouts and keep it handy in the car. Should an accident ever occur. You hand over one to the other driver and have him fill out one for you. Saves confusion and missed information. Remember to update the template if your information ever changes.

Address is very important. Other driver's insurance company will mail you some paperwork. In my case, I had made the mistake of jotting down my information on the back of my office business card and giving it to him. Mail was sent to office the address from where we had moved recently. Luckily mail got forwarded and I got it. Probably after a good number of days as it was in the mailbox which we hardly check. Who gets mails at work?

So, do all that you can to get the information correctly and clearly.

Police reports are optional in many cases when there is no crime or injury. I called anyway. In cities like LA, looks like these kinds of accidents are so common that they hardly care. Once they confirm, no one is hurt, they take their sweet time. A good cop came after good 20 mins or so. He moved my injured car which was still there at the intersection. He had to put it in neutral and push. I could have done it only if it had occurred to me. Such is the state of confusion. Anyway, it was probably a good thing that I did not exert myself. Who knows what pain it would have kicked in?

Ask the officer to give his card. They carry a generic cop card for the given city. They normally jot down their ID and hand it over to you. Since the cop said no report was necessary, I do not know what I could have done with his card. Even if I were to call him later, would he remember one of the several such accidents he may get to see? So, if the cop says no need to file a report, take his word. You can still go and file one at your local police station.

Now comes the next step. Where to send the car to? If you have AAA or any such membership, call them for a tow truck. Expect to wait anywhere from 30 minutes or longer. No time in my 10 years of AAA membership, help has come before 20 mins. Ideally, you should know where to send your car to. If not, do not worry, let the tow truck guy take it where he normally takes it. Just make sure it is within in 10 miles or so. Not for anything other than being close to your place so that you don't need to spend time to go there if you have to. Also, if you are not a premium member, AAA has limits on how far they tow for free.

Before you say temporary good bye to your damaged car, you must absolutely make sure to empty your car completely. Completely of all that you care about. This is where keeping stuff organized comes handy. Luckily for me, I normally keep a suitcase kind of bag in the trunk where all emergency stuff like flashlights, air compressor, GPS etc. etc. are there. So, it was that way easy to empty the car. Still I had to make sure that I checked out all glove boxes, numerous places these days cars make space to stow everything. It is very important not to forget your most important documents such as vehicle registration, insurance, owner's manual, CDs, coins, maps etc. etc. Take whatever time necessary to empty the car cleanly and completely. As you will see later, you may not get to see the car again as it happened in my case. Having to empty in a short time should be enough motivation to keep our stuff organized in the car. I can't imagine what I would have done if I had kept my car like the car of some of my friends which look like their houses. So much stuff. Even if your car is disorganized, thrown in a couple of trash bags in the trunk. If you ever have to empty, you can just throw your stuff into the trash bag and you are ok.

Do this before you car is lifted on to the tow truck. Once it is on the flat bed, it is difficult to lower it again and they don't let you climb on it and you will have to rely on the tow truck driver to empty it for you. He may forget some stuff. Mistake I had made. But, it was still ok. He lowered the flat bed  and I could reach out most of the places. Where I could not, I specifically asked him to empty this or that glove compartment and made sure that I had all stuff taken out. Only thing I now remember I forgot was the apartment parking card which was hung on the mirror.

Your probably need a ride as well. If your place is near by, tow truck driver will give you a ride home before proceeding to dump your car. If you are far away, you may need to make arrangements on your own. If you are in a totally alien area, check with the cop when he comes. If nothing comes to mind, call 911. I know people who have done that and have been connected to nearest rental car place or taxi or whatever.

Tow truck driver should give you a receipt. The receipt should have the address and phone number where you can expect to find the vehicle. Make sure you ask for the contact person. Some of these facilities are very large and have probably hundreds of cars towed from several places. In such cases, you may have to run from pillar to post without a contact person's name. If possible, get the tow truck driver's name and his phone number.

After making sure that all your stuff has been taken out of car and you have the valid result, say good bye to your car. It's fate is unknown at this time.

What is the next step? Hopefully in the next post.....


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