The two most common fender-bender accidents, say the experts, are rear-end collisions and parking-lot mishaps. It makes sense — distracted driving is the usual culprit behind rear ending (“distracted” meaning looking at one’s cell phone, in most cases) and parking lots are basically obstacle courses where every single obstacle is another car, next to 30 other cars.
All of this is to say that the chances are good you’ll get into a fender bender sooner or later. But whether you or the other person is at fault, what do you do? What should you get from them? What should you not do? Alongside my own insurance agent (who we can’t name because otherwise their corporate overlords would want to get involved, sign off on it, etc.), I’m going to breakdown your impromptu breakdown.
Gather some basic information
No matter if you’ve been hit or you were at fault, be sure to get some basic things from the other driver: Their driver’s license number, their registration and their insurance info. Assuming the other driver isn’t hostile, this is pretty easy to do, and there’s no excuse for not getting it. “Everybody says, ‘I don’t wanna have to stand on the side of the road and write down all their information,’” my agent says. “Well, don’t. Just take three pictures with your smartphone and you’re all done.” Best to take photos of the damage too, and the location of the accident, because why not?
The following aren’t necessary, but if you get a sketchy vibe from the other driver, also take down their license plate number and their VIN (found at the base of the windshield on the driver’s side). Even if the other person gives you fraudulent info, they can run, but they can’t hide. “With technology nowadays, if you get a person’s name, phone number, VIN, driver’s license number or license plate number, the insurance companies are gonna find them,” my agent says.
Your rates could go up a lot — but only if you’re at fault
Different states have different insurance laws, but here in California at least, if you get in a fender bender and cause more than $1,000 of damage, you’ll get a point off your driving record. If you injure someone, that’s a two-point deduction, and you’ll lose any safe-driving discount your insurance company provides you.
What does this translate to in terms of cold hard cash? A one-point accident for a 40-year-old guy with an average-age car could make his rates go up by 30 percent, according to my agent. That should be enough to keep you driving safe. The good news is, if you’re not at fault in a fender bender, your rates don’t change.
If you hit a parked car, leave a note, man
Even if the owner isn’t around and you don’t think anybody saw you do it, don’t be a jerk— would you want someone to do that to you?
Apparently though, lots of people leave fake notes. “There’s been a bazillion stories of people having witnesses to fender benders where the witness says, ‘I saw a guy leave a note on the car’ but all it was, was a blank piece of paper that says, ‘Yeah I hit your car, see ya,’ that type of thing,” my agent says.
Which kind of seems like an attractive option, but there are two problems with fleeing the scene. The first is that almost every parking lot in the world has cameras now — cameras good enough to read your license plate, so you won’t be hidden for long. In fact, it’s getting more and more common to catch people this way, whether it’s the cops, the insurance company or the victim themself who requests the footage. These days, says my agent, the odds of catching someone who drives off are pretty good, not only because cameras are almost everywhere, but because parking lots are holding onto footage for longer, too.
The second problem is, if you drive off, you’ve just committed a hit-and-run, my dude. When they find you, know that the DMV doesn’t appreciate hit-and-run incidents — they’re often classified in the same ballpark as a DUI, in fact, in which case you could lose your license and be left riding the bus for a while. And even if you do hold onto your license you’ll have points on your record, and your insurance rate will go up.
So, yeah, just leave a note (a real one).
You don’t always have to call the police
Most fender benders don’t require the police. There are only two reasons they should be coming out: If someone is injured, or if there’s a difference of opinion over who’s at fault. Even if you disagree over the latter part and the police don’t show, fear not: Insurance claims adjusters aren’t dumb. They can look at the damage, take in all the information, forensically reconstruct the accident and decide who’s at fault. And these adjusters have seen almost everything, and heard every lie and lame excuse out there. They’ll quickly figure out which one of you is BSing.
If you try to sort it out without insurance at first, you can always get them involved later
If you’re in a fender bender with someone who just wants to pay for it out of pocket and leave insurance out of things (and keep points off their record), you can go along with it if you want. If the other person pays for it and the job is satisfactory, great! If they give you any trouble with paying, or they want to take it to “a guy they know” for a separate (and probably lowball) estimate, you can always fall back on your own insurance and file a claim, honor system be damned. Either way, you’ll have your damage paid for.
Be aware though, there are statutes of limitations for filing auto insurance claims: A year for property damage and two years for bodily injury. Don’t sleep on it.
No, you’re not crazy — fixing a car has gotten way more expensive
All that technology on cars nowadays comes at a cost, especially when you have to fix it. Ten years ago, if you backed into a lamppost with a new car, the body shop would take off your bumper, fix it, paint it and put it back on. Nowadays? They have to fix the bumper, take off the reverse camera, take off the bumper sensors, fix all that stuff, put it all back together, then recalibrate every one of those gadgets. And the days of a $200 windshield replacement are over. With heads-up displays on windshields, auto glass shops can’t touch that stuff. They have to be fixed and calibrated by dealerships, often for three times the price.
As we noted earlier, this raised dollar amount will affect your rates (if it bumps the cost over $1,000). And in California, at least, you have to report anything over $1,000 to the DMV, although experts estimate that approximately zero people do this when they opt to pay for repairs out of pocket.
With all this info in mind, the best advice — even from an insurance agent — is to avoid fender benders if you can. Watch the road, dummy! Drive defensively, be aware at all times and put your phone down. Because even for a gentleman, the smoothest, hassle-free fender benders are still a pain in the butt.