Traffic Accidents FAQ

After a car accident, get answers to common questions about fault, insurance coverage, the settlement process, and much more.

Updated by , J.D.
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  • What should I do after a car accident?

    The steps you take immediately after a car accident can have a big impact on any insurance claim or lawsuit you decide to file over the crash. Here's a snapshot:

    • get medical attention for anyone who needs it
    • exchange information (contact, driver's license, insurance details) with others involved in the accident
    • take pictures of vehicle damage, position of the vehicles, location of skid marks and vehicle debris, and anything else relevant to the accident, and
    • watch what you say at the car accident scene

    Get details on what to do after a car accident.

    Do I need to call the police after a car accident?

    Your state's traffic laws will spell out your legal obligations when it comes to reporting a car accident. Details vary from state to state, but you're usually required to report (to local law enforcement and/or your state's motor vehicles agency) a crash that causes injuries, or that results in property damage in excess of a certain dollar amount.

    Even if you're not required to call law enforcement to the accident scene, doing so can be beneficial to the insurance claim or lawsuit process. That's because any police report generated over the crash can be pivotal to the car accident settlement negotiation process.

    Learn more about calling police to the scene of a car accident.

    What should I write down after the crash?

    One of the most important things you can do is document everything related to the car accident by taking careful notes in the hours, days, and even weeks afterward. This step can help make the entire claim process easier on you—and increase your chances of receiving fair compensation. Having notes to remind you of all the details of what happened, and what you went through, is far easier and far more accurate than relying on your memory.

    Write things down as soon as you can: Begin with what you were doing and where you were going, the people you were with, the time, and the weather. Include every detail of what you saw, heard, and felt during and immediately after the crash. Be sure to add anything you remember hearing anyone—a person involved in the accident or a witness—say about the accident.

    Finally, make daily notes of the details of your car accident injuries and how they're affecting you. You may suffer physical pain, discomfort, anxiety, loss of sleep, or other effects that will all form the basis for your compensable "pain and suffering" damages, which can be a big component of any car accident claim. Learn more about taking notes after an accident or injury.)

    What are my options for compensation after a car accident injury?

    The circumstances of your accident, the details of available car insurance coverage, and where you live all play a part in determining your options when you're injured in a car accident:
    • You can file a claim with your own car insurance company if you have personal injury protection or medical payments coverage, which pays your accident-related medical bills regardless of who caused the crash.
    • If the other driver is uninsured and you have uninsured motorist protection as part of your own car insurance policy, you can file a claim with your own insurer under that coverage.
    • If the other driver is insured and is pretty clearly at fault for the accident, you can file a "third party car insurance claim" with the other driver's insurer, and potentially receive compensation up to their liability coverage limits.
    • You can file a car accident lawsuit against the at-fault driver. The other driver's liability coverage would still be available to compensate you if you take the matter to court, but if the other driver is uninsured, collecting any money may be an uphill battle.
    These options aren't always exclusive. For example, you can probably make a claim under your own "personal injury protection" coverage to get your medical bills paid soon after the accident, and later on still file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver. But note that in this situation, your insurer will probably be entitled to reimbursement for what it paid out if you end up getting a settlement or winning in court.
    Finally, your options are different if you live in a no-fault car insurance state.

    How long do I have to make a car accident insurance claim?

    There are no laws setting a specific time limit for getting the insurance claim process started after a car accident. But your car insurance policy almost certainly requires you to inform the company about any car accident you're involved in "as soon as possible," "promptly," or "within a reasonable time." Still, a delay in getting the claim process started usually only becomes an issue if it interferes with the company's ability to properly investigate the accident or some specific aspect of the claim. Learn more about insurance claim deadlines after a car accident.
    Perhaps the more important time limit to keep your eye on here is the lawsuit-filing deadline set by the statute of limitations in your state, because however the insurance claim process might be playing out now, it's crucial to leave yourself plenty of time to take the matter to court if you have to. For details on the statute of limitations and other car accident laws where you live, check out Nolo's state-specific car accident law articles.

    How long will it take to get my car accident settlement or finish my case?

    This is a common question, but there's simply no way to provide a reliable answer. Every car accident claim is different, and comes with its own unique timeline.
    On one side of the potential time spectrum, let's say your injuries are fairly minor, you've completely healed in a few weeks, and the other driver's car insurance company doesn't dispute that its insured was completely at fault for the crash. In that example, you might receive a fair settlement offer three weeks or a month after the crash.
    On the other hand, let's say your injuries are significant, you're still receiving medical care two months after the car accident, and fault isn't so clear cut (you were speeding at the time of the crash, but the other driver had just sent a text when they pulled out in front of you). In this situation, you might need to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit in court before settlement talks really start to get anywhere. And even then, if the lawsuit process continues to play out alongside negotiations (depositions are scheduled, court hearings are held, and so on), it could be a year or more before your case reaches a satisfactory resolution.

    What must I prove to win my car accident case or get a settlement?

    Making a successful car accident claim almost always means showing that the other driver was at fault for the car accident, and that you were either completely fault-free, or that any fault you might bear is minimal.

    Figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is usually a matter of deciding who was careless (or "negligent" in legalese). And, for vehicle accidents, there is a set of official written rules telling people how they are supposed to drive and providing guidelines by which liability may be measured. These rules of the road are the traffic laws everyone must learn to pass the driver's license test. Complete rules are contained in each state's vehicle code, and they apply not only to automobiles but also to motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians.

    Sometimes a violation of one of these traffic rules is obvious and was clearly the cause of an accident—for example, when one driver runs a stop sign and crashes into another.

    In other situations, whether or not there was a traffic violation will be less obvious—a common example is a crash that occurs when two vehicles merge into a single lane of traffic. These cases are usually governed by the law of negligence. A driver, pedestrian, or cyclist who is "negligent" (that is, behaved in a thoughtless or careless manner) will be found at least partially at fault for causing the accident.

    To prove negligence, four elements must be met: (1) the driver is legally required to be reasonably careful in the particular situation (this one is a given since drivers must use caution at all times); (2) the driver (or pedestrian or cyclist) was not reasonably careful; and (3) the driver's conduct caused actual injury or damage to someone.

    Learn more about car accidents caused by negligence.

    Can I be found liable if my car is rear-ended in a crash?

    If someone hits you from behind, the accident is virtually always that driver's fault, regardless of the reason you stopped. A basic rule of the road requires that a driver be able to stop safely if a vehicle stops ahead of the driver. A tailing driver who cannot stop in time to avoid a rear-end accident is not driving safely.

    The other near-certainty in rear-end accident claims is that the vehicle damage proves how the accident happened. If the other car's front end and your car's rear end are both damaged, there can be no doubt that you were struck from the rear.

    There might be a chain reaction accident where both you and the car behind you were hit when a third car ran into the car behind you and pushed it into the rear of your car. In that case, it's usually the driver of the third car who is at fault and against whose liability car insurance you would file a claim. For a step-by-step guide to protecting your legal rights after an accident, see How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).

    Can someone drive your car if they are not on your insurance?

    This is a common question with a fairly straightforward answer. Even if the person driving your car isn't specifically listed as a covered driver in your car insurance policy, they're very likely still covered as long as you've given them consent to drive your vehicle. There are exceptions, of course. If the person borrowing your car uses it for commercial activity (as a rideshare driver, for example), coverage will likely be excluded. And if the person has been specifically excluded in your policy, they won't be a covered driver.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that if the person borrowing your car has their own car insurance policy and they end up getting into an accident while driving your vehicle, your own insurance will probably cover the crash as the "primary" option, while the driver's own policy will likely provide "secondary" coverage.

    Learn more about what drivers are covered under a car insurance policy.

    Is a driver making a left turn always at fault in an accident with an oncoming vehicle?

    A driver making a left turn is almost always liable to a car coming straight in the other direction. Exceptions to this near-automatic liability can occur if:

    • the car going straight was going too fast (this is usually difficult to prove)
    • the car going straight went through a red light, or
    • the left-turn car began its turn when it was safe but something unexpected happened which made it have to slow down or stop its turn.

    Whatever the contributing factors, the law says the car making the left turn must wait until it can safely complete the turn before moving in front of oncoming traffic. Also, the location of the damage on the cars sometimes makes it difficult for the other driver to argue that the accident happened in some way other than during a left turn. So, if you have had an accident in which you ran into someone who was making a left turn in front of you, almost all other considerations of fault go out the window, and the other driver is nearly always liable.

    What if one of the injured parties was also at fault?

    If an injured person's actions are at least partially to blame for a vehicle accident, compensation for that person's injuries or property damage may be limited or barred completely, depending on where the accident occurred.

    In states that use the comparative negligence system, if both parties to an accident are negligent, fault is allocated between the parties. This means that the victim will probably not be able to recover fully for injuries and other losses, but may get partial compensation. In states that follow the contributory negligence system, an injured, at-fault person is barred from any financial recovery at all. Learn more about contributory and comparative negligence.

    If a motorcyclist isn't wearing a helmet, can they still recover for injuries caused by another driver?

    Whether a helmetless motorcycle rider can recover for head and neck injuries depends on where the motorcycle accident occurred. Nearly all states have some type of motorcycle helmet law.

    Some states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Others require helmets only for those riders under a certain age. In states with a helmet law, if a helmetless rider sustains injuries in a vehicle accident, it may be difficult to recover for head and neck injuries, but the rider may be able to recover for other injuries.

    In states that don't require the use of a helmet, recovery for head and neck injuries may be slightly easier. However, the insurance company is likely to produce a barrage of evidence demonstrating that helmet use drastically reduces the incidence of head injuries, and that by not wearing a helmet, the motorcyclist was negligent.

    If I am the victim of a trucking accident, who can I sue?

    If you are the victim of a trucking accident, understanding who is responsible for your injuries can be complicated. There is often a web of players that could be liable, and figuring out who they are isn't always easy. Some of the people and companies who could be on the legal hook for a trucking accident include:

    • the driver of the truck
    • the owner of the truck or trailer
    • the person or company that leased the truck or trailer from the owner
    • the manufacturer of the truck, tires, or other equipment that may have caused the accident (or contributed to its severity), and
    • the shipper or freight loader (in cases involving injuries caused by a truck's cargo).

    To make matters worse, the trucking, hauling, and leasing companies often argue among themselves over whose insurance will compensate the victim. Your best bet in most trucking accidents is to consult an injury lawyer who has experience with these types of cases and knows what to expect from the parties involved. Learn more about common causes of truck accidents.

    If a bike and car collide, who is at fault for the accident?

    Bicycles are considered "vehicles" in almost every state's official traffic or vehicle code. This means that cyclists must follow the same rules of the road that apply to cars, trucks, and motorcycles. In an accident between a car and a bicycle, fault is determined by the general principles of negligence. Bicyclists will not normally get a break just because their "vehicle" is smaller and powered by human legs. For example, if a cyclist runs a red light and is hit by a car that entered the intersection legally, the cyclist will most likely be deemed negligent and be unable to recover for their injuries.

    Who's liable for an accident involving an electric scooter?

    Electric scooters can represent a danger for pedestrians, vehicle drivers, and for scooter operators themselves. States (and some cities) differ when it comes to how electric scooters are treated for purposes of traffic laws, liability insurance, helmet laws, and more.

    A scooter operator or vehicle driver who causes a crash can probably be held financially responsible for any resulting damage or injuries, but the availability of insurance coverage is a big variable when it comes to electric scooters.

    What about companies that rent out electric scooters? Some of the bigger players (including Lime and Spin) claim they have no liability for any accidents related to use of their vehicles or services. Learn more about electric scooter accidents and injuries.

    What if I'm injured in an Uber or Lyft accident?

    When you're riding in an Uber or Lyft vehicle and you're involved in a traffic accident, it's not always obvious who was at fault for the crash, and whose insurance will cover your medical bills and other losses. If the rideshare driver is at fault, Uber or Lyft's coverage likely applies to your injuries, but these kinds of cases can raise a number of unique questions. Learn more about rideshare passenger injury claims.

    What damages can I receive in a car accident settlement?

    "Damages" is a legal term that refers to an injured person's harm and other losses after an accident. Whether in an insurance claim or in court, a car accident claimant/plaintiff's damages usually include:

    • payment of car accident-related medical bills, and compensation for future medical care that's going to be necessary because of the accident
    • payment of costs to repair or replace a vehicle damaged in the accident
    • reimbursement of lost wages, compensation for missed business opportunities, and payment of any other income-related losses that have been caused by the effects of the car accident
    • reimbursement of other economic harm resulting from the car accident, including costs to rent a car, money paid for housecleaning and other services the claimant/plaintiff is unable to perform because of their car accident injuries, and
    • compensation for the claimant/plaintiff's physical and mental "pain and suffering" stemming from the car accident, the resulting injuries, and medical treatment made necessary by the crash.

    It's important to note here that things are different if you're receiving a car accident injury settlement from your own insurance company in a no-fault car insurance state. Compensation for "pain and suffering" and other non-economic damages isn't available in a no-fault claim. Your car accident claim will need to meet certain state-specific criteria in order for you to step outside the confines of no-fault so that the entire spectrum of damages is available to you. Learn more about how a no-fault car insurance claim works.

    What is the average car accident settlement amount?

    As with trying to predict how long your car accident claim might take, it's impossible to provide an average car accident settlement amount. And even if this kind of data were readily available (it's not), it wouldn't be of much help to an individual car accident claimant, since every case is unique.
    Looking at this question from a slightly different angle, there are factors that carry the most weight when it's time to figure out how much your car accident claim might be worth. The biggest include:
    • the clarity of the fault picture; was the other driver clearly to blame for the crash?
    • the severity of your car accident injuries; broken bones, head trauma, and internal injuries are going to force a bigger car accident settlement compared with bumps and bruises or soft tissue injuries that are difficult to prove
    • whether your injuries will have long-lasting effects on you, including disability or disfigurement, and
    • the amount of car insurance coverage that's available to compensate you for your injuries and related losses.

    Do I have to accept a car accident settlement offer?

    The short answer here is "No." If you don't feel that a car accident settlement offer is fair, that it accounts for all of your accident-related losses, or that it goes far enough toward making you feel "whole" again, you're free to reject the offer and wait for a better one.

    It might not always feel like it, but as the claimant in the insurance process, or the plaintiff in a lawsuit, you're usually in the driver's seat. This is especially true when it comes to the first settlement offer you receive from an insurance adjuster after a car accident.

    A first offer is often just that, marking the start of the settlement negotiation process. A first offer is typically low, and it's often a testing of the proverbial waters on the part of the adjuster. If you take the offer (which is almost never a good idea), the adjuster has just saved the insurance company money, in service to their bottom line. If you reject the first offer, it's a great way to let the adjuster know that you're ready to stand up for yourself and your claim.

    Learn more about what happens if you turn down the car insurance company's first settlement offer.

    When is a car considered "totaled" after an accident, and how much will insurance pay?

    A "totaled" vehicle is one that has been deemed a "total loss" by a car insurance company. When you're making a vehicle damage claim after a car accident, an insurer will label your car a "total loss" if the cost to get the car fixed exceeds its "actual cash value" (ACV). This ACV figure is what the insurance company will pay you for your "totaled" vehicle— not what you paid for it, and not what you still owe on it.

    Of course, this "actual cash value" is based on the insurance company's conclusions as to how much your car was worth at the time of the accident. You can always dispute the insurer's figure, and come back with specific reasons why the insurer's valuation is too low.

    Learn more about what happens when the insurance company declares your vehicle a "total loss".

    Do I need a lawyer after a car accident?

    It's certainly possible to handle a car accident claim on your own, if you're comfortable sticking with the process until you get a satisfactory result. But if your car accident injuries are significant, or the other side is disputing a key aspect of your claim, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional.

    The settlement negotiation table is familiar ground for a car accident lawyer, and they'll know how to put your best case together. If taking your car accident case to court looks like the best strategy, your lawyer will be well familiar with the ins and outs of the car accident lawsuit process and will work toward getting you the best result.

    Learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident claim. If you're ready to reach out now, you can use the features right on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer in your area.

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