7 Steps to Take After a Fender Bender

An accident may be an annoyance, but it’s also a financial transaction.

Red car with front light and fender damage after an accident
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When Shaun Eli Breidbart, a stand-up comedian in New York City, was in a fender bender last year, he was not amused. A church van rear-ended him on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

"It was scary," says Breidbart, who had been on his way to do a comedy show on Staten Island. "We were in the left lane of a major highway in the dark, on a cold winter night."

There was no room to move the two vehicles out of the path of traffic, so cars simply made their way past them in the next lane, with many motorists cursing and giving them the finger, Breidbart recalls.

Making matters worse, neither driver could understand the other very well. Breidbart spoke English; the other guy, Korean. At first, Breidbart says, the man offered to pay him a few hundred dollars for the damage to his rear bumper. Breidbart refused. Eventually, the men exchanged insurance information, and after waiting 45 minutes for the police, they gave up and went their separate ways.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 10 million car collisions every year. Fortunately, most are non-fatal. (According to early estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 34,080 people died in car crashes in 2012.) And while a fender bender tends to be thought in terms of safety or as an annoyance, it is also a financial transaction. So if you are ever in a minor accident, follow these steps.

[Read: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Car Insurance.]

Pull over and call 911. After stopping your car and, if you can, pulling out of the line of traffic, don't forget to turn on your hazard lights.

Even if no one is hurt, if there's real damage and insurance companies will soon do battle, it's a good idea to call 911. That's the recommendation from the federal government's website, 911.gov, which recommends calling after "a car crash, especially if someone is injured."

It isn't against the law to just exchange insurance information and move on. But if you call 911 or your local precinct and bring in a neutral third party to document the accident, you'll be doing yourself a favor.

Exchange car insurance information. If you do nothing else, do this. Your insurance company and the other driver's insurance company need each other's contact information to decide who pays for the damages.

But what if you don't have your car insurance information? Maybe you've left the card somewhere on your desk. Don't panic.

"Oftentimes, the police will tell the driver that he or she has to bring proof of insurance to the police station within 24 hours to avoid receiving a traffic citation," says William Crowley, auto liability claims manager for Chubb Insurance. "Keep in mind that the police may still hand out a ticket for not having proof of insurance." He adds that it may soon be possible for drivers to show proof of insurance with their smartphones.

Get a police report. JaeMi Pennington, a publicist relations specialist in Boston, was driving in Providence, R.I., last October when he was in an accident. He was at a stoplight, and a car in front of him that was trying to make space for another vehicle backed up – into Pennington's 2007 Acura, causing about $1,500 worth of damage.

Pennington exchanged insurance information with the other driver. He also tried to flag down a police officer directing traffic. The officer said he was too busy to help, so it's understandable that Pennington didn't call 911 and request another officer to come in – but he wishes he had.

The fender bender happened on a Friday. Pennington and the driver left on a civil and pleasant note, and he was sure everything would work out fine. But Monday morning, when he filed his claim, his insurance company asked if a report had been filed. Pennington said no, and was told, "In that case, it's going to turn into your word against his."

Sure enough, the other driver argued that Pennington's car rolled forward at the traffic light as his car was backing up."Even if it's just a couple of scratches, you've got to file a police report. Otherwise, you're giving room for people to be dishonest, and I understand this guy's position. His insurance is going to go up," says Pennington, who adds that after he caused an accident three years earlier, his insurance premium almost doubled.