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But how does the insurance company find fault? And how does it impact you, as a driver and policyholder, if you're found to be at fault for a collision?

Read on to find out more.

What is an at-fault car accident?

Stressed Driver Sitting At Roadside After Traffic Accident
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Being at fault means that an accident can be traced to actions you either took or failed to take.

Maybe you swerved when you shouldn’t have, or were driving too fast. Maybe you rear-ended the car in front of you. However you slice it, your actions (or inaction) resulted in a collision.

If no other vehicle was involved, generally the fault will be assigned to you — unless there were extenuating circumstances, such as car-manufacturing issues, poor road design or maintenance, or the sudden appearance of a large animal.

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How to tell who is at fault in a car accident

Woman driver calls for instruction during insurance agent review the dammage of the car after accident
Iam_Anupong / Shutterstock

In most cases, fault is determined in a car accident by your insurance company. But that decision will be made based on important information provided by the police.

You should always call 911 to report an accident, whatever size it is or how much damage has been caused.

You’ll also want to report the accident to your insurance company as soon as you can. Calling them from the scene just to report the broad details is a good idea.

How exactly is fault determined?

Policeman during investigation at road accident area
ESB Professional / Shutterstock

When you call police to the scene, they’ll interview witnesses, take photographs and document all the details. Depending on the extent of the damage and injuries, if any, they may also do some collision reconstruction to fully understand what happened.

Once the police have collected all the relevant evidence, they’ll put together a police report. The report may include who is at fault, but its main purpose is to get to the bottom of what happened.

An insurance adjuster will then review the police report — along with any additional information you send them — before making the final determination as to who was at fault.

Insurance companies evaluate this based on the legal concept of negligence.

If you fail to act or react in a way that a reasonable person would under the same set of circumstances, you will be found negligent.

Some insurance companies also make use of “comparative negligence”: that means a percentage of fault is assigned to each of the parties involved. A related concept is “contributory negligence,” which your insurance company may use to reduce your payout from an insurance claim if you are partially at fault for an accident.

What exactly should I do after an accident?

a woman using a smart phone to take a photo of the damage to her car caused by a car crash
Dario Lo Presti / Shutterstock

When you’re involved in a collision, there are a few automobile accident rules you’ll need to follow.

First, it’s important to make sure everyone is safe and unhurt. If there are injuries, call 911 right away to get emergency services to the scene.

If everyone is OK, turn off your vehicle and get yourself to safety, whether that’s the sidewalk or the side of the road. At this point, if you haven’t already, call 911 to report the accident.

When there’s another driver involved, you can start by swapping details: contact information; insurance details; car make, color and year; your driver's license number and plate number. Jot down the exact address or intersection of the accident as well.

This is important: Never leave the scene of an accident without checking in with the other driver and exchanging information.

But keep your talk with the other driver focused on exchanging details. The Insurance Information Institute recommends drivers don’t get into who is at fault while waiting for police to respond. Leave that to the insurance company.

Instead, make detailed notes about the scene, take some pictures and prepare to give a statement to the police. Police will either come to the scene or ask you to go to the nearest police station to file a report yourself.

Then you can give your insurance company a call to inform them of the accident.

What is no-fault accident insurance?

senior man and insurance agent claim process after car crash
mojo cp / Shutterstock

In most states, even if the blame can be split 49% to 51%, the ultimate responsibility will generally fall to one party — and their insurance company will be the one to foot the bill.

But some states follow the “no-fault” car insurance system.

With auto insurance, the term “no-fault” means that, if you are injured or your car is damaged in an accident, even when the other party is at fault, your own insurance company, not the other party's, will be responsible for settling your claim.

When you file a claim, it will be through the “personal injury protection,” or PIP provision, of your car insurance policy.

The no-fault states are: the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Utah.

Each of those states has its own rules and regulations, but you’ll be required to ensure you have PIP insurance coverage on top of your traditional liability coverage.

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What happens if I’m at fault in a car accident?

broken car after the accident in foreground, upset man sitting on curb
Anastasiya Aleksandrenko / Shutterstock

Hey, it happens. A split-second decision you make on the road may sometimes be the wrong one.

Even if you know in the moment that you’re at fault, avoid admitting that at the scene of the accident. Take down the details, snap some photos and exchange information with the other driver. Then sit tight for the police to arrive.

When you’re talking to the police, be honest in your account of what happened. Both the police and your insurance adjuster will be going over all the details and taking accounts from witnesses to determine who was at fault, so it’s best to just be truthful upfront.

If all the evidence points towards your being at fault, the next steps will rely mostly on the type of auto insurance you have. Not all types of insurance cover everything.

If anyone has been injured, you’ll need to have bodily injury liability to help pay for any medical expenses for anyone involved in the accident. Collision coverage will pay for any repairs to the vehicles involved.

Every state has a different minimum car insurance requirement, so make sure you’ve got the legally required coverage for your area. If you don’t have enough to cover both the people and property damage, you may want to switch car insurance now; otherwise, you could be on the hook for those damages out of pocket.

How to get over a car accident that was your fault

Happy family riding in a car
Soloviova Liudmyla / Shutterstock

Even the best drivers cause accidents sometimes. Try not to beat yourself up too much, especially if no one was injured.

In most states, (unless you’re in a no-fault state) you’ll make an insurance claim and your company will settle up the whole bill for any repairs or medical bills that resulted from the accident. That’s why you have insurance in the first place.

But what happens to your insurance premiums? That depends. They may not automatically rise if you have a good driving record or the circumstances around the accident don’t indicate a certain level of negligence on your part.

And if this is your first accident and you have accident forgiveness, the collision will go on your record but your insurance rates should be unaffected.

But even if it’s not your first accident and you were completely at fault, your insurance won’t be impacted forever. Generally, car accidents stay on your insurance record for three to five years.

If you keep a clean record for the next few years, you should soon be back to your good standing as a driver.

I still think I’m paying too much for my insurance

Man using calculator and calculate bills in home office.
wutzkohphoto / Shutterstock

If you find your auto insurance keeps going up or you’re a new driver, it simply may be time to switch insurance providers.

SmartFinancial can help you find the best rate on an auto insurance policy by drawing on intelligent technology and personalized advice.


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Sigrid Forberg Associate Editor

Sigrid’s is Moneywise.com's associate editor, and she has also worked as a reporter and staff writer on the Moneywise team.


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