What you need to know before you crash your car

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Young people involved in a car crash

Accidents can happen. Make sure you know what you have to do if you are involved in a car accident.

I had my first car crash the other day. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. Happily, it wasn't my fault. The car in front stopped sharply on a dark and rainy night to let a pedestrian cross. I stopped also. Then I felt a bump from behind.

The knock wasn't hard enough to justify a whiplash claim (although that wouldn't have stopped some people), but the driver behind had hooked himself on my towbar.

We were shackled together for two hours, but at least we were civil. So we sat in his car, waiting for his recovery service to separate us, working out what we needed to do.

Mopping up after even a minor road accident is complicated. Here are the things you need to know BEFORE you have an accident.

You have to stop

Never leave the scene of an accident, even a minor one. Failing to do so is an offence under the Road Traffic Act.

The maximum fine for failing to stop is £5,000 and five to 10 penalty points on your licence. You could face up to six months' in prison.

You are obliged stop if you kill or injure dogs, horses, cattle, sheep and goats, but not cats or wildlife (sorry, cat lovers).

Switch off your engine and turn on your hazard lights, if necessary, to alert other drivers. That may sound obvious, but you never know how you will react at the time.

Check if anybody is injured. If so, call the police, and, if necessary, an ambulance. The police don't attend routine traffic accidents, unless you're blocking the road.

Next, swap details with the driver, and anybody else involved. You're legally obliged to hand over details such as your name and contact numbers, the name and address of your motor insurer, and your policy number.

If both parties stopped at the scene and exchanged details, and nobody was hurt, you don't have to report the accident to the police. Road traffic law has been complied with and the police won't take a report.

Otherwise you should report the accident within 24 hours.

But that's not all you should do.

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There's a lot of form filling

Luckily, the driver who ran into me pulled out an accident claim form from his glove box, and I discovered to my surprise that I had one as well, folded inside my warranty booklet. I didn't realise it was there.

If you don't have the form, request one from your insurance company. It may allow you to print one off online.

The form nudges you to complete details such as registration numbers, time and date of the crash, make and model of cars, details of witnesses, insurance company details, a description of the weather conditions, and the quality of road and lighting at the time.

There is usually space to draw a sketch showing the positions of the vehicles involved.

Filling in the forms can help pass the time while you're waiting for the mess to be cleared up.

Avoid getting into a row

In my case, it was pretty obvious who was legally at fault, but I didn't point the finger, and nor should you. That's for the police and insurance companies to decide.

If you think you're at fault, politely avoid accepting blame, even if the other driver tries to bully you into an admission of guilt.

Any apology may limit your insurer's ability to fight your case, even if it turns out you were not legally liable after all.

Luckily, my crash was amicable. If the other driver gets aggressive, or tries to drive off without exchanging details, call the police. At the very least, scribble down their licence number.

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Take photos of the scene

Amazingly, I never thought of taking photos of the crash or road conditions. But you should.

This is easier these days, when so many people carry smartphones. Take shots of the damage to your vehicle, and any other vehicles and property. Also take photos of any contributory factors, such as debris on the road, weather conditions, road layout, and position of the vehicles when the accident occurred. Take a shot or two of the other driver's number plate as well, just in case.

And if your car is towed away to be repaired, remember to remove all your personal belongings.

There's a slim chance it could be fraud

Most car accidents are unintentional, but some are deliberately staged. So-called 'crash for cash' gangs operate all over the country, engineering road accidents with innocent drivers, then filing false personal injury claims worth thousands of pounds.

A typical ploy is to slam on their brakes at a roundabout, so that you smash into the back of their car. Sometimes the crook sneakily disables their brake lights, to slow your reaction time.

If you suspect criminality, don't confront the driver with your suspicions. You might be wrong. Worse, you might be right, and they (and any mates) could turn nasty. Swap details in the usual way, then pass on your suspicions to the insurance company and police.

The Insurance Fraud Bureau has a dedicated team cracking frauds like crash for cash. You can call its cheatline on 0800 422 0421 or visit www.insurancefraudbureau.org.

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You have to tell your insurer

You need to tell your insurer as soon as you can, even if you don't intend to claim on your policy. If you don't, and it finds out later, it could refuse to give you cover in future.

You can still pay for any repairs yourself, to protect your no-claims discount. This is well worth doing if the repairs are likely to be cheaper than your policy excess.

Making a claim could also bump up your future premiums.

So check the likely cost of repairs, before you are funnelled into your insurer's approved repairer network.

I was lucky. Because the accident wasn't my fault, the other chap's insurance company paid everything, including my excess. The crash didn't cost me a penny.

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