What Is an At-Fault Accident?

What You Need to Know About At-Fault Accidents in Less Than 5 Minutes

Woman on cell phone at car accident scene
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Whether you're "at fault" in an accident will determine whether you (or your insurance company) is required to pay for damages. It's not required that you receive a ticket from a police officer to be considered at fault in the eyes of an insurance company, and it's more than likely that you are at fault if you're involved in a single-vehicle accident. In any case, it will most likely affect your auto insurance rates.

What Does "At-Fault" Mean?

An "at fault" accident is one that's caused by a driver, either through some action they took or because they failed to take an action. You can still be considered to be at fault even if the police or your insurance company divide the blame 51% to you and 49% to the other party.

Examples of At-Fault Accidents

Some types of accidents are pretty cut-and-dry in terms of liability and fault.

Rear-Ending Another Vehicle

It's likely that you were driving too aggressively or following too closely if you hit the back of another car from behind. Insurance companies are typically going to assume that fault is yours in this circumstance.

Driving Under the Influence

It will cast considerable doubt on any testimony you give regarding your accident if you were driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) at the time of the incident. Drunk driving is such a risky practice that most insurance companies will raise your rates after a conviction, and your license can be suspended in 42 states as well.

Your insurance company might even be legally permitted to refuse to make payment for your injuries.

Not Obeying Traffic Signals

Disobeying or disregarding any traffic signal, sign, or directive is referred to as a moving violation. Blowing through a red light is an example. Failure to yield, rolling through stop signs, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street are also moving violations.

It's a logical conclusion for the insurance company that your negligence is to blame if you disregard traffic signs or signals and you crash. These violations can also result in points being added to your license, and points can result in higher insurance premiums as well.

Using a Cell Phone While Driving

Texting while driving is banned in 47 states, although using your phone while driving isn't strictly outlawed in all states. Being on your phone doesn't automatically mean that you were at fault for an accident, but you should be truthful when recounting to police what the circumstances were when you crashed.

Distracted driving is a big red flag for insurance companies, so you can probably count on your insurance rates going up if you're ticketed for texting and driving, or if you cause an accident because you were on your phone.

How Does At-Fault Accident Insurance Work?

Insurance companies decide who's at fault in an accident by relying on the legal concept of negligence: You failed to act in a way that a reasonable person would act when faced with the same situation.

Your insurance company might use "comparative negligence" to assign a percentage of fault to each driver involved in the accident, or it might assign "contributory negligence." This means that the insurance company might reduce any payout based on how much your actions contributed to the incident.

Insurance is fault-based in most states, although each state is different. Also known as "tort" states, the insurance company of the at-fault driver in fault-based states pays the bill for repairs, medical expenses, and other costs. Medical costs for the insured person are paid by their insurance company (up to a certain amount) in no-fault states, and property damage is covered by the at-fault driver's insurance.

Key Takeaways

  • At at-fault accident is one where the driver committed some action—or failed to take an action—that caused the incident.
  • At-fault actions can include drunk driving, texting while driving, or ignoring traffic signs and warnings.
  • Insurance companies in most states will consider fault when paying out accident insurance claims.

What to Do If You're in an At-Fault Accident

Although the best way to avoid being at fault is to obey the law and drive safely, you may still be found at fault sometimes. Decisions can be made in a split second that end up being the wrong choice.

The best advice is to refrain from admitting fault at the scene of the crash. Take photos of the damage, exchange insurance information, and wait for the police to show up—then give them a truthful account when they do. The insurance adjuster will review your side of the story, the police report, the other party's version of events, and the damage done, then come up with their determination of who's at fault.

The kind of insurance you have will play a big part in what happens next if you're found to be at fault. Bodily injury liability will help pay the medical expenses for injuries to you, your passengers, and the other driver. Collision coverage pays to repair the car.

Make sure you understand your state's minimum car insurance requirements, so you at least have full coverage for personal liability and property damage liability if you're found to be at fault. You can be sued for the additional costs involved if you haven't purchased adequate insurance to cover damages caused to people or property when you have an accident.

Sometimes accidents are unavoidable—and unfortunately, they're often accompanied by rising insurance rates. But there are measures you can take to avoid causing an accident, such as putting your phone away while driving, avoiding the consumption of substances that may impair your ability to drive, and obeying all the legal and safety rules of the road.