The average U.S. driver will have about four car accidents over the course of their lifetime. That works out to one every 18 years. In most cases, having an auto accident is a question of when, not if.
The good news is that your crashes are unlikely to be deadly or cause significant personal injury to you or anyone else. (Though costly repairs are a reality in many cases.) But accidents, no matter how serious, can be scary and confusing. Learn how police reports work and whether or not to file one. It will help you prepare.
When Are You Required to File an Accident Report?
All states have their own rules about when you must file an accident report. For example, New York requires that you file a report if someone was injured or if there was more than $1,000 in property damage. In Alabama, however, you must file a report when an accident results in death, personal injury, or more than $250 in damage. So, it's a good idea to know law in your state.
Here's why you should file no matter what.
What Happens After the Accident?
You won't be legally required to file a report after every accident. Let's say that the damage was minor, no one suffered any injury, and everyone involved was properly licensed, fully insured, and nice to each other. Seems like you could let it go, right?
Wrong. The problem is not what happens at the accident. It's what happens later after everyone has thought about it a while. And starts to get a bit achy. Not you, of course, but everyone else.
After a crash, you may be shaken up and not thinking clearly. As a result, your view of the facts may be cloudy or change just a day or two later. And that's why you should file a report, even if the law says you don't have to.
You may not think you need a police report when you are at the scene. But there's no way of telling until later on. By then, it may be too late to avoid being sued for damage you may or may not have caused. If you call the police, they will be able to attest to the reality on the ground. They will know who appears to be injured. They will record the damage to each vehicle and any other property.
If the police aren’t involved, it will be your word against another driver’s word. This can come back to bite you.
Regardless of whether or not you dial 911, you need to document everything at the scene of the crash. Take lots of photos—of your car, of their car, of the surrounding area—so that you can use those pictures in any lawsuits that arise.
Do You Need a Report for Insurance?
In most cases, you will not need a police report to file a claim with your insurer. This is true unless there is a lot of damage or something unusual happens, such as the other driver fleeing the scene. But, giving a police report to your adjuster will likely speed up the claims process.
Private Property Accidents
In most states, the police will not file a report for accidents that happen on private property.
What is private property? Private property would include a home. For instance, if your friend backs into your car while in your driveway. Or, if your teenage driver backs into your garage door.
Maybe more surprising is the local grocery store parking lot is considered private property. That means it's up to you to get the info needed to file a car insurance claim.
One of the first things the police dispatch will ask you is what is the location of the accident. If it is private property, most likely they will inform you that the police will not come to file a report.
Police reports are for accidents occurring on backstreets, highways, city roads, and country roads.
Other Times Not to File a Police Report
A police report should be used to document accidents with two or more parties. It should also be used to record any significant damages to property or any injuries. If you simply run into a phone pole and damage your bumper, you do not have to call the police. Just document the damage and move on.