Is My Car Totaled?

A Closer Look at What Makes a Vehicle a Total Loss

Image by Vin Ganapathy © The Balance 2019 

“Is my car totaled?” is a common question asked after a severe accident. Being totaled means that the insurance company has deemed your vehicle is not worth the cost to repair and would rather pay for you to get a new one than the cost of repairs.

However, the idea of being totaled only matters if you have comprehensive coverage.

If you only have liability coverage and you total your vehicle, you had better have a lot of money saved up, because not one cent of the damage to your own car is going to be covered if you get into an accident (or if a tree falls on top of your car, a hailstorm pummels your car, or if your car is stolen...but if you’ve decided to buy the cheaper option of liability insurance, you’re probably willing to take this risk). But if you have comprehensive coverage, you’re probably wondering whether or not you’re going to have to give up your vehicle forever, or just for the duration of the time that it is in the repair shop. (If you’re wondering if you have to actually make the repairs once the insurance company has paid for them, the answer is complicated).

Many times, you would be amazed what a body shop can fix. Other times, with severe damage, you are much better off not repairing the vehicle and taking the total loss settlement from your insurer as long as you are covered by your insurance policy. In this article, you’ll learn more about what goes into determining if a vehicle is a total loss and whether or not you can keep a vehicle after it has been totaled.

A Totaled Car is Determined by State Requirements

Different states have different definitions of a total loss vehicle. Some states consider a vehicle totaled using the guidelines that if a vehicle's damage exceeds 80% of the actual cash value it is headed for the junkyard. Claim's adjusters use specialized computer software to determine the cost of the damage versus the actual cash value. It all depends on your individual insurance company’s methods of calculating total loss as well as your state’s laws.

My Airbag Deployed. Is the Car Automatically Totaled?

It is often said that a deployed airbag means a vehicle is totaled, which is not always true. The reason so many people believe this is because a high percentage of vehicles are totaled after the airbag deploys for a couple of reasons. Lots of people carry physical damage coverage on aging vehicles which have highly depreciated. Airbags are very expensive, upwards of $1,000. So when an older model vehicle has a deployed airbag, plus the body damage which caused the airbag to deploy in the first place, often the vehicle is totaled.

Example: John has a vehicle that is 9 years old and carries comprehensive coverage on his insurance policy. He hits a deer on the highway and his airbag deploys. The cost of replacing the airbag and the physical damage to the front end exceeds the total actual cash value of the vehicle. His insurance company totals his vehicle out because it is not worth fixing.

Newer vehicles depending on the value of the vehicle purchased could possibly be repaired. A new Hyundai Accent could still be totaled out fairly easily with a deployed airbag, whereas a new Cadillac Escalade might still be worth fixing.

Example: John is driving his 6-month-old Cadillac Escalade on an icy highway. A traffic backup leaves him unable to stop and he rear-ends another vehicle. His airbag is deployed and there is front-end damage to his vehicle. The damage reaches 50% of the vehicle's actual cash value so the insurance company repairs the vehicle like, kind, and quality.

Can I Keep My Car if It is Totaled?

It is possible to buy back your vehicle with a salvage title once it is deemed a total loss, though that is not usually a great idea for a variety of reasons. Insurance companies pay actual cash value for a totaled vehicle minus the deductible. You have the option to pay the insurance company a small fee plus the salvage value of the vehicle in some states. Once you buy the vehicle back, it is yours to do with as you please. You will need to check with your insurance company to see if any restrictions apply to insuring a vehicle with a salvage title.

Knowing whether or not your vehicle is totaled is the first step in the claims process. If you are still unsure whether or not your vehicle is totaled, file your claim and ask your claims adjuster for more information. It is times like these you learn how good the customer service is provided by your insurance company.

Article Sources

  1. Allstate. "When Is a Car Considered Totaled?" Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  2. Geico. "Learn More About Car Insurance Coverage." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  3. American Family Insurance. "Total Car Loss: What Does It Mean?" Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  4. Carfax. "Airbag Safety Check: Fraud, Theft and Recycled Airbags." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  5. General Insurance. "Insurance for a Salvage Title Car." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  6. State Farm. "What Happens if Your Car Is Totaled?" Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  7. Safety Insurance. "Auto Total Loss FAQs." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.