How to Report a Car Accident in California

At Sally Morin Law we're committed to helping victims recover from car accidents in California whether or not they require the services of a lawyer. Determining if, when, and how to report a car accident can be a difficult thing—especially if you're dealing with the stress or living through a crash. The information below is designed to help you make that reporting process easier and get you started on your personal recovery quicker.

When you've been in a car accident it can instantly throw your life into chaos. You feel like you have to do a hundred things at once while trying to deal with the emotional and mental trauma of the car wreck on top of the pain and suffering associated with any injuries you've experienced. But accident reporting is an essential step in the financial recovery process. In fact, the reporting process is so essential that it's often legally required.

If you're confused about when (or if) you have to report a car accident, or to whom you must report that crash, we're here to help. Below you'll find a helpful guide explaining your rights and obligations concerning reporting car accidents in California.

When to Report a Car Accident

Every state has different thresholds for when car accidents must be reported to local authorities and regulatory agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. In California there are several regulations which govern when a driver must report an accident. As a general guideline you must report car accidents when:

  • Anyone is injured in the crash—even minor injuries like scrapes and bruises
  • Anyone is killed in the crash
  • Property damage reaches or exceeds $1,000 (including damage caused to personal property other than the automobiles involved)
  • Any of the drivers involved are operating without a license
  • Any of the drivers are operating while intoxicated (by drugs or alcohol)

Who you must report a crash to will vary given the specifics of your case as well. You may be required by law to report your accident to the police, your insurance agent, the DMV, or any or all of the above.

Remember, it's your responsibility to report a car accident in California. Never rely on the other parties involved. Why? Because you must report a car accident in California within 10 days or else your driving privileges may be revoked.

How to Report a Car Accident to the Police

California has state-specific laws requiring when and how you must report a car accident to the police. In addition, some localities have local laws (at the county level, for instance) that must be followed as well. Generally you must report accidents to your local police department if:

  • Anyone is injured in the crash
  • The dollar amount of the damage caused reaches $1,000
  • there are any aggravating circumstances (such as one of the drivers operating without a license or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol)

Determining how to report a car accident in California to the police depends on the circumstances of the crash.

For example, you must report an accident by calling 911 if anybody is injured (even minor injuries) in the collision. You must also report the crash this way if anyone is intoxicated at the time of the crash.

If nobody is injured, but the other driver doesn't have a license to operate or flees the scene of the crash, the accident should be reported by calling your nearest police station via the non-emergency contact number or your local PD's help line (for example LAPD's is 1-877-ASK-LAPD).

(Here is a comprehensive list of the police departments and law enforcement agencies in California with contact information included.)

If the dollar amount of the property damage caused in the crash is below $1,000 and there have been no injuries, you don't have to report the accident to the police. You can simply exchange contact and insurance information with the other party involved and follow up with your insurance company at a later date.

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the crash, police investigators may or may not file a police report. If a report is filed, one of the first things you should do is retain a copy of that report.

How to Report a Car Accident to the Insurance Company

If there are no injuries involved in the crash and the repair/replacement costs of having your vehicle fixed are low, you may wish to forego contacting the insurance company after a car accident. Accidents will be recorded on your record and may affect the premium you must pay in order to get or keep an insurance policy.

However, if the accident was caused by another driver, if there were any injuries at all, or if the damages exceed what you're comfortable paying out of pocket you should report your accident to your insurance company.

But what if a reckless or distracted driver caused the crash?

You should still report the accident to your insurance company. At the scene of the accident you should have collected the contact an insurance information for any drivers involved in the wreck. You will give that information to your insurance agency and they will assign an agent to get in touch and negotiate with that driver and/or their insurance company.

If the other driver's policy covers the crash, that policy will pay your expenses and your insurance will not be affected. If that driver doesn't have insurance or their policy limits won't cover all of your expenses, your insurance may kick in and pay the remainder (that's why it's always recommended to purchase uninsured/underinsured driver insurance).

It's also a good idea to call the other driver's insurance agency to see if an accident has been reported to them—never rely on the other driver to self-report their crashes.  

You can report an accident to your insurance company simply by calling the contact number (usually a 1-800 number) listed on your insurance documentation. Some insurance companies even have mobile apps through which you can report and document crashes. (Here are more ways your cellphone can help after an accident.)

How to Report a Car Accident to the DMV in California

California law requires that motorists must report a car accident to the DMV within 10 days if:

  • A person was killed in the accident
  • If the monetary value of the damage caused in the crash is $1,000 or above
  • If anyone was injured (even slightly) you must also report the accident

While you will hopefully never be involved in a fatal car accident in California, even a relatively insignificant "fender bender" can cause well over $1,000. Modern cars are made from plastics and those plastic parts can cost a whole lot more than you might realize to repair or replace.

For example, something as simple as having a rear bumper cover replaced can cost well over $3,000. Replacing a taillight assembly can run upwards of $1,200. It's always best to err on the side of caution and report any accident where any damage is caused to any vehicle involved.

But how do you report a car accident to the DMV? It's fairly simple. You just need to fill out Form SR-1 (entitled "Report of a Traffic Accident Occurring in California"). You can fill the form out yourself. Your insurance agent can do so. Or, if you have suffered serious injuries, your car accident lawyer can do so. The important this is that the form is filled out and submitted within the 10-day grace period.

You can get the SR-1 form online here.

When to Contact a Car Accident Lawyer

Sometimes reporting your car accident to the police or the insurance company isn't enough to get you the compensation you deserve. Police investigators are often primarily concerned with criminal cases while insurance companies may offer policies that simply aren't adequate to cover all the expenses you might incur during and after a car accident. In cases such as this, you can report your car accident to a lawyer and get legal help pursuing financial compensation from at fault parties via a personal injury claim.

You may find yourself in need of a good car accident attorney if:

  • The other driver doesn't have a license
  • The other driver doesn't have insurance
  • The other driver's insurance policy has a payout limit below the actual cost of your accident
  • Your insurance company is refusing to pay the full amount of what you deserve
  • You don't have the time, energy, or expertise to investigate your crash and present a compelling argument for the complete list of financial damages you've suffered

In cases such as this, a car accident attorney will function as your advocate and deal with police investigators, insurance adjusters, hospital billing departments, and more to ensure you get the compensation you truly deserve.

Reporting Your Car Accident is Important

Even if the accident you're involved in is relatively minor, reporting it is essential. Doing so:

  • Starts the documentation/investigation process
  • Provides evidence if you need to file a personal injury claim or go to court
  • Starts the financial recovery process
  • Is legally required in many cases
  • Prevents future legal entanglements

Remember, simply reporting an accident doesn't involve you admitting any fault, won't necessarily affect the insurance premiums you pay, and won't likely require the involvement of any lawyers. However, if you've been seriously injured in the car wreck - like broken bones or anything requiring surgery, you should seek out a focused and experienced car crash lawyer pronto! For an IMMEDIATE and FREE case evaluation online, submit your details here.

So if you've been in a crash, don't hesitate to report that accident. It may seem like a headache now but doing so will make your recovery process much easier. Reporting the accident should be done regardless of whether or not you might need a personal injury attorney for your car accident case.

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