At the scene of your car accident, you probably won't have a choice about stopping. The accident will stop you. However, if you have a choice . . . always stop! No matter how minor the accident is, you must stop as close as possible to the scene without obstructing traffic. If you know that you've been in a car accident but don't stop, you can be charged with the crime of leaving the scene of an accident. (Learn more about why you should never leave the scene of an accident.)
For some reason, hit and run car accidents have become a much bigger problem than they used to be.
Obviously, some of these drivers are impaired by alcohol or drugs. If there is anything worse than a drunk driver, it is a drunk driver who causes an accident and then flees the scene. Others are drivers with no license. Perhaps their license has been suspended or revoked because of prior traffic violations, or they never had a license to begin with. Then there are drivers who want to avoid detection because they are uninsured and don't want to be financially responsible themselves for the damage that they have done. Even though liability insurance is required in every state, you'd be stunned at the number of uninsured drivers on the road.
If you witness someone hitting and running, be a good citizen. Get the license plate number and report it to the police. If you can do it safely, whip out your cell phone camera and make a picture of the car that has hit and run -- emphasizing its tag, of course.
Penalties for hit-and-run vary from state to state and depend on the circumstances. Obviously, penalties will be much greater if you leave the scene of an accident in which someone was hurt than if you leave the scene of a property damage accident. It is a felony in 47 states to leave the scene of a car accident that results in a fatality.
To do the right thing -- and avoid criminal penalties -- what do you do if you damage a car, or someone's mailbox, or some other private property, and the owner is not around? Stop, and try to locate the owner. If you hit a car parked in front of a building, there is a good chance that the owner is in that building. If the car is parked in short term parking, there's a good chance that the owner will return soon. Wait.
If you can't locate the owner, call the police and report the accident. There's a good chance, however, that the police won't come to the scene if there is only minor damage. Many police agencies (especially in metropolitan areas) don't respond to accident scenes if there is no injury, severe property damage or obvious traffic violation. If the police won't come, before you leave, put a note on the windshield of the damaged car with your name, your address, your phone number, the name of your insurance company and your policy number. Also report the accident to your insurance company.
Say you return to your car in a public parking lot and find a big dent in the side, something that will cost a bundle to repair. Since you don't know who hit you, you can't make the responsible person pay for the damage. Are you just out of luck?
No, you're not out of luck, if you have uninsured motorists property damage (UMPD) insurance. However, check to see if you have a deductible on your property damage uninsured motorists coverage. Some states have it, some states don't. As you know, a deductible means that you have to pay the first part of what the insurance covers -- in this case, vehicle repairs -- before your insurance kicks in. If you have a deductible, it might not make financial sense to make the uninsured motorists claim. For example, you wouldn't want to submit a $300 claim if you have a $500 deductible. You wouldn't get anything.
If you have uninsured motorists coverage, and the economics of the situation justify the claim, promptly contact your insurance company, tell them that you are making an uninsured motorists claim and follow their directions for getting your vehicle repaired.