How Does Car Insurance Work?

How Does Car Insurance Work?

Car insurance protects you financially by paying for the costs that may arise after a crash or if your car is damaged or stolen.

When you have car insurance, your insurance company will pay for damage to your car, your medical bills and damage to others that you're responsible for — as long as the incident is covered by your policy.

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Car insurance helps you manage the financial risks of owning and driving a car. Chances are, you won't be involved in a car crash this year, but if you are, your insurance policy can pay for the damage — and you won't be stuck with a sudden bill for thousands of dollars.

Most of the premium you pay your insurance company goes toward covering other people's claims, with a smaller portion of it covering your insurer's operating costs. This includes the cost of adjusting and paying claims and setting premiums by assessing how likely its customers are to get in a crash or file a claim.

There are four main types of car insurance coverage: liability protection, collision coverage, comprehensive coverage and personal injury protection. Each of these insurance types covers different situations. For example, your liability insurance will pay for the repairs to the other driver's car after an accident, while collision coverage will pay for the repairs to your own car.

What is car insurance?

Auto insurance covers the cost of damage when a car accident occurs. The types of damage include:

  • Hitting a telephone pole
  • Hitting a deer or other animal
  • Getting into a car accident or fender bender
  • Having a tree fall onto your hood

No matter how safe and skilled a driver you are, you cannot control factors like the weather, the state of the roads or the actions of other people. By buying an auto insurance policy, you're paying the insurer so that, if an accident occurs, you are financially protected and don't have to pay an overwhelming amount of money toward repairs.

What does car insurance pay for?

All auto insurance exists to protect you in case of an unexpected accident. However, different kinds of auto insurance cover different kinds of accident scenarios. These types of car insurance, among others, include:

  • Bodily injury and property damage liability insurance
  • Comprehensive and collision coverage
  • Personal injury protection (PIP) and medical payments coverage (MedPay)
  • Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage

Here’s how these different kinds of car insurance work:

Liability auto insurance

As its name implies, liability auto insurance covers the other person's damages when you are liable, or at fault, in a car accident. Most states mandate liability coverage, and states that don't require liability coverage require you to prove that you are financially responsible for any damages.

Liability auto insurance policies combine two different types of coverage:

  • Bodily injury (BI)
  • Property damage (PD)

Bodily injury liability insurance covers any costs that arise from bodily injury to the other party, ranging from funeral costs or lost wages to medical and dental bills. Property damage liability insurance covers the costs of repairs to or replacement of the other party's property damaged in an accident, whether that is their car, home or some other object.

When you call an insurer to ask about liability insurance, the agent will generally quote you three numbers in a row, such as 25/50/10 or 15/30/10. Called "split limits", these numbers represent the maximum amount your insurer will pay to cover:

  • Bodily damages to one person.
  • Bodily damages to all people involved in the accident.
  • All property damage caused to others in an accident.

Each state sets minimum requirements for liability damages. If you drive without insurance that meets these minimum limits, you could be subject to fines or even jail time.

If, on the other hand, you are at fault in an accident and the damages go above these minimums, you are responsible for paying the remainder. If the other driver sues you, you could forfeit all your assets to pay for the damages.

Given this risk, experts recommend that you purchase the maximum amount of liability coverage you can afford, ideally enough to cover your total net worth or more.

Comprehensive and collision car insurance

Liability insurance only covers damage you do to someone else's person or property. It does not cover any damage caused to your own property.

Physical damage car insurance, by contrast, covers the cost of damage to your car. If you want to avoid paying for the full cost of repairs if you are at fault in an accident, you should purchase this kind of insurance.

There are two kinds of physical damage car insurance:

  • Collision coverage: pays for damage to your car if you are at fault in an accident. If it's unclear who is at fault, collision coverage will still pay for your repairs.
  • Comprehensive coverage: covers damage to your car that does not occur during a collision. This damage could result from theft, vandalism or natural disasters. Despite what its name indicates, however, comprehensive car insurance does not cover everything. Personal items stolen out of your car, for instance, are not covered.

While collision and comprehensive coverage are both optional, we recommend purchasing them both. If you don't have this coverage, you will be responsible for the full cost of repairs to your car after an accident. If you do, you will only need to pay your deductible, and insurance will pay the rest.

Personal injury protection and MedPay

Personal injury protection (PIP), also known as "no-fault insurance", pays medical bills for you and your passengers after an accident. It is often called no-fault insurance because your insurer pays regardless of who is at fault in an accident.

Some PIP insurance covers lost wages, household and child care expenses, and funeral costs. States vary as to whether they require PIP, but because medical bills can quickly become crushingly expensive, it is a good idea to purchase it if you can.

Another option that many consumers choose is MedPay. Though comparable to PIP, MedPay only covers medical and funeral costs and generally does not cover lost wages, psychiatric care or rehabilitative care, as PIP does.

Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage

If the other driver is at fault in an accident, their liability insurance should cover your repairs. "Should" is the crucial word here, however. One in every eight drivers on the road is uninsured, which means there is a significant chance that you could get into an accident with a driver who lacks the insurance needed to cover your damages.

  • Uninsured motorist coverage pays any personal or property damages from an uninsured driver.
  • Underinsured motorist coverage pays any additional personal or property damage costs when the other driver's insurance is insufficient to cover those damages.

Because there are so many uninsured and underinsured drivers on the road, some states require drivers to carry this kind of coverage as part of the minimum insurance requirements.

Rental insurance

Rental car coverage helps pay for a rental car or sometimes alternate transportation while your car's being repaired after a claim. But you'll typically need both collision and comprehensive coverage before you can add this coverage to your policy.

If another driver causes a crash, their liability insurance should help cover the cost for you to rent a similar car while yours is in the shop. Your own insurance would cover a rental car if you have rental car reimbursement and you're at fault for a collision.

Rental car reimbursement also covers you for a comprehensive claim that puts your car out of commision, such as if you hit a pole or a tree limb falls on your car.

Gap insurance

Gap insurance covers a scenario in which you have a car loan or lease and the car is totaled in an accident or stolen.

Comprehensive and collision coverage will only pay the car's actual cash value, and because cars depreciate in value so quickly, there is often a gap between the car's cash value and how much you owe on your car loan.

Gap insurance covers that amount, paying the difference in the event that you can no longer use your car because of theft or damages. It is an optional type of coverage you can add to your existing policy.

Roadside assistance coverage

Ever been stuck on the side of the road with a flat? Roadside assistance coverage helps you get out of this common situation.

Paying for roadside assistance coverage on your auto insurance policy means you'll get professional help when you run into common car problems, such as needing to have your battery jump-started, your car towed or your flat changed. Like gap insurance, roadside assistance is an additional type of coverage you can add to your existing policy.

How do you pay for auto insurance?

The payment structure for auto insurance can be confusing. The following explains the various pieces of an auto insurance policy and who pays for each:

  • Premium: the amount of money you pay the insurance company for the coverage it provides. Payments are usually made once a month or every six months.
  • Deductible: comprehensive and collision car insurance include a number known as a deductible. The deductible is the amount of money you must pay after every incident before your insurance company begins to cover costs. As a general rule, a higher premium gives you a lower deductible and a lower deductible results in a higher premium.
  • Limit: how much money the insurance company will spend on an accident after you have paid your premium and, when applicable, your deductible.

Insurers take different approaches to calculating premium costs, but a few things remain consistent from insurer to insurer:

  • Personal details: Age, gender and location all factor into how much you pay in premiums.
  • Credit and driving history: If you've proven yourself responsible behind the wheel and with your money, your premium will likely be lower.
  • Car type: Want a fast, new and expensive car? It'll cost you to insure it. Insurance companies typically charge higher premiums for cars that are more costly to repair.
  • Which coverages you include: Want to add roadside assistance or gap insurance? You'll pay more for these added coverages.
  • Discounts: Are you a student with good grades? Have you served in the military? Are you willing to pay the full cost of a six-month policy up front? These are just a few reasons insurers may be willing to offer you a discount.
  • Number of people covered on the policy: Do you have a family of four? A house of six roommates? The more drivers added to your policy, the more risk that one of them will get in a crash. Your premium will likely increase to reflect that risk.

How car insurance works after an accident

You've done your research, compared the best quotes and purchased a policy. You hope that you never have to use it, but eventually an accident occurs and you do.

If you get into a car accident, you'll need to gather information and evidence and contact your insurance company if you plan to file a claim.

Collect all relevant evidence and documentation

Did you get into an accident? Here's what you should do:

  • Pull off the road to a safe place.
  • Call the police.
  • Collect as many details about the accident as you can.
  • Photograph the damage.
  • Write a brief summary of the accident on your phone.
  • Take down information about the other driver's car and insurance information.
  • Be sure to get the name of their insurance company and their policy number.

Avoid making any statements that imply you accept fault, and do not let the other driver know how much coverage you have.

If you have better coverage than the other driver, they may take advantage of that fact and blame you for the accident so they do not have to pay for the damage. Silence — except for exchanging information — is generally the best approach, unless you have good reason to believe the other driver's life is in danger.

Reach out to your insurance company

Having assembled all the relevant information, it's time to let your insurance company do what you're paying it to do. Here are the steps you should take:

Call your insurance company to open a case.

Give your insurer as much detail as possible to speed up the claims process.

File the report quickly.

It's important to submit your claim before the insurer's claim filing deadline and the state's statute of limitations deadline.

Once the initial call is complete, your insurer will hand your claim over to a claims adjuster or claims specialist. This person is your go-to for all questions regarding repairs, medical expenses and other aspects of your coverage.

The claims adjuster will assess the damage, determine how much compensation you are owed and sometimes direct you to a specific shop or company for repairs. The money offered to you is known as a settlement offer. Many states have laws requiring companies to make this offer within a certain amount of time after you file the initial claim.

If you feel that the settlement offer is insufficient, you can negotiate it.

Be prepared to make your case as convincingly as possible, and come prepared to back up your position. You may need to take legal action if the counteroffer the company makes is insufficient.

Remember also that the company is not obligated to pay you more than the maximum amount of coverage on your policy. You are responsible for any additional expenses after your coverage maxes out.

If you believe the other driver or drivers are at fault for the accident, reach out to their insurance company to explain the situation. You may be entitled to have your repairs paid for by their liability coverage.

Certain states, however, are no-fault states and mandate that all drivers have personal injury protection. If you live in one of these states, then there is no need to file a claim with the other driver's insurance company. You would file a claim with your own insurer.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.