What Is an At-Fault Accident?

Distraught woman on cellphone at car accident scene, leaning against her car
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An at-fault accident is one in which you or your insurance company will be the one to pay for damages. It will often affect your auto insurance rates if you're found to be the driver at fault for an accident.

Key Takeaways

  • An at-fault accident is one where the driver did something or failed to take an action that caused the incident.
  • At-fault actions can include drunk driving, texting while driving, or ignoring traffic signs and warnings.
  • Car insurance companies in most states will consider fault when paying out claims.

Definition and Examples of At-Fault Accidents

An "at fault" accident is one that's caused by a driver. It can result from some action they took or because they failed to take an action.

You can still be considered the driver at fault even if the police or your insurance company divide the blame 51% to you and 49% to the other party. But some types of accidents are clearer in terms of liability and fault.

Rear-Ending Another Car

You might have been driving too aggressively or following too closely if you hit the back of the car in front of you. Insurance companies will often assume the fault is yours when this happens.

Driving Under the Influence

It will cast a lot of doubt on any statement you make about your accident if you were driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI). Drunk driving is such a risky practice that it will cause most insurance companies to raise your rates right away. Your license can be suspended in 42 states as well if you receive a DUI or DWI.


It might even be legal for your insurance company to refuse to make payment for your injuries if you receive a DWI or DUI.

Not Obeying Traffic Signals

It's referred to as a "moving violation" if you don't follow traffic and obey signals, signs, or directives. There are many kinds of moving violations, including driving through a red light, failure to yield, rolling through stop signs, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Your insurance company will assume that you're to blame if you ignore traffic signs or signals and then crash. These types of violations can also result in points being added to your license. More points can result in higher insurance costs.

Using a Cell Phone While Driving

Using your phone while driving isn't against the law in all states, but texting while driving is banned in 48 states and the District of Columbia as of 2021.

Being on your phone doesn't always mean that you were at fault if an accident happens, but you should be truthful when telling police what you were doing when you crashed.


Distracted driving is a big red flag for insurance companies. You can probably count on your insurance rates going up if you're ticketed for texting and driving. Your rates will also increase if you cause a crash or fender bender because you were on your phone.

How Does At-Fault Accident Insurance Work?

Insurance companies decide who's at fault in an accident by relying on the legal concept of negligence. This means that you failed to act in a way that a reasonable person would act if they were faced with the same situation.

Your insurance company might use "comparative negligence" to assign a percentage of fault to each driver involved in the accident, or it might assign "contributory negligence." The payout you receive could go down based on how much your actions contributed to the incident.

Each state is unique, but insurance is fault-based in most states. States in which this is the case are also known as "tort" states.

The insurance company of the at-fault driver pays repairs, medical expenses, and other costs in tort states. Medical costs for the insured person are paid by their insurance company, up to a certain amount in no-fault states. Property damage is covered by the at-fault driver's insurance.

What It Means if You're in an At-Fault Accident

The best way to avoid being at fault is to obey the law and drive safely. But you may still be found at fault sometimes. You might make a choice in a split second that ends up being the wrong one.

The best thing to do if you're in a crash or fender bender is to not admit fault at the scene of the crash. Take photos of the damage, and exchange insurance information. Wait for the police to show up. Then give a truthful account of what happened.

The insurance adjuster will review your side of the story, as well as the police report, the other party's version of events, and the damage done. Then they'll decide who was at fault.


The kind of insurance you have will play a big part in what happens next if you're found to be at fault. Bodily injury liability coverage will help pay the medical expenses for you, any other people in your car, and the other driver. Collision coverage pays to repair the car.

Make sure you understand your state's minimum car insurance requirements. You'll want to have full coverage for personal liability and property damage liability if you're found to be at fault. You can be sued for the additional costs if your insurance doesn't cover the damage to people or property when you cause an accident.

Sometimes you can't avoid an accident. Your insurance rates will often rise when this happens regardless. But there are steps you can take to avoid being the cause of a crash. Put your phone away while driving. Avoid using alcohol or drugs that may impair how well you drive. Obey all the legal and safety rules of the road.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. GEICO. "4 Common Collisions and How to Avoid Them."

  2. State Farm. "The Real Consequences of Drunk Driving."

  3. Esurance. "Moderate Moving Violations: Texting and Driving, Improper Passing, and Other Infractions."

  4. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "State Laws on Distracted Driving—Ban on Hand-Held Devices and Texting While Driving."

  5. HG.org Legal Resources. "I Was on My Phone at the Time of the Car Accident."

  6. American Family Insurance. "How to Prevent Distracted Driving Accidents."

  7. Allstate Insurance Company. "The Blame Game: How Fault Is Determined After a Car Accident."

  8. American Family Insurance. "A Guide to At-Fault Car Accidents."

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