What Happens if I Get Into a Traffic Accident in the United States?

What Happens If I Get Into A Traffic Accident In The United States?

Millions of southern Ontario motorists cross the border into the United States each year. It can be a quick trip to take in a sporting event or a vacation encompassing multiple states. For many, the last thing they are thinking about is what happens in the event of a traffic accident. In Ontario, drivers must carry a minimum of $200,000 of liability coverage in order to legally operate their vehicles but there is no equivalent mandatory minimum insurance requirement in most of the United States. Perhaps more sobering, one in seven U.S. drivers – or 14 per cent – operated a private-passenger vehicle without liability insurance in 2022, according to a report by the Insurance Research Council (IRC). “The pandemic appears to have caused a jump in the percentage of drivers choosing to forgo required insurance, adding to the insurance costs for everyone else,” said IRC president Dale Porfilio. Unfortunately, traffic accidents are an everyday occurrence. In fact, Forbes reported that there were more than 5.2 million collisions on U.S. roadways in 2020. No matter how safely you drive, there are no guarantees you will not be injured in an accident due to someone else’s negligence. Will you be covered in the event of a collision? If you have your own insurance, the answer is yes. However, before you head out to do some shopping in Buffalo or a journey to Florida to visit Disney World, there are some things to keep in mind.

Understand Your Insurance Coverage

You are not legally entitled to drive in Ontario without automobile insurance. However, I find that while many people understand the need for insurance, they do not fully comprehend the scope of their coverage. They are chiefly concerned with the premium and how to keep the cost as low as possible. Saving money is important, but taking the time to consider each option and spending a little extra to bump up your coverage will be well worth it if you find yourself or a family member seriously injured in an accident. In Ontario, every car insurance policy must include uninsured automobile coverage to protect against those driving without proper insurance. All basic car insurance policies have a $200,000 default limit of uninsured motorist coverage. You don’t have to increase this limit but it really is in your best interest if you do. Let’s say you are involved in an accident and the other driver is uninsured. You will still be covered under your policy (under the OAP-1) up to $200,000. Most people carry $1 million third party liability coverage, and with that, the OPCF-44 family protection endorsement. This means that you can claim against your own insurance policy in a lawsuit on the basis that the at-fault driver is uninsured or underinsured, up to the total of your OPCF-44 endorsement (including the $200,000 OAP-1). This should give insured Ontario motorists traveling across the border some peace of mind, especially when learning that U.S. motorists often carry minuscule liability insurance policies. However, $1 million is often not enough, especially if there is more than one injured person in your family. In the unfortunate event that you or someone in your family, or multiple members of your family, suffer a catastrophic injury in a motor vehicle collision that is the fault of an uninsured or underinsured driver, you will find yourself significantly short with only $1 million in OPCF-44 coverage. Plaintiff lawyers are often faced with the situation where they represent severely injured clients who are injured by at-fault motorists with inadequate third-party liability insurance to cover the damages. Also, there are many situations where multiple people are injured in the same accident and are stuck with the insurance limits of the at-fault driver, to be split amongst them on a pro-rata basis. Again, in these situations, it is extremely advantageous if the injured client has their own auto insurance policy with limits of at least $2 million and the OPCF44 endorsement for that same $2 million. People tend not to give the extent of their insurance coverage much thought until they need it. Then it is too late. Paying the modest premium for the extra liability coverage, including the OPCF-44 coverage, is something that every Ontario motorist should consider before they or their family members are ever involved in an accident. Your insurance coverage extends to the U.S. Under the terms of your valid Ontario automobile insurance policy, you have the same protection if you get into an a cross border accident in Niagara Falls, N.Y., as you have if that collision had occurred in Niagara Falls, Ont. If you get into an accident with an at-fault, underinsured driver in Ontario, you are entitled to make a claim and bring a lawsuit against your insurance provider under the OAP-1 and OPCF-44 provisions discussed above. The same thing applies if that accident occurs in the United States. Consider the scenario where a man is injured in a traffic accident in Florida with an at-fault driver who was insured for US$300,000. If the injured man has an Ontario auto insurance policy with a $1 million OPCF-44, he can claim against his own insurer for the difference between US$300,000 and $1 million CAD. If this man had suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury in this accident, he would be dismayed to learn after the fact that for a modest annual premium, he could have had $2 million in third party liability and OPCF-44 coverage. It is very important to consider your limits carefully when choosing a policy and not solely focusing on the lowest premiums.

Details Matter

The terms of your automobile insurance policy are typically laid out each year when it comes up for renewal. Your policy can be full of insurance jargon and, not surprisingly, it is not unusual for people to skim through it and get to the bottom line – the annual cost. It really is worth taking the time to understand your policy and the coverage it includes. Contact your broker. Ask the important questions that contemplate the worst-case scenarios and make sure to protect yourself. While your Ontario policy covers you while you are driving anywhere in Canada or the United States, there may be coverage exclusions. It is your responsibility to know what they are. It is also worth noting that if you are driving in any other country, your Ontario policy does not cover you. You will need to pay for additional insurance and look into what insurances are available in the event you are seriously injured in that country. Knowing the details of your policy makes good sense, especially if you are traveling to another country. There have been cases in the news over the years of travel insurance claim denials when someone suffers a catastrophic medical event out of country. I know someone who suffered a heart attack on the last day of their 15-day Hawaiian vacation. This was not a motor vehicle collision and this person had to rely on their travel insurance policy attached to their Visa credit card. The expenses associated with his recovery before returning to Ontario were well into the six-figures. The policy covered him for a maximum 15-day trip and the incident happened on Day 15. His expenses were therefore covered. You can imagine the situation where someone believes they have coverage for travel emergencies but discover after the fact that their coverage expired halfway through their month-long trip. It is crucial to carefully check the details of your insurance coverage before going on vacation. Travel insurance companies allow the traveller to extend the dates of the coverage, for a cost, but this must be done before the trip and certainly before the insurance is needed. The time you put into making sure you have the coverage you need will be well worth it if you are ever faced with having to make a claim for serious injuries and require significant compensation for your losses.

What Should You Do if You Have Been in a Collision in the U.S.?

Getting into a motor vehicle accident can be a traumatic experience, no matter where it happens. Being in another country may add another level of stress. It is important to remain calm and follow these tips:
  • determine if anyone has been hurt and exit the vehicle if safe to do so;
  • if the accident is an emergency, call 911. If the accident is not an emergency, call local police for instructions;
  • remove vehicles from the roadway if it is safe to do so;
  • record details of the car accident including time, date, location, speed of your vehicle, weather and road conditions. Take photos or video of the scene indicating the position and direction of the vehicles and cross streets;
  • exchange information with the other parties, including names, driver’s licence numbers, addresses, phone numbers, insurance and vehicle particulars;
  • take lots of photographs of everything;
  • save dash cam footage if you have it or make sure any witnesses with dash cam footage provide it to police;
  • obtain the names and phone numbers of any witnesses;
  • answer police questions honestly;
  • seek medical treatment even if you believe your injury is minor. Some injuries, such as a concussion, may not be readily apparent and the effects may not manifest for weeks or months.
If you have been left with injuries following a traffic accident you may have many questions. Especially if it happened in the United States at the hands of an under-insured or uninsured driver. If you have been hurt, no matter how minor the injury, you may be entitled to damages for pain and suffering, loss of earnings, past and future loss of income and out-of-pocket expenses.

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