A few weeks ago, my husband was hit while he was driving to work. It was clearly the fault of the person behind him, thank God. And my husband was fine (except for a sore neck).

However, it looked like our Honda was a hair away from being totaled and we did NOT want to buy a new car. So before we called any insurance companies, I did a bit of research.

In addition to Googling like crazy, I called the Consumer Action Center at Clark Howard’s radio show. It’s a pretty cool service—2nd time I’ve used it. Trained volunteers answer consumer questions off the air all day about everything from what to do after a car accident to how to use your cell phone overseas.

Here’s what I learned not to do:
* If it’s not your fault, don’t immediately call your insurer.
I know, I know: it says right on your insurance card that you’re supposed to call your company first. But guess what? It’s up to the insurance company of the person who hit you to pay your bills. If you let your insurance company know that you’ve been in an accident, they often work behind the scenes with the opposing insurance company to cut a deal. This is not a good thing. It’s called subrogation. Essentially, the two companies may figure out a way to share the costs of the accidents and both the other driver and you—the innocent, injured party—may end up with an “at-fault” mark on your insurance. That means your rates will go up.

Read this related report (again, from Clark Howard. I admit! I like the guy) on his wife’s auto accident. Scroll down toward the bottom of the page to “Clark’s auto insurance consumer headache resolved.”)

Anyhoo, the Clark Howard staffer told me that even if the other guy’s insurance company stalls you–takes their time estimating the damage on your car and getting you a temporary rental–do everything you can to resist their “suggestion” that you call your insurance company. That’s precisely what the other company wants you to do, and it’s not to your benefit.

* Don’t be rude the other guy’s insurance adjuster.

Even if you’re annoyed by the whole situation, remember: This person has the power to make your life miserable—or quite pleasant. My husband was super friendly to the insurance adjuster and he says it really made a difference. The guy got our paperwork through more quickly than we ever expected. Figure it this way: These adjusters probably deal every single day with aggravated drivers whose cars are wrecked. If you’re the good apple in the bunch, they’re going to be nice to you in return.

* Car totaled? Don’t take the first cash offer the insurance company gives you.

We were almost certain our car was a goner. To make sure we got the best possible offer for the car, I went online and checked its retail value (not wholesale, not trade-in) at Edmunds, Kelly Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealers Association. I was ready to negotiate when the insurance company came back with a price for the Honda.

Of course, whenever I research something to death, I end up not needing the info. Our car barely scraped by: It was worth $3,500 (it’s a 1994) and the repairs came to about $3,100. The other guy’s insurance offered to repair it. That’s not always the case though. Apparently some insurance companies will total a car if the repairs are 70% or more of car’s value. We were lucky.

* Don’t forget to ask for a “diminished value” fee.
If the other guy’s insurance company ends up repairing your car, as they did with us, you may be eligible for this extra reimbursement—usually a few hundred bucks. Why? When you go to sell your car, it will be worth a bit less because it’s been in an accident. The insurance company must pay you for that.

* Finally…don’t get used to the satellite radio in your temporary rental car.
Martha Stewart’s daughter’s show isn’t really that clever. You really can live without it. Oh, and don’t let your kids leave stuff under the seats of the rental car. Chances of you ever seeing it again are pretty slim. Nuf said.