Instant insurance claims—apps for your car crash

The value of auto insurance apps

Next time you're in a fender bender, there's good reason to have your phone on hand—it could speed up your insurance claim.

Normally, the process goes something like this: Report the claim, get your car to a repair shop and wait to hear from an adjuster and then wait some more for a check after repairs have been completed.

Now, enhanced claim functions on auto insurers' free mobile apps can condense that process into a matter of hours. "You don't have to wait around anymore for an adjuster to show up," said Ellen Carney, a principle analyst for Forrester. "It completely changes consumers' perspective on insurance."

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How it works, exactly, varies by insurer. At Esurance, which added real-time video appraisals in mid-March, policyholders sign in to a video chat with appraisers, using their phone's camera to show the damage to their car. Allstate's QuickFoto Claim guides consumers through snapping and submitting photos from their phone. (The feature is available in 42 states, and Allstate expects it to go nationwide by June.)

Turnaround time is fast. Allstate is averaging four hours from the time it receives the photos to sending an estimate to customers, said Pam Overton, vice president of claims. Joe Laurentino, vice president of material damage at Esurance, said using the app cuts two to three days off the insurer's usual timeline of two to five days—and the company is aiming to reduce that to a single day. "It's simple, it's easier and it's convenient," he said.

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Insurers benefit, too, from reduced costs of sending out adjusters to handle what turns out to be cosmetic damage, said Loretta Worters, a vice president at the Insurance Information Institute. "It helps to get the claims filed, and their resources are utilized where they're needed most," she said.

But plenty of drivers will find they still need to go the normal, slower route. "This is really just for fender bender, nuisance claims," said Laurentino. If the damage is extensive or structural, insurers say, you won't be offered the chance to get a resolution via app. Accidents with injuries, or where fault is undetermined, may also require more investigation.

Another possible hitch: Your phone's camera. If the image quality isn't great, or it's tough for an appraiser to gauge the extent of that ding or scratch remotely, you'll need to have someone take a look in person.

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With that in mind, the longer route is also still a good fallback if you don't agree with an insurer's remote assessment, said Carney. "Always the fallback is, 'I really would like to take it to an adjuster,'" she said. "You can always say you disagree."

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant.