Knowing what to do when you are in a car accident is important because, unfortunately, car accidents are a fact of life in the United States. Sooner or later, just about everyone has a traffic accident.

Although I have spent my career as a traffic accident lawyer, I had never been in a car accident myself. That is, until recently. Fortunately, my accident was minor. Another driver rear-ended my car in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. The cars were damaged, but no one was injured seriously.

This is embarrassing, but I did not do all the things at the scene of my car accident that I should have done. Yes, after years of advising others what to do after a car accident, I didn’t do everything right myself.

So I know from personal experience as well as from professional experience that car accidents, even minor accidents, can discombobulate you.

That’s why you should know in advance how to deal with a car accident. You should not wait until you are in a car accident to figure out what to do.

To help, this article explains what to do at the scene if you are in a car accident.

I recommend that you print this article and keep it in your glove compartment.

Ready? Let’s go.

Stop!

No matter how minor the accident is, you must stop as close as possible to the scene of the accident, without obstructing traffic. Failure to stop can result in a fine and even a jail sentence.

What if the other driver does not stop?

Try to get their license plate number. Write it down and report it to the police and to your insurance company. But, if you cannot get the other driver’s tag number, don’t worry. You probably have a type of insurance called uninsured motorists coverage which will compensate you for damage done by a “hit and run” driver.

Assess The Situation

Before you do anything, take a moment to assess the situation.

If you are seriously injured, stay in your car and wait for help. Don’t worry about anything else on this list. Others, including the police, will take care of it for you.

If you are not disabled by your injuries, go through this list.

Remember that your concerns, in this order, are safety and gathering and preserving information about what happened.

Assist Anyone Injured

Give reasonable assistance to anyone injured in the accident. If anyone requests medical treatment, or it is apparent that medical treatment is necessary, arrange to get the person to a doctor or hospital. You can get emergency aid by calling “911.”

Protect the Scene and Those Involved
From Further Damage or Injury

If your accident has obstructed the roadway, and the vehicles cannot be moved, take steps to warn approaching drivers. Many times secondary accidents, when approaching vehicles strike stopped or immobilized vehicles, are even more serious than the primary accident.

Turn on your vehicle’s warning flashers. If you have them (and you should), put out cones, warning triangles and emergency flares. This is particularly important at night.

Call the Police

Police officers can be enormously helpful at the scene of an accident. They can provide or get emergency medical care. They can protect the accident scene. They can investigate the cause of the accident.

Except in the case of minor “fender benders,” do not move the vehicles until the officer arrives. Encourage witnesses to stay. If there are injuries, the officer must write a report. Make sure that all the witnesses and evidence are in place when the officer arrives.

You can get a copy of the accident report by contacting the police agency that prepared it. Be sure to note the name of the officer and the police agency the officer represents.

On the other hand, if your accident is a “fender bender,” you can and should move your vehicles off the roadway. However, first, if you can safely do so, make photos of the vehicles where they came to rest after the collision.

If your accident was minor, no one was injured and there are no major law violations involved (such as drunk driving), the police may not come to the accident scene. Instead, they may instruct you to exchange information with the other driver(s).

Be Careful What You Say

Statements made at the scene of an accident may be affected by the emotion of the moment, and may not be accurate. Even if accurate, others may later misquote them or misconstrue them. Accordingly, make no admissions of fault at the scene.

Discuss the accident only with the investigating officer and, later, with your attorney and your insurance company.

On the other hand, if another driver admits fault, write in your notes exactly what was said.

Gather Information and Write It Down

If the cars are damaged, or people are injured, there will probably be legal claims.

In most states, who pays for damage to vehicles and for injuries depends on who caused the accident. That’s why you have to document what happened, so you will be able to prove who caused the accident. (Interesting fact: Even in states with no-fault injury claim systems, fault still determines who pays for car damage.)

Don’t rely on your memory. Over time, you will forget details which could be important.

At the scene of the accident, or as soon afterward as possible, write a narrative description of the accident. Include all the details you can remember. Answer the questions what happened, who was involved (including witnesses), where did the accident happen, why did the accident happen (what was done that caused the accident) and how did it happen. Include information about the date, time, lighting and weather conditions. Get contact information for all witnesses.

Make a diagram of how the accident happened.

Take pictures at the scene! Since many of us have phones with cameras, use the camera and take photos. Alternatively, if you have an “accident kit” in your car, make sure it includes a disposable camera so you can make pictures at the scene.

These are some of the things you should record with photos:

The positions of the vehicles after the accident but before they are moved. Shoot “wide angle” to include all vehicles involved.

Street signs that show the location of the accident.

Anything that concerns how the accident

Any debris in the roadway.

Any skid marks. If possible, measure their length. At least, pace them to estimate their length.

The damage done to all vehicles involved.

The license plate(s) of the other vehicle(s) involved.

Make pictures that show the make and model of the other vehicles involved. Sometimes there are questions about whether a particular vehicle is covered by an insurance policy, so you must know the make and model of the other vehicles, as well as the year, if possible.

Any injuries that can be shown by a photo.

The other drivers involved. Sometimes there are questions about who was actually driving the vehicle. A photo may help settle this.

Don’t worry if you cannot or did not get all of these photos. And don’t provoke a confrontation by making pictures. For example, if the other driver(s) objects to being photographed, either make a photo surreptitiously or skip it. Remember, safety first.

Exchange Information With The Other Drivers

The law of all states requires you and the other driver(s) to exchange this information:

Name, address, phone number

Insurance company

Policy number

Driver license number

License plate number.

Look at the other driver’s license and insurance information card. Make sure the photo on the driver’s license matches the person in front of you. If the names on the driver’s license and the insurance card do not match, ask the relationship between the insured person shown on the insurance card and the driver.

If the other driver will allow it, make photos of the driver’s license and insurance card.

If there are problems exchanging information, back off and let the police handle it. If you have not called the police before, call them when the problem arises and tell them what the problem is.

Get Necessary Medical Care

If necessary, go to the hospital emergency room, either by ambulance or car.

Don’t ignore injuries. Have them treated, both for the medical benefit that treatment provides and to document that you were injured.

Not all serious injuries result in immediate pain or bloodshed. You may not be aware that you have been injured until later. One reason for this is that your body produces a pain killing hormone called endorphins when you are in an accident. Endorphins mask the pain until later.

Seek medical attention as soon as you have symptoms of an injury, whether it is later on the day of your accident, the next day or any other day thereafter. Do so no matter how slight your injury seems. You could be injured more seriously than you think. Prompt medical attention could be important.

Inform Your Insurance Company

Your insurance policy requires you to report any accidents to your insurance company. Failure to report the accident promptly may allow your insurance company to try to void your policy, leaving you without insurance coverage for the accident. Therefore, notify your insurance company of the accident and cooperate completely with it. If claims are made against you as a result of the accident, your insurance company will defend you. If you are sued, they will provide a lawyer to represent you. And, up to your policy limit, they will pay anything you are required to pay.

On the other hand, a claims adjuster or investigator for another driver’s insurance company may contact you. The adjuster may come to see you and ask you to give a written statement. More likely, the adjuster will call and ask you to give a recorded statement over the telephone. DO NOT GIVE A STATEMENT, at least not until you have had a chance to sort out your thoughts about the accident, talk to your insurance company and get any legal advice that you want. Politely tell the adjuster that you do not want to give a statement or talk about the accident. Your initial silence will not be held against you in resolving any claims that you may later make.

If Necessary, Report the Accident to the
Motor Vehicle Administration

If an accident results in personal injuries or disabled vehicles, the police will probably be involved and they will write a report.

If they do not, you may be obligated to file a report with your state’s Motor Vehicle Administration or Department of Motor Vehicles.

Check the DMV or MVA website in your state, or contact local police, to see whether a report is required. If it is, the form will probably be available at the website.

What Do You Do After You Leave The
Scene Of Your Car Accident

In addition to the things I have already told you – such as getting medical care if you need it and getting a copy of the police report – your concerns after you leave the scene will probably be getting your car repaired, getting a rental car and, later, making claims for injuries. All of these subjects are discussed elsewhere here at Settle Your Claim Yourself.