Each year, more than 6 million car accidents happen in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Whether you’ve been in a minor fender bender or a serious collision, you may be too shaken up to think clearly, so it’s important to educate yourself a bit ahead of time.
The process for dealing with an accident begins at the scene and making sure everyone involved is safe. Hopefully, you’ll never be involved in a car crash, but if you are, then this guide can help you know what to do next.
1. Remain calm
Keeping a cool head will make it easier to deal with the accident and its aftermath.
2. Check for injuries
Check yourself and any passengers in your vehicle for visible injuries. Call 911 or ask someone else to do so if it appears that anyone is hurt, either in your vehicle or another vehicle involved in the accident. If you’re seriously injured, try not to move until help can get to you.
3. Get your vehicle out of the road
According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), you should clear the roadway if possible. Pull your car over to the shoulder if you can so that it’s out of the way of approaching vehicles. If an accident happens at night, turn on your car’s hazard lights so that other cars can see you. And if you can’t move your vehicle, then get yourself and anyone else involved in the accident to a safe spot away from the road.
An emergency kit that includes flares or reflective triangles can come in handy for directing traffic around an accident.
4. Check for damage to both vehicles
If you’re not injured and you’re able to assess the damage to the vehicles, take time to do that. Try to take pictures showing the position of the cars if they haven’t been moved and the damage to each vehicle. If you can’t take pictures, then consider drawing a diagram to show how the accident occurred, while it is still fresh in your memory.
5. Report the accident to law enforcement
If the accident is serious, then the III recommends calling law enforcement to the scene. Police can create a report of the accident, which you can request a copy of for insurance purposes.
6. Collect important information
Use your cellphone camera to take pictures of documents or, with pen and paper, get the name, address, phone number and driver’s license number of everyone involved in the accident. If the driver’s name doesn’t match up with the car’s registration or insurance papers, determine the person’s relationship to the vehicle’s owner.
Then, gather all vehicle information including year, make and model, color, license plate number and vehicle identification number. Get the insurance policy number and the company’s phone number, in case the other person doesn’t report the accident, Luna suggests. See if any witnesses are willing to provide you with contact information and details about what they saw.
Never share your Social Security number, the coverage limits on your insurance policy or other personal information.
7. Document the scene
Record as much detail about the accident as possible using your smartphone’s camera, video and voice memo features. Check the impact to the car: Was it on the front side, driver’s side, rear? It’s easiest to do that by taking a photo of the entire car and close-up photos of the damages for both your car and the other party.
Record the date and time of the accident, and photograph or video the entire scene of the accident, including skid marks or property damage. Note street names and the direction each vehicle was heading both before and after the accident.
One thing that often gets missed is the position of the cars [relative] to the street. This is critical information because it helps the adjuster re-create the accident when you report the claim.
Sketch a diagram of the crash scene. Using the voice memo app on your phone, dictate what happened while the details are still fresh in your mind. Include information about the weather and visibility.
8. Avoid roadside discussions about responsibility
A few years ago, Denise Schipani, 54, and her son were stopped at a traffic light near her home in Huntington Station, New York, when a car slammed into theirs from behind.
“We were jerked forward and I braked hard, stopping just as I touched the bumper of the car in front of me,” she says. “In that moment, I had no idea what happened, and I remember being confused that there were little pieces of black stuff all over the back seat. Turns out the back window had shattered. We were shaking, but no one was hurt.”
Schipani put on her hazard lights, double-checked that her son was OK and called 911.
“Then I approached the other driver. He tried to blame wet leaves on the road, but there were none,” she says. “Clearly, it was a case of him accelerating while distracted.”
Schipani correctly chose not to argue. Emotions can run high after a car accident, so if you believe the other driver is impaired or aggressive, trust your instincts. Stay in your car and don’t interact with the person, because a police intervention might be necessary.
9. Call a tow truck if needed
Depending on how much damage your car sustained, it may need to be towed to a collision repair center. Many people have motor club memberships, and roadside assistance is one of the benefits. The police may call a tow truck company, and some car manufacturers offer driver assistance programs, too.
Don’t assume a tow truck that magically shows up at the crash is reputable; always verify its credentials and take down all contact information.
10. Decide whether to file an insurance claim
Car insurance is designed to protect you financially if you’re involved in an accident. Unless you live in New Hampshire, you’re required to have minimum amounts of bodily injury and property damage liability coverage. (And New Hampshire strongly recommends carrying it.) Both of those liability coverages are intended to reimburse another driver or their passengers if you are at fault in an accident.
Your policy’s collision coverage will cover damage to your car, while medical payments coverage or personal injury protection coverage—if you have either—can help cover the cost of any injuries that you sustain. Your regular health insurance will help, too.
Whether it makes sense to file a claim can depend on:
- Who was at fault
- The extent of the damage to each driver’s vehicle
- Whether any injuries, minor or serious, occurred
- What type and amount of insurance coverage you have
- What type and amount of insurance coverage the other driver has
If you plan to file a claim, then get in touch with your insurance company as soon as possible after the accident. Each insurance company has its own process for filing claims and list of information that you’ll need to provide. You should be ready to offer any documentation that you have, including a copy of the police report, photos, and the other driver’s information. Your insurance company will assign an adjuster to your case, and that person will assess any damages or injuries to determine how much the insurer will pay to cover the claim.
Be prepared to pay your policy’s deductible after filing an insurance claim. Some insurance companies require that you pay the deductible before any repairs can be made or claims paid out.
What Not to Do After a Car Accident
Knowing what you should do following a car accident matters, but it’s also important to know what you shouldn’t do.
If you’re involved in an accident, here are some of the biggest mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t flee the scene. Leaving the scene of an accident could result in a criminal charge.
- Don’t admit guilt. When exchanging information with the other driver, take care to avoid making statements that could be construed as an admission of guilt on your part.
- Don’t place blame. You should also avoid finger-pointing at the other driver or accusing them of causing the accident. This is an issue for the police and your respective insurance companies to sort out.
- Don’t talk to an adjuster unprepared. An insurance adjuster, either from your insurance company or the other driver’s, may reach out to you for a statement following the accident. Don’t talk to the adjuster without first considering how that could affect any personal injury claims that might arise in connection with the accident.
Finally, don’t forget to check your auto insurance premiums after any accident claims are resolved. It’s possible, but not guaranteed, that your premiums will increase. If your rates do go up after an accident, then you may want to compare coverage from other companies to see if you can find a better deal.