Picture yourself driving down the highway, focused on where you’re headed, when suddenly the driver next to you swerves, crashing into your vehicle, which then veers into a third car. Or you’re backing out of a parking space when another driver absent-mindedly slams right into the rear of your car. Or you’re at a stop light when your foot slips off the brake pedal and you roll forward, tapping the car in front of you.
Every car crash is different, but in any crash situation, what you do afterward can have as much impact as the collision itself. Knowing how to handle the aftermath of an accident can help you avoid additional stress during what is already a difficult moment. Here’s what to do immediately after a crash.
Stay at the Scene
Regardless of whether you were at fault, the same procedures should be followed after a crash. All drivers involved have to abide by relevant laws. For example, never leave the scene of an accident. If you do this, it’s considered a “hit and run” and aside from being irresponsible, it’s also illegal in most jurisdictions. Depending on the circumstances and location of the crash, leaving the scene of an accident can be considered a traffic infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony, with legal repercussions to match.
Unless someone was driving under the influence, is behaving erratically, or otherwise gives the authorities a reason to arrest or detain them, all drivers will be free to leave after the situation has been properly dealt with.
If you or your passengers are injured, call 911 or have someone do it for you. If you’re not, check on the other driver and passengers involved in the crash, and if necessary, seek medical attention for them right away.
If the accident is minor, pull over as soon as you can do so safely. Assess the damage to the vehicles, if any, and exchange information with the other driver. In most cases, all drivers involved will report a claim to their insurance company, but you don’t have to.
If there are no injuries and the damage is minimal, you may want to take care of the repairs yourself without involving the insurance companies or the police. If one driver is clearly at fault, they may offer to reimburse the other driver for the cost of the repairs. Before you decide whether to file an insurance claim, consider that what might seem like negligible damage at first glance may turn out to be something more serious.
Although there is usually no need to report a very minor accident (unless local law demands it), if you believe the accident was the fault of the other driver, or no one’s fault, call the police* to have them put together a report. Having that official report can help your case in a dispute. And if the other driver is behaving aggressively or strangely, don’t hesitate to call the police.
*Note that in many areas, the police may not respond to an accident that occurred on private property if no one was injured.
Even if there are no injuries, call for emergency assistance if any of the vehicles involved is seriously damaged or if there are any signs of a car fire.
If it is safe and possible to drive your vehicle, move it to the side of the road or another less dangerous location nearby.
If you cannot move your car, or if you and the others are standing at the side of a busy road, try to stay calm and be as cautious as possible while waiting for the police to arrive. After a crash, passengers and vehicles are at risk for being struck again by passing cars, so keep your hazard lights on and if you have cones or flares on hand, use them.
When it’s safe for you to do so, document the damage to your car, and, if possible, the accident scene. If you can, take photos and write down what happened in as much detail as you remember, including drawing a diagram of the accident scene. Your insurance company may have a mobile app that lets you record the details of the accident and the damage to your car and begin the process of reporting the claim.
If you’re not able to document the details of the crash right away, do so as soon as you can. Even the smallest details that are fresh in your mind soon after an accident might be relevant when you describe the incident to your insurance representative. You will also be glad you’ve recorded this information if the other driver ends up disputing your version of events down the line.
When exchanging information with the other driver involved in the crash, you’ll have to provide details such as your name, the name of your insurance company, your policy number, and your vehicle’s license plate number. In the United States, the amount of information you are required to share varies by state. This is also true of other legal requirements for drivers involved in car accidents. For example, some states require drivers to file a report with the Department of Motor Vehicles if no police report was filed or if the damage to a vehicle involved exceeds a specified amount.
What Not to Say
At the accident scene, don’t discuss the details of the accident with anyone aside from the police or other authorities. Don’t admit fault, even if you think you might have caused the accident, unless you are choosing to handle a very minor and clear-cut incident (e.g., you bumped into and scratched a parked car) with the other driver privately.
When you file a claim, you can discuss the event in detail with representatives from your insurance company and, if it comes to it, the lawyers they assign to your case.
Reporting a Claim
To file a claim, you can contact your insurance company online, by phone, or via their mobile app. You’ll speak with a representative who will ask you to describe, in detail, the circumstances of the accident and any injuries or damage to the vehicles involved. Your insurance company will represent you in any dealings with the other driver or their respective insurance companies. They can also help you as you navigate the post-accident process by answering your questions and assisting with tasks, such as having your car repaired or renting a replacement vehicle.
Even the best, most careful motorists can meet with bad luck—and bad drivers—so although it’s frightening to contemplate being involved in an accident, it’s a good idea to prepare for the possibility. In addition to researching what to do in case of a crash, it’s also prudent to know the laws of the jurisdictions where you drive and to review what your auto insurance policy covers. Like being a good driver, keeping yourself aware and informed will help you stay safe on the road.
READ MORE: What Causes Traffic Jams and Car Crashes?