You’re driving along minding your own business when suddenly you smash into another car or into some other obstacle. Your car is damaged – and perhaps other cars and maybe even other people or buildings or other items are damaged, too. Perhaps someone is hurt. You’re immediately upset. You’re immediately frustrated. What do you do?
This is a situation where making the wrong move can really cost you. It can cause fines, criminal charges, higher insurance rates, loss of driving privileges, and so on. This is a situation you need to handle the right way.
Personally, I’ve only been involved in one accident in my driving career that involved another car (and another where I wound up in the ditch during extreme winter weather). My choice to follow most of the strategies here, while the other driver did not, helped me to avoid any charges whatsoever in the accident, which not only limited legal fees but also helped with insurance costs down the road.
Here are 10 things that you should do if you ever find yourself in an automobile accident, starting off with a bonus tip that involves something you can do right now to prepare for that potential situation.
Before you’re ever in an accident, make sure you have a few things in your car. These are items you should always have in your glove compartment and/or trunk. First, have a first aid kit, in case there are minor injuries that you can easily address. Road flares ensure that you’re clearly seen along a busy road, particularly at night, which decreases the chances of getting hit by oncoming traffic. A pen and a little notebook is vital for writing down information (which I’ll discuss a bit further down in the article). A medical info sheet for everyone in your family can be vital in case someone is seriously hurt. Having these things on hand can be vital and most of them can easily fit in your glove compartment.
Count to 10 and breathe steadily. Your body is going to have a pretty strong response to being in an accident. Emotions are going to flood through you – fear, anger, jitters, and so on. One of the worst things you can do is jump out of your car while on an emotional wave and confront the other driver.
Instead, assuming you’re not in immediate danger, sit where you are for a minute and count to 10 slowly. Breathe in deeply and breathe out before counting the next number. Focus on calming down and reducing your heart rate. That way, when you do get out of the car, you’re not going to be angry or emotionally disheveled and you can handle what needs to be done with calmness and rationality.
Turn on the hazard lights in your car and light a road flare (especially at night). The purpose of these things is simple: You want to make it as easy as possible for oncoming traffic to see you and to avoid you so that no one else is injured and the accident isn’t made any worse.
If you don’t know for sure how to turn on the hazard lights on your car, take a moment to learn. It’s usually incredibly simple and the explanation is clear in your car’s owner manual.
Take photos of all license plates involved, as well as lots of photos of the scene and any damage. This doesn’t include just your car. Take pictures of every other car involved, making sure to include the plate numbers of all cars. Make sure that you thoroughly capture the damage done to your car as well as damage done to other cars and damage to any other nearby objects.
The purpose of this is documentation. The more clear it is, the easier it will be to establish exactly what happened in the accident, which is likely to help everyone involved to be made financially whole and also ensure that any appropriate charges and fines are levied.
Take notes on the accident as well – your recollection, names of people involved, insurance numbers, license plate numbers, and so on. This is why it’s handy to have a pen and a notebook on hand. If you have that in your glove compartment, you can quickly start jotting down these kinds of notes.
The more detail you have, the better, because you’ll be able to provide more detail on the police report and to the insurance agent. The best thing you can do in such a situation is to be as accurate and honest as possible, because anything else will likely backfire on you.
Call the police immediately, then call your insurance agent. These are the first two calls you should make. In fact, you should have your insurance agent’s number already on your cell phone – you can get it off of your insurance paperwork that you keep in your car. Obviously, if there is a major injury, call 911 immediately.
You’ll want to call the police first, as they’ll make sure that the roadway is clear and accessible for others, but don’t delay in calling your insurance agent, either.
Move your car to a safer place if possible. If your car can still easily move, don’t hesitate to move the car to a safer place that’s out of the way of oncoming traffic. This is for your own safety as well as the safety of everyone else involved.
Doing this does not mean it’s fine to leave the scene of an accident. Don’t do that or else you’re begging for legal trouble. Instead, just try to get your car off the road without incurring further damage.
Don’t sign anything unless it is given to you by the police or the insurance agent, and even then, read it and know what it is. This is especially true if the other people in the accident want you to sign something. Don’t sign it, period.
The police will likely want you to sign a report describing the accident. Make sure that the document describes the accident in a way that matches your notes and recollection. The report will likely try to match the facts while taking into account the stories provided by everyone involved, so it may not perfectly match your notes and recollections, but it should be close.
Do not admit fault, even if you think it was your fault; let the police and insurance determine that. Admitting fault, even if you really think it was your fault, does you no favors. Just simply don’t say anything if anyone is trying to get you to admit fault and certainly don’t offer any admission of fault.
The reason for this is that admitting fault will put you in an unfavorable legal position, and even though you think you might be at fault, a neutral observer (the police, for example) might see things completely differently. You’ll want to trust the neutral observer here.
Share only the facts of the accident. Share your license plate number and your insurance information, but only do so when the other people share that information as well. Don’t share your impressions of the accident or other things like that, as others may change their story to match your impressions and make it appear as though you are more at fault than you might actually be.
If other people are pressuring you to share more than those key facts or to alter your recollections of what happened by telling the story in a way that’s skewed toward them, don’t hesitate to return to your car. You have no reason to share any information other than those basic facts.
Don’t leave the scene without okaying things with the police first. Leaving the scene early can get you in legal trouble, which you don’t want. Stay at the scene until the police arrive and don’t leave until you get the okay from a police officer.
Not only will leaving the scene early potentially bring legal trouble from doing that, it also can cause the reports to be skewed in favor of whichever people stay behind to talk to the police. Make sure before you leave that your account has been given to the police.
These tactics boil down to a few key principles. First, be safe. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you can be hurt. That means contacting police and/or 911 immediately, getting out of the way of traffic, and avoiding other angry people.
Second, be honest and factual. That means keeping your opinions and ideas of fault to yourself and documenting as much as you can about the accident while it’s still fresh.
Third, protect yourself. Don’t admit fault, get ahold of your insurance agent quickly, and avoid any direct confrontation.
Following those key principles can go a long way toward ensuring that any auto accident that you’re involved with doesn’t wind up with a bunch of additional expense and legal trouble for you.