What to Do After a Car Accident

After a car accident, it's important to protect your rights while providing assistance to others.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Car accidents are never pleasant experiences. Emotions often run high and you might be confused, distracted, or in pain right after the crash. But you can take steps to protect yourself and prepare for a car insurance claim or car accident lawsuit.

Step 1: Don't Leave the Scene

Don't leave the scene of the accident until you've exchanged information with others involved in the crash. If a law enforcement officer is investigating, don't leave without permission from the officer. If you take off before then, you risk a hit-and-run charge.

Step 2: Check for Injuries

Figure out if anyone was injured, starting with you and your passengers. Then, if it's safe to do so, check on other drivers and passengers. If you discover any injuries, immediately call 911. If you're not sure if making the call is necessary, call 911 anyway.

Don't provide assistance that goes beyond your training. And unless someone is in imminent danger (from a fire, for example) don't move anyone who's injured. Learn more about car accident injuries.

Step 3: Call the Police

If you've called 911, a police officer will likely be dispatched to the accident. If no one appears to be injured, you have to call the police if property damage exceeds a certain amount set by state law (typically around $1,000, but less in some states). The exact cost of damage is impossible to know at the scene, so it's often best to file a police report.

An officer will speak to everyone involved in the accident and prepare a police report. The presence of a law enforcement officer may also be extremely helpful if it turns out the other driver is driving under the influence or driving without car insurance. Get the name and badge number of the responding officer and the police report number if possible.

Step 4: Move Vehicles

If the accident is fairly minor with no serious injuries, try to get all vehicles moved over to a shoulder and outside the flow of traffic. This will help prevent a bigger traffic jam and will assist first responders in their attempts to reach the accident scene.

Step 5: Exchange Insurance and Contact Information

Identify other drivers involved in your accident and get their names, contact information, driver's license numbers, and car insurance details (company, policy number). If the driver of the car isn't the owner of the car, get the owner's information too. To prevent transcription errors or the loss of information, take a picture of the other driver's insurance card and driver's license and email or text it to yourself.

If there are witnesses, get their names and contact information. Your insurance company or attorney may need their testimony to confirm your account of what happened.

Step 6: Gather Potential Evidence

In addition to identifying any witnesses to the accident, try to gather evidence. Note details related to the vehicles involved in the accident, including:

  • make
  • model
  • year
  • license plate number (even partial is helpful), and
  • general description (like color, bumper stickers, and dents).

Take pictures of any vehicle damage, skid marks, traffic signals, and area conditions. For example, if the accident occurred at a four-way stop, but your stop sign is lying face down in the grass or missing, take a picture to show this. This could be a critical piece of the liability puzzle.

Look around to see if there are any cameras nearby, such as surveillance or doorbell cameras. Make note of their location and who you might need to contact to get a copy of the footage.

Step 7: Watch What You Say

Regardless of how you feel or what you think may have caused the accident, watch what you say at the scene of the car accident. Don't admit fault to the other driver. Even if you truly believe you're at fault, facts may come out later that show you were mistaken. But if you admit to liability at the scene of the accident, your words can be used against you.

Don't make any promises to another driver, especially when it comes to the involvement of the police or insurance companies.

Step 8: Don't Wait to Get Medical Care

After your car accident, if you feel even the slightest hint of injury, or just have the sense that something's not right with you physically, it's important to get medical attention as soon as possible. Your health is your first concern, but getting necessary medical treatment after a car accident (and having medical bills and records to document that treatment) will only strengthen any car accident injury claim you make.

Learn more about seeing a doctor ASAP after a car accident.

Step 9: Write Out What Happened

When you can find a quiet moment, write out exactly what happened, as best as you can remember, including:

  • the specific location, time, and date of the accident
  • the direction you were driving
  • your location on the road and what you were doing at the moment of impact, and
  • what the other car was doing at the time of the accident.

Step 10: Notify Your Car Insurance Company

Your car insurance company will have a number to call to report the accident. You could also call your insurance agent who will ask certain questions and report the accident to your insurance company on your behalf.

It's important to notify your car insurance company as soon as possible, regardless of who is at fault for the car accident. Your policy requires you to promptly notify your insurance company of any incident that could trigger coverage. Failure to provide timely notice to your car insurance company could jeopardize your coverage.

Keep in mind that reporting the accident to your car insurance carrier doesn't mean you have to file a claim. Talk to a lawyer or your agent about the advantages and disadvantages of filing a claim, such as whether it could affect your car insurance premiums.

Step 11: Notify the Department of Motor Vehicles

Depending on where you live and the seriousness of your accident, you may need to file an accident report with your department of motor vehicles (DMV). Each state has its own criteria. For example, in California, you must report an accident to the DMV within 10 days if there is more than $1,000 in damage to the property of any person, or if anyone is killed or injured (no matter how slight).

Check with your state DMV to find out the reporting criteria in your state.

Step 12: Cooperate With Your Car Insurance Company

You typically have a duty to cooperate with your car insurance company's investigation into the accident. That means you should answer their questions and provide them with evidence or information you collected following the accident.

But if you feel like your car insurance company is wrongfully denying your claim, or you may have criminal liability for the accident, consider contacting an attorney. You'll still likely need to answer your insurance company's questions, but your attorney can make sure you don't say anything that might lead to bigger problems down the road. An attorney can also help you figure out if you can bring a "bad faith" claim against the insurance company.

Step 13: Keep Careful Records

If you have to get medical treatment or vehicle repairs, keep records of everything. Even if you don't plan on filing a claim, you might change your mind and you'll need records to show your accident-related losses (called "damages").

Car accident lawyers recommend that you keep a car accident diary to support your claim. Note your injuries and how they impact your daily life. You should also keep a record of who you talk to and what you talk about. Be sure not to delete any emails you exchange with anyone about the accident.

For more tips, see this checklist of records to gather after a car accident.

Step 14: Talk to a Lawyer

If your accident involved serious injuries or major property damage, don't sign anything that comes from the other driver's attorney or insurance company without talking to a lawyer. Learn more about talking (or not talking) to the other driver's insurance company after a car accident.

In a Nolo/Lawyers.com survey, our users reported that having a lawyer on their side after a car accident resulted in both a higher likelihood of a payout of some kind, and much higher average compensation:

  • 74 percent of car accident claimants who worked with a lawyer received some amount of compensation, while only 54 percent of responders who handled their own claims saw any kind of payout.
  • Car accident claimants who were represented by a lawyer received $44,600 on average, compared with an average payout of just $13,900 for self-represented claimants.

Learn more about how a lawyer can help with your car accident case, and get tips on finding the right injury lawyer.

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