Car accidents are never pleasant experiences. Emotions run high and confusion prevails at the scene, but there are several steps you can take to protect yourself and any claim you decide to make down the line.
Only after you have exchanged information with others involved in the crash—and received permission from any law enforcement officer present—should you leave the scene of the accident. If you leave before then, you risk a hit-and-run charge.
Figure out if anyone was injured, starting with you, then anyone else in your vehicle. Then, assuming it's safe to do so, exit your vehicle and 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.
Do not provide assistance that goes beyond your training. And unless someone is in imminent external danger (from a fire, for example) refrain from moving anyone. Learn more about car accident injuries and why it's important to get prompt medical attention after a car accident.
If there are injuries and you've already called 911, a police officer will likely be en route. If no one appears to have any injuries, it's still okay to report the accident to local law enforcement and ask that an officer be dispatched to the scene.
Even if it's a minor fender bender, it's still a good idea to call the police. They will prepare a police report and speak to everyone involved. 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.
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.
Identify any other drivers involved in your accident and obtain their name, contact information, driver's license number and car insurance details (company, policy number). 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 any witnesses, get their names and contact information as well. Your insurance company or attorney may need their testimony to confirm your account of what happened. Don't forget to get the name and badge number of the responding officer.
In addition to identifying any witnesses to the accident, try to acquire any evidence. Note details related to the vehicles involved in the accident, such as:
Take pictures of any vehicle damage, skid marks, or 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 a traffic or security cameras. Make note of their location and who you might need to contact to get a copy of the footage.
Regardless of how you feel or what you believe, watch what you say at the scene of the car accident. Do not 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, any exculpatory evidence may come too late. No matter what, do not lie, especially when giving a statement to the police.
Do not make any promises to another driver, especially when it comes to the involvement of the police or insurance companies.
When you can find a quiet moment, write out exactly what happened, as best as you can remember, including:
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 very 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 does not obligate you to file a claim. Speaking with your agent or an attorney can help you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of filing a claim, such as whether it could affect your car insurance premiums.
You 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 any evidence or information you collected following the accident.
There is one caveat to this step. 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 can lead to bigger problems later on.
If you have to get medical treatment or vehicle repairs, keep records of everything. Even if you don't plan on filing a claim, that can change. If you decide to file a claim or lawsuit in the future, you'll need records to substantiate your damages.
When a car insurance claims process take a long time or becomes complicated, it's a good idea to keep a journal or diary as to what goes on. Keep note of who you talk to and what was said. Be sure not to delete any emails you exchange with anyone else concerning your accident.
For more tips, see this checklist of records to gather after a car accident.
Especially if you were in a serious accident involving injuries and vehicle damage, it's a good idea to consult an attorney before signing anything, especially if it comes from the other driver's attorney or insurance company. Learn more about talking (or not talking) to the other driver's insurance company after a car accident and how a lawyer can help with your car accident case.