Nobody ever plans to be in a car accident, but maybe you should. According to the experts, the average driver will be in a car accident serious enough to require an insurance claim every 17.9 years.
And if you’re a, shall we say, less than excellent driver? Oof. You could have five or six accidents by the time you’re 90.
Once you wrap your head around the fact that you’re going to be in an accident some day, you need to get ready. Obviously you wear your seatbelt all the time — right? — but you’ll also need to know exactly what to do after that fender bender to work within the law, meet your insurance company’s expectations, and protect your assets.
Grab a pencil — you’re going to want to take some notes.
1. Stay at the Scene — But Stay Safe
Never, ever leave the scene of an accident without talking to the other driver. If someone is hurt, you can get in serious legal trouble for leaving the scene. No matter how scared you may be, or how big a hurry you’re in, you definitely don’t want to be on the evening news labeled as a hit-and-run driver.
Though it can be useful to get photos of the accident scene (more on this later), some states or localities have ordinances — or at least suggestions — that cars should be moved out of the flow of traffic if it’s safe to do so. You should probably dust of your old driver’s ed manual and check your state’s laws to be sure. If you’re on a busy highway or could otherwise be injured trying to move the car, stay put — no matter how many angry honks you get.
2. Check on the Health of the Humans
Before you dive into the details about your car, check yourself. Are you ok? What about your passengers? You need to check on the other people involved in the accident, too. If anyone is bleeding, unconscious or has broken bones or bruises, call for emergency medical help immediately.
Believe it or not, you might forget about your own health in a car accident. Your adrenaline will be pumping, and you’ll be ready to jump into action. Take a breath and remember that people come first — cars can be replaced.
3. Call the Cops
If you didn’t have to call 911 for injuries, you may need to call the police to come inspect the scene of the accident and make an official report, especially if you suspect that a driver made a mistake that should result in a citation — running a stoplight, for example. When in doubt, it’s best to call the police and let them decide if they want to come after hearing your description of the accident.
4. Document, Document, Document
Grab your phone and take pictures of the accident scene. Don’t be stingy — you want to get close-ups and medium shots of any damage, plus pictures of the scene at large. Snap photos of the other car and its damage, its license plate, and the surrounding area. Don’t forget to take pictures of any skid marks, broken glass in the road, and nearby street signs or traffic signals. All of this will help make your case to the insurance company and could help determine who’s at fault.
Next, jot a few notes or record yourself telling the story of what happened. Try to give as much detail as you can right away, while it’s all still fresh in your mind. If you have passengers, you can get them to do record their memories, too. It will be helpful later when things get fuzzy in your memory to have a record of your immediate thoughts in the aftermath.
5. Exchange Information With the Other Driver
When you approach the other driver, stay calm and professional. This might be easier said than done, but getting into a screaming match will only make things worse. You need to gather several pieces of information to get through the insurance claims process later, so make sure to take down the following:
- The driver’s full name
- The driver’s phone number(s)
- The driver’s address
- The driver’s license number
- The vehicle’s license plate number
- The driver’s insurance information, including the policy number and contact information for the insurance company
As you do this, remember that silence is golden. Pretend you’re a reporter or a detective and maintain a, “just the facts, ma’am,” attitude. You definitely don’t want to apologize or make any admissions of wrongdoing, even in a reflexive, chatty way, as this could be construed as admitting you’re at fault.
6. Talk to Witnesses
If anyone at the scene saw the accident happen, get them to jot down or record their impressions for your records. Be sure to get their names and numbers as well. If you end up having to dispute the events with the other driver or the insurance company, having witness statements can be a big help in painting a picture of what actually happened.
7. Call Your Insurance Company
Call your insurance company as soon as possible to find out your next steps in making a claim. Check with them about a tow truck if needed — you want to make sure the one you call is covered. Explain what happened clearly and offer all of the information you just gathered. It’s important to listen to their instructions carefully so you can file your claims correctly. Incomplete claims take longer to process, and that means you’ll be without wheels while you wait for repairs to be approved.
Never make any repairs without your insurance company’s approval — they may not pay for them if you erase the damage before an adjustor can come to check out your car. You’ll also want to keep full records of any medical bills and mechanic’s bills for reimbursement, so start a folder for all the paperwork when you get home.
8. Make a Crash Kit for Your Glove Box
Will you remember all this in the heat of the moment? Give yourself an assist by making a checklist of the first seven items on this list. Add it to your glove box along with some notepaper, a pencil, your insurance card and vehicle registration. If you’re relying on your cell phone for photos, that’s fine, but batteries die and phones get lost under car seats on impact. It never hurts to have one of those cheap, disposable cameras in your glove box just in case.
And who knows? Maybe once you’re totally prepared for an accident, Murphy’s Law will kick in and you won’t ever have one. Either way, you’ll be ready for whatever life throws at you on the road when you know how to handle a car accident.
Good advice! I was once in a one-car accident back in 2005 when I took defensive measures to avoid crashing into another driver in a rain-drenched roadway. My vehicle had hit a commercial fence then spun around. The damage was extensive to both my vehicle and the other’s property. An accommodating passerby stopped to offer assistance, stating she had seen the whole thing. I was still dazed and didn’t think to get her name. Minutes later, a community service sheriff’s assistant arrived, and cited me for improper use of a motor vehicle. When I challenged his rush-to-judgment summarization, he asked about witnesses. None, because the woman had already left the scene. Had I gotten her name and contact number, I might have been able to later quash the officer’s invalid citation. GET NAMES!