What To Do After an Automobile Accident

Unfortunately, at some time in our lives, most of us will experience an automobile accident.

When you are in a car accident, even if you are not injured, there are certain things that you should and should not do.

First and foremost, try to remain calm. While it is understandable why you might be upset or angry after an accident, if you respond calmly you are much more likely to avoid escalating the situation by getting into a conflict with the other driver. You are also much more likely to have the police officer who investigates the accident scene understand and give credit to your explanation of how the accident occurred.

Stay At The Scene

If you are involved in an accident that involves an injury or substantial damage to property, stay at the accident scene until the police tell you that you can leave. If you have any question about whether the damage caused by the accident is substantial, err on the side of caution. When the law requires you to wait for the police, leaving the scene of an accident can result in driver's license sanctions and even criminal charges.

For less serious accidents, you may relocate the vehicles so that they do not obstruct traffic. That may mean pulling over to the shoulder of the road, You should remain at the scene until the police have authorized you to leave.

Some highways provide designated investigation areas where drivers may relocate while waiting for the police. Communicate with the other driver so that you keep your vehicles together and so that the other driver will not be concerned that you are trying to leave the scene of the accident before the police arrive.

Warn Other Drivers of the Hazard

When you are in an accident, there is risk of a secondary accident. That risk may arise from such factors as,

  • The presence of damaged vehicles on the roadway,
  • Debris from the accident,
  • The presence on the roadway of drivers or passengers from the vehicles involved in the accident, or
  • The presence of other vehicles that have stopped to help.

You can help avoid a secondary accident by turning on your emergency flashers and, if you have them, placing a reflective triangle or emergency flares on the roadway approaching the accident scene.

Be careful when placing a triangle or flares, as approaching cars may not see you. Do not risk injury to yourself.

Safeguard The Injured

If somebody is injured in the accident and you are trained in administering first aid, try to help.

  • Do not move an injured person.

  • Have somebody call the police to report the accident. The person who calls the police should inform the police that people are injured. When possible the person should also inform the police of the number of injured persons so that enough emergency personnel are dispatched to the scene.

  • Watch out for other cars. It is dangerous to be on a road at any time of day. Risks increase when it is dark or when weather conditions are poor. There are many unfortunate cases in which people providing help to accident victims have themselves been hit by cars while trying to assist or while providing aid.

If you are able to call 911, it may be possible to receive instructions on how to provide appropriate emergency medical care while you wait for the police or paramedics to reach the accident scene.

Obtain and Exchange Information

In any accident, you should obtain the following information about:

  • The Other Driver: Record the other driver's name, address, driver's license number, vehicle registration information, insurance information, and license plate number.

  • The Owner of the Other Car: If the other driver's vehicle registration identifies somebody else as the owner of the car, be sure to make a note of the registered owner's name.

  • Witnesses: If there are any witnesses to the accident, ask the witnesses to provide you with their names, addresses and telephone numbers.

  • Police Officers: If the police come to the scene of the accident, or after reporting the accident to the police, ask the investigating officer to give you a business card with the incident number for the accident. You can use the incident number to obtain a copy of the accident report. Most officers will provide you with the incident number even if you don't ask.

  • The Accident Location: Take notes about where the accident occurred, including the road conditions, weather conditions, speed limit, presence of traffic control devices, and the lighting. Take note of the nearest cross-street or mile marker number to help pinpoint the location.

  • How the Accident Occurred: Take notes describing the facts of how the accident occurred. Facts that may be relevant include the direction of travel of the vehicles that were involved in the accident, vehicle speed, whether any of the vehicles were changing lanes or turning, and the actions of the other drivers that may have contributed to the accident.

If you have a smart phone or camera, you should take photographs and video recordings to document the accident scene and the extent of the damage. If you are able to do so without causing a conflict, take a picture of the other people involved in the accident.

Keep in mind that if litigation results from the accident, you may have to share your notes and photographs with somebody that you are suing, or somebody who is suing you. Don't include anything in your notes that will embarrass you if read by others.

Do Not Admit Fault

Even if you believe that you are at fault for the accident, do not admit liability.

There may be factors which you don't know that played a role in the accident. Despite your initial impression it may turn out that the other driver was more at fault than you.

Do not make statements about the accident or why it occurred to anybody at the accident scene, except for the police.

When you speak with the police about the accident, you should tell them only the facts relating to how the accident occurred. Let police draw their own inferences and reach their own conclusions based upon the facts.

Get Medical Care (See a Doctor)

If you are injured in a motor vehicle accident you should seek appropriate medical care.

  • If your injuries or symptoms are significant or if you are uncertain as to the extent of your injuries, you should seek emergency medical care immediately after the accident
  • If you do not seek emergency medical care but were injured, seek a diagnosis and treatment from your primary care physician.
  • Wherever you first seek medical care, make sure that you also obtain appropriate follow-up care.

When you decide if you should see a doctor, you should err on the side of caution. You can experience an adrenaline rush after an accident, and that effect can mask the symptoms of an injury. A physical examination performed by a physician may reveal injuries that you do not yet feel.

Be certain to inform your doctor if you have symptoms that might suggest the possibility of a concussion or brain injury. Symptoms to report include dizziness, memory problems, headaches, nausea, disorientation, confusion, ringing in your ears (tinnitus), or the presence of blood or fluid discharge in your ears. Report any other unusual physical or mental feeling.

It is possible to hit your head during a motor vehicle accident and suffer brain trauma or injury, yet not realize that you have been injured. If there is any possibility of a head injury, play it safe and tell your doctor about your symptoms and concerns. Let your doctor rule out the possibility of brain trauma or concussion.

When you are injured in a motor vehicle accident, and you later attempt to seek compensation for your injuries from the at-fault driver, your medical treatment records may have a significant impact on your ability to recover compensation for your losses and injuries. If you delay seeking medical care after an accident, the other driver's insurance company may argue:

  • That you were not injured in the accident,
  • That the symptoms you describe are not related to injuries that you suffered as a result of the accident,
  • That you are exaggerating the severity of your injuries, or
  • That you were injured at a later date and are trying to blame those injuries on the motor vehicle accident.

Do not expect that an at-fault driver's insurance company will be fair. Insurance companies are in the business to make money, and part of how they make money is by denying claims and by paying as little as possible to settle valid claims.

If you are injured in a motor vehicle accident due to the fault of another driver, you should consult a personal injury lawyer about your possible recourse. If you are sued by another person who claims to have been injured in an accident that you allegedly caused, you should immediately report the lawsuit to your insurance company.

Notify Your Insurance Company

Your auto insurance contract requires that you notify your insurance company of accidents that may result in a potential claim. The time period for reporting an accident may be quite short.

If you do not report an accident or delay making a report until after the deadline has passed, your insurance company may later deny the claim. Be sure to report the accident promptly in order to avoid potential later problems with insurance coverage.

Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.