Auto accidents happen every day -- they even happen to otherwise safe, defensive drivers. After an accident, you may be confused, angry, and hurt, but it's important to keep a level head so that you can stay safe and carefully document the details of the accident. The steps you take after an accident can have a serious impact on safety, insurance claims, and more, so it's important that you get it right. Make sure you're taking care of these important tasks if you're involved in a car accident -- even a minor one.
- Stay calm and assess the damage in your vehicle: Quickly determine if you or any passengers are injured and whether or not it is safe to move or get out of your car. Take a deep breath and do your best to remain calm before taking action.
- Get to a safe area: If possible, move your car to a shoulder or a nearby parking lot, while indicating to the other driver that they should follow. This way, you'll be out of traffic and less likely to be injured by passing vehicles. You'll also cut down on rubberneckers and avoid causing traffic difficulties for others. Use flares, warning blinkers, and any other indicators you may have to warn other drivers of your presence. Never leave the scene of an accident, even if it is a minor one.
- Be on the alert for drivers leaving the scene: Keep in mind that the other driver may not stick around, especially if they are at fault or uninsured. If this is the case, attempt to photograph or write down their license plate number to share with police and your insurance company.
- Turn off your vehicle and get out: If you're not seriously hurt, get out and check on the driver and passengers in the other vehicle. Remember that safety and injuries take priority. Call 911 for help if needed. Do not attack the other driver verbally or physically. Accidents happen -- avoid reacting emotionally even if it was clear the other driver acted negligently. Then, take a look at the damage to both vehicles. Remember to stay out of traffic, giving other vehicles plenty of room to get by. Don't forget you're in a dangerous location on the side of the road.
- Call the police: A police report can help keep the facts straight and make it easier to deal with insurance companies as well as the other driver. Give the police all of the facts you know and allow them to determine who is at fault for the crash. Ask for the police report number and request a copy of the accident report.
- Take photos as soon as possible: Remember, the other driver may not stick around even though they're legally required to do so. Getting photos of the damage (and their license plate) before anything is moved may prove to be important in winning a case. Even if the other driver cooperates, you'll need to have evidence of the damage. It's a smart idea to take a photo of the other driver with their car -- which can make it difficult for them to later claim they weren't involved. Take photos of the other driver's insurance card for easy reference as well.
- Get as much information as you can: Write down license plate numbers, insurance information, driver and passenger names, as well as the make and model of all vehicles involved. Describe the weather, traffic, time of day, and any other important factors. Note the location of the accident as well as the name and badge number of responding police officers. If there are eyewitnesses, write down their names and contact information. Draw a diagram of the scene and take notes about how the accident happened. Make sure to document the direction each vehicle was traveling.
- Don't admit fault or downplay injuries: Even if you think an accident was your fault, don't say so. Don't place blame on the other driver, either. Let the police decide. Don't sign any documents except for a police report. You should also avoid telling the other driver or police that you feel fine: simply tell them you don't feel like you need medical attention at the moment. It's very common to not feel injuries or pain at the scene of the crime when your adrenaline is pumping, and then feel whiplash or other injuries hours or days later.
- Call for a tow or get roadside assistance if you can't safely drive: If your vehicle is unable to move or you are concerned it is unsafe to drive, call a tow truck and have it towed to a mechanic or dealership for help.
- Get medical attention if needed: If you have any injuries or concerns about your health related to the accident, go to your doctor, urgent care center, or emergency room immediately, especially if you lost consciousness. Injuries may become worse or more painful with time. Getting medical attention right away also helps to legitimize an injury if you need to make a claim. Many insurers will raise an eyebrow if you're able to wait a few days to get medical help for a seemingly serious injury. Even if you don't seek medical attention immediately, see your family doctor shortly after the accident to rule out any hidden injuries. Keep track of all medical treatment and expenses. It's also a good idea to document any impact injuries have had on your daily life, especially missed work days and inability to complete regular tasks and activities.
- Call your insurance company: Even if you're not at fault, your insurance company can help you with claims. It's also important to establish good faith reporting in case the other driver's insurance company denies responsibility and you need to make a claim on your own insurance. Keep in mind that most state laws prohibit insurers from raising premiums for drivers who were not at fault in an accident. And even if an accident is your fault, drivers with a history of good driving may have accident forgiveness, so don't assume your rates will skyrocket after you call your insurance company.
- Call the other driver's insurance company: You will likely need to contact the other driver's insurance company to file a claim and get reimbursed for your expenses. Be prepared to answer lots of questions and do your best to give truthful information to the best of your knowledge. Do not admit fault or downplay any details. You may work with the insurance company for weeks or even months for reimbursement of repair, rental, and medical expenses. You will likely also be able to make a claim for general damages (typically pain and suffering and missed work).
- Replace car seats: If your accident occurred with children in car seats in your car, don't hesitate to replace them. Car seats should always be replaced after a serious accident, as they are only designed to be safe for a single crash. Even if they appear to be in good shape, unseen damage may have occurred. The cost of replacing car seats should be reimbursed the same way any vehicle repairs are taken care of with the insurance company. Keep in mind that most manufacturers recommend replacing car seats after any crash, even minor ones, so even if you were able to drive away from the accident and have no apparent injuries, it's a good idea to replace car seats just to be safe. Refer the insurance company to your manufacturer's instructions recommending replacement if they attempt to deny reimbursement for car seats in a minor accident claim.
Photo by Flickr user meddygarnet