What You Should Do After A Car Accident
Driving is risky. A traffic accident can happen at any time. In fact, insurance companies expect that you will file a claim for an auto collision about once every 18 years, according to one industry trade association’s estimate for all US drivers. Preparation cannot prevent a traffic accident from happening. But it can help you to limit the damage in the moments afterward, and the days and weeks that follow.
Use this six-step guide as your car accident checklist, starting with the things you can do right now, then at the scene of a crash, and finally in the comfort of your home, to keep you in control of the situation. We’ll cover these tips step by step as you read through this post.
- Know your insurance
- Be safe
- Get help
- Get the facts
- Go home
- Tell your insurer
Please note that you can get a checklist from the California Department of Insurance and other sources. But we think this one is more valuable, for a couple reasons. First, this checklist is written in plain English. No bureaucratic jargon. Second, it’s been carefully edited to leave out all the details you wouldn’t expect to see in an accident checklist.
While we don’t provide extensive details about insurance claims, we do provide links to further information about insurance claims and other relevant details that will be helpful as you get informed about what to do if you get into a traffic accident.
Before an accident occurs you need to prepare yourself
High school students and college students are known to hit the books at all hours of day, even sometimes burning the midnight oil, to get ready for final exams. Think about preparing for a car accident the same way. School exams and car accidents might even bring up the same dreadful emotions.
Here’s a little good news, just to keep things in perspective. While a car crash might seem like the worst thing in the world, most of them result in property damage only, no injuries.
But before you wipe that bead of sweat from your eyebrow and breathe a sigh of relief, keep in mind that car accidents can be shockingly expensive.
As we wrote in our breakdown of auto insurance policies, the average claim for an auto collision involving property damage only is $3,350. The average bodily injury claim arising from an auto collision is $17,000. With this much money at stake, it pays to know how your insurance policy can help protect you from having to pay medical costs or auto repair costs out of pocket.
You should always keep the following emergency supplies in your car
- Bottled water
- First aid kit
- Dried/non-perishable food
- Jumper cables
- Disposable camera
Step 1: Know your insurance
Insurance policies, like many contracts, can be overwhelming. Who has time to read pages and pages of legalese? Not many people. But you don’t have to study all the words in the agreement.
Just make sure you understand the essential details, including what kinds of claims are covered, claims that are not covered, the limits on your coverage, and the deductibles you will have to pay out of pocket before insurance coverage kicks in. All this information should be found on the declaration page of your policy.
The California Department of Insurance says if any of the information on the declaration page is incorrect or different from the coverage that you purchased, send a written request for your agent or insurance provider to change the terms, and keep a copy of the request. Also, purchase certified mail tracking or a return receipt from the postal service so you can prove that you sent the request and your agent or insurance provider received it.
What to do at the scene of an accident
At the time of a traffic accident, it can be hard to appreciate that most of the time damaged property can be repaired or replaced, and most of the time people walk away from traffic accidents or find themselves quickly in the hands of capable emergency service providers who can help. Once you’ve overcome the initial shock of being in a car accident, it helps to know that technology has made it easier to navigate the process of collecting information at the scene of the accident. For now, let’s take things one step at a time.
Step 2: Be safe
The roadways are just as hazardous in the moments after a traffic accident as they are in the moments beforehand. In fact, they’re probably even more so because while your car and any other cars involved in a collision are coming to a standstill, other cars are continuing to pass by at high speed.
With this in mind, stop the car as soon as possible. Try not to block traffic. Get yourself and everyone else involved in the collision safely out of the road.
Step 3: Get help
Call 911 if anyone has been injured. Even if you don’t believe there’s an emergency, or you’re not sure if first responders will visit the scene of the accident, it’s still a good idea to contact the police. That’s because proof of police notification can be an important part of your insurance claim.
Step 4: Get the facts and collect evidence
This is where you’ll spend most of your time and energy after a car crash. Take your time, and collect all the information you can.
Start by noting down the date, time, place, and description of how the accident happened. Keeping a notebook and a few pens in the glove compartment box can come in handy right about now. But even if you don’t have paper or anything to write with, your mobile phone likely has a variety of apps you can use, like Evernote, Apple Pages, Google Docs, or Microsoft Word. You could even type notes into an email or a series of text messages.
Collect the names, addresses, telephone numbers, driver’s license numbers, vehicle make and year from all drivers. Get license plate and vehicle identification numbers too. Snap a picture of the license and registration, if you can. This will save time. It will also help you get accurate information. It’s easy to lose information because of typos, even in the best of circumstances. After a traffic accident, you may have a hard time thinking or writing clearly.
You could also note each driver’s age, the vehicle owner, the owner’s address and telephone number, insurance company, policy number, policy expiration date, name of broker-agent, broker-agent’s address, and the nature of damage to the car.
After you’ve finished collecting information from all the drivers, look around for any other passengers and anybody who witnessed the collection. Get their names, addresses, and telephone numbers.
And for anyone who was injured, be sure to note the nature of the injury, the hospital where he or she was taken. Also note if the person was a driver, a pedestrian, a passenger in your car, or a passenger in another car.
After a police officer reports to the scene of the accident, collect the officer’s name, officer’s badge number, precinct, and note if a court summons was issued, who received the summons, and the type of violation cited by the officer.
Take pictures of the damage, the position of the cars, and the accident scene, especially anything that may have played a factor in the collision.
While we’re discussing the things that you should do at the scene of a traffic accident, here’s one thing to avoid: an argument. It’s just not worth it. You probably won’t feel good about it, and you might regret saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Also, don’t sign anything. You might feel pressure to talk about who was at fault for the collision and who’s responsible for damages right away, but it’s not a good idea. Go home. Get some rest. First, talk to family or friends you trust, and your insurance company. You’ll be better prepared to discuss the aftermath of a car crash in the days ahead than you could possibly be right at the roadside.
If you’re dealing with property damage and you don’t know whose property it is, leave a note with a name and contact information so the property owner can get in touch later. You’d appreciate this if your property was damaged. Kindness and civility can be worth their weight in gold in stressful times, like the aftermath of a car collision.
Once you get home after an accident
After collecting all the necessary information at the collision scene, you deserve a little rest and relaxation. Now is the time to take care of yourself. Get together with family or friends and have a nice meal. Watch a movie or read a book, if you can. Settle down to sleep as soon as possible.
Step 5: Go home
Taking your mind off the car accident is not only good for your wellbeing. It gives you a chance to slow down and let public safety officials and insurance professionals do their job to provide a fair outcome for everyone.
The contributing factors in a car accident sometimes seem obvious to everyone right away. Other times, drivers and witnesses may have different perspectives. Either way, it takes time for police officers and insurance representatives to consider all the facts and come to their own conclusions. If you disagree with their findings, you will be glad to have collected all the information and pictures that you could at the roadside. This information can help strengthen your case if the matter winds up in court or in private dispute resolution.
Step 6: Tell your insurer
After you’ve gotten home and had a little time to get settled, notify your insurance agent or insurance provider about the car accident. There are a lot of misconceptions about all the bad things that could happen at this point. For one, you might worry that your cost of insurance will increase if you admit to being involved in a car crash. This is why it’s important to shop around for auto insurance. Some insurance companies raise rates considerably after a collision, if you’re found to be at fault. Others do not. You should not be penalized with a higher rate if you were not found to be at fault for the accident.
It’s also a good idea to report the accident to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It doesn’t have to happen right away, but try to do it within a couple days. This is important, because the DMV may suspend your license if someone was injured in a car crash or there was a lot of damage and you didn’t notify them within 10 days.
Where to get more information
We’ve covered a lot of information in this post. We talked about the importance of knowing what’s included in your insurance policy as soon as possible so you’re as prepared as can be before an accident happens. In the aftermath of a car crash, remember to be safe, get help if needed, and collect as much information as you can about the people and vehicles involved. Then go home and relax a little before notifying your insurance provider and sharing all relevant details.
The GJEL website has a variety of resources to assist you.
A one-page document that you can print and store in the glovebox of your car to make sure you have all the emergency supplies you might need and to record the details of an accident.
Answers to frequently asked questions about some of the responsibilities affecting car accidents under California law.
Provides information about what may happen if you’re involved in a car crash in California with an uninsured driver.
Other websites also have information that may be helpful.
Your insurance provider’s website
Many insurance companies also have resources on their websites. In any web browser, search your insurance carrier name next to the term what to do after a car accident.