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The period after you first get your license can be exhilarating, a time of experiencing the world from an entirely new perspective. But no matter how safely you drive, the odds are good that eventually you’ll be in a crash. For most drivers, a collision is more or less inevitable: according to the NHTSA, every year about 1 in 40 licensed drivers gets into a crash, and car insurance industry estimates suggest that, on average, drivers file collision claims with their insurers once every eighteen years .
Don’t be caught off guard! Whether you’ve never been in a crash before or just want to make sure you don’t make things worse for yourself if you get into a crash in the future, this short guide covers everything you need to know to handle your first collision in a safe and mature way.
Be Ready for the Worst
No matter how good a driver you are, you should be prepared for a collision by always carrying equipment that will help you respond safely in an emergency:
- Your license, registration and insurance documents
- A card that includes your emergency contact information, essential medical information for anyone who regularly travels in the car, and phone numbers for local law enforcement
- Road hazard indicators such as safety cones, warning triangles, or emergency flares
- A basic first aid kit
- A flashlight and battery
- A camera
- A pen and paper to take down any important information you need to record
Modern cell phones include many of the things you’ll need after a crash, including a camera, flashlight, and emergency contact numbers. Indeed, many car insurance companies now offer phone apps to make the process of dealing with a collision easier than ever, so check with your insurer to find out if they offer such a service.
Keep in mind, though, that if your phone loses power or breaks, you’ll lose all the tools it includes, which is why it’s a good idea to have backups of everything in your car–especially your emergency contact and medical information. Always make sure your phone is charged before getting on the road.
Stay Put, Stay Calm, Stay Safe
Chances are, your first collision will happen suddenly and with little to no warning–an extremely stressful situation that may cause you to react in a panic. But if you’re in a crash, the most important thing is to keep a cool head . Only by staying calm can you reliably maneuver your car to a safe place and fulfill all of your legal obligations.
In every state in the country, drivers are required by law to stay at the site of the collision until the immediate situation is settled. If you leave before checking to make sure no one is injured, conferring with the other drivers involved, and sharing basic information with each other, you can be charged with hit-and-run. This crime is typically associated with significant penalties, including jail time and the loss of your license.
Though you must stay at the scene, try to move your car to a safe place out of traffic unless it’s too damaged to operate safely. Before getting out of the car, turn on the hazard lights, turn off the engine, and set the parking brake. Take a deep breath. Then exit your car safely and set up flares or other hazard warnings around your car if you have them available.
If your car can’t be moved, get out and get over to the sidewalk or shoulder of the roadway immediately. Activate your car’s hazard lights before leaving the car to help others avoid smashing into the wreckage, especially if you crashed near a curve or hill. And if there’s no safe place on the side of the road and you have to stay in your car, make sure your seat belt is fastened and your hazard lights are on.
Make Sure Everyone’s O.K.
Once you’ve emerged from imminent danger, the first thing you should do is check everyone for injuries: first yourself, then your passengers, and finally anyone riding in the other vehicle(s) involved. If anyone needs immediate medical attention, call 911.
If someone has only minor injuries, help them from the car and get them to safety. However, if anyone is unconscious, seriously injured, or suffering from neck or back pain, don’t move them unless it would be dangerous to leave them where they are, as being moved can make many injuries worse.
Keep in mind that in many states, drivers involved in a collision are legally required to provide assistance to anyone injured in the crash. In most cases, this will consist of calling an ambulance, although you may also offer to give the injured party a ride to a hospital if his or her injuries are not severe. Don’t attempt to provide medical aid yourself unless you have the proper training and know what you’re doing.
It’s also important to realize that dizziness, grogginess, or confusion after a crash may be signs of a severe internal injury, such as a concussion. Err on the side of caution and get help for anyone who may need it.
Call the Police
After a collision, many drivers are reluctant to call the police, fearing a hassle or worrying about the potential legal ramifications. However, in almost every crash situation, calling the police is a good idea.
For one thing, there are many situations in which drivers are required to call the police after a collision, but these vary by state. While pretty much everywhere has a requirement to do so if someone’s injured, some jurisdictions may also require a call if there’s wreckage blocking traffic or if vehicle or other property damage exceeds a certain monetary value. Because of these inconsistent policies, calling the police and letting them sort it out is usually the safest option after any crash.
(Keep in mind that when you call the police, the dispatcher will ask you to describe the scene before deciding whether or not the crash merits a police response. With so much else to keep in mind when you’re in a collision, talking to the dispatcher can mean one less thing for you to worry about personally.)
Other things to remember when calling police to a crash site:
- Obtain the name and badge numbers of officers on the scene so you can follow up more effectively.
- Each state has different requirements for filing a police report after a crash. Ask the responding officer if he or she will file the report for you, or if you must file a report yourself. Try to get the police report number, if possible.
- If the other driver involved in the collision tries to convince you not to call the police, that’s a good sign that you should call the police. A police report will make it difficult for the other driver to recant after the fact.
- Don’t think that by not calling the police, you’ll be able to avoid liability. It won’t be until later that fault is determined, and a failure to contact law enforcement may reflect badly on you. A police report will document any factors that mitigate your fault in a collision.
- Having the police around can also help temper any conflict that you may have with the driver of the other car.
- In the time it takes for the police to arrive, protect the crash site and make sure you’re clear about what happened. Aim to give a statement that is accurate and concise.
- Only call 911 for emergencies. For minor collisions, call the local police department or highway patrol instead.
Collect All the Information You Can
One of the most important things to do after a crash is to get all the information you can from the other driver and to record as many details from the crash as possible. This will make it much easier to follow up with your insurance company (or the other driver directly, if necessary). When interacting with others at the crash site, be as polite and cooperative as you can.
Exchange the following information with the other driver. Also try to get as much information as you can from any passengers involved, as well from any witnesses to the crash.
- Phone numbers
- Email addresses
- Drivers license and license plate numbers
- Vehicle types, models, and colors
- Insurance company names and policy numbers
A piece of information you should never ask for is someone else’s social security number. If the other driver asks for yours, decline to provide it. Let them know that neither the police nor insurance companies require this information.
In addition to the information you collect from others, be sure to document the scene of the crash thoroughly. Note when and where the crash took place, road and weather conditions at the time of the crash and, to the best of your recollection, the series of events that led the collision. Include the direction each driver was traveling and relevant information about each driver’s speed, turn signals, etc. It’s also wise to draw a diagram to make it easier to visualize what happened.
Another good practice is to take as many photos of the crash scene as you can. Photos can help the court make its judgment and help your insurance company determine the extent of the damage. Use your cell phone camera if you don’t have another available; some insurance companies offer apps that let you upload images directly from the scene of the collision.
Useful pictures to take include:
- The full collision scene, as seen from different angles and distances
- The front, sides, and rear of every vehicle involved
- Close-ups of damages to every vehicle involved and any other property affected by the crash
- Any vehicle parts that have been left in the roadway
- Incidental details like nearby traffic signs and signals, skid marks, and hazards in the road
- Everyone involved in the crash, including any injuries they sustained
If you’re not sure whether you should take a picture of something or not, take it; details that seem insignificant may turn out to be more important than you realize. However, be sure to photograph the most important details first, especially if your camera/phone has limited storage capacity.
In addition, the next time you go out for a drive, we recommend that you take pictures of your car in its current state. If you get into a crash, having these pictures will make it easier to make a before-and-after comparison of your car’s condition.
Note: If you’ve been in a hit-and-run crash, the other driver has decided to try to avoid his or her legal responsibilities. Don’t avoid yours. In this situation, it’s more important than ever that you communicate thoroughly with the police as well as identify witnesses who can corroborate your account of what happened. In the moments before the other driver speeds away, try to get as much information as you can, including the license plate number, the model and color of the car, and the appearance of the driver.
Watch Your Language
As you exchange information with others involved in the crash, provide details to responding officers, and discuss the collision with friends and acquaintances in the days that follow, it’s important to watch what you say. In particular, avoid making any statement admitting fault for the collision, even to the police. Fault will ultimately be determined by the insurance companies of the drivers involved or by the court system, and you want to avoid saying anything that might prejudice their findings.
What if you feel the crash really was your fault? Even then, hold your tongue. Focus on making factual statements rather than offering your judgment of who’s to blame. Your first collision will stir up powerful emotions, and your immediate response may be to feel guilty, even if you’re no more responsible than the other driver. Moreover, the other driver may try to deflect blame onto you before you’ve had a chance to think. When conferring after a crash, stick to the facts; if the other driver tries to goad you into an argument, just walk away and wait for the police to arrive.
Also keep in mind that in certain contexts, even an apology can be interpreted as an admission of guilt. So while it’s important to be courteous and polite to everyone involved, try not to say “I’m sorry,” even if you feel you should. While few people would try to use a simple apology against you, you never know what kind of person you’ll be in a crash with–or what kind of lawyer they’ll hire.
Put your trust in the reliable, objective processes for judging fault that are used by insurance companies and the court system. While you should never make a dishonest statement regarding the crash to anyone, remember that you are obliged to be forthcoming and thorough only with the police and your insurance company.
Finally, don’t promise to pay for damages or sign any document unless it’s explicitly for the police or your insurance company. And if the other driver’s insurance company gets in touch with you directly, don’t share any information with them. Ask them to contact your attorney or insurance company if they want to set up an interview, and inform your attorney or insurance company of the call as well.
Call Your Insurance Company
Strictly speaking, you don’t have to contact your insurance company while you’re still at the scene; still, there are many good reasons for doing so. For one, your insurance company may be able to help you get in touch with a tow truck company, recommend a mechanic for repairs, or even arrange a rental car for you. Moreover, by describing the collision while events are still fresh in your mind, you’ll be able to provide a more accurate picture of what happened and get your account of the event on the record as soon as possible. (Remember, if you lie about anything to your insurer, you may be denied coverage and face further penalties.)
If you don’t call your insurer from the crash site, do so as soon as you get home. Be sure to give a clear description of what happened, provide the information you collected about the other driver, and let them know if you’ve taken pictures or filed a police report. If a claims representative is not immediately available, one will typically contact you to help you file your claim within 24 hours of your initial call. When you’ve been in a crash, it’s your insurance company against the other driver’s insurance company, and the more information you give them, the more power they’ll have to fight on your behalf.
Frequently drivers’ insurance rates go up after they make a collision claim, so when a collision is minor, drivers sometimes decide to come to a mutual agreement themselves. While this idea may be appealing in some circumstances, keep in mind that you never know if the other driver will uphold his or her part of the agreement or even decide to contact his or her insurer later on. The longer you wait to file your own claim, the more of a disadvantage you–and your insurer–will be at. You may end up paying a lot more than the cost of increased insurance rates.
After Your First Collision
After you’ve collected all the information you can and finished conferring with the other driver and the police, you are free to leave. You’ll need to call for a tow truck if your car’s been damaged significantly, unless the police tell you it should not be moved. If your car is still safe to operate, you may drive it from the scene, though if there are any mechanical issues, you should take it in for repairs as soon as possible.
In many cases your insurer, and the other driver’s insurer, will want to inspect the damage before any repairs are made. When filing your claim, be sure to ask the representative whether you have to wait on getting your car fixed; if the collision was minor, your photos from the crash may be enough. One or both insurance companies may send an adjuster to make estimates on how much repairs should cost.
When dealing with an adjuster, point out where your car is damaged and focus on the facts of the collision. Don’t discuss fault or share any medical information. The adjuster is there only to figure out the cost of repairs. If you think the adjuster’s estimate of how much it will cost to fix your car is low, consider getting additional quotes from different mechanics.
In addition, you need to keep the following considerations in mind following a collision:
- Make sure you follow up with the police department to get a copy of your police report. Provide a duplicate to your insurance company. This information will make it easier to determine who’s legally at fault.
- If you’ve been injured, document every medical professional you consult and request copies of every medical report and bill related to your treatment. If your injuries have forced you to miss work or otherwise affected your daily life, note that as well. This information will be used to determine how much compensation you’re entitled to.
- Be patient with the process. It can take time to figure out how much the damages to your car are worth or how significantly an injury will affect your health. This is one reason you should avoid negotiating with the other driver at the scene, and also why you should be cautious when dealing with the other driver’s insurance company. Don’t give a recorded statement to the other insurer or accept an early settlement offer until you’ve had a chance to consult your own.
Finally, keep in mind that you may need to hire an attorney when you’ve been in a crash, especially if you’ve been injured. An attorney can help make sure you’re fully compensated for the costs of dealing with your crash injury. It can also be helpful to consult an attorney before accepting a settlement offer or if you and your insurer can’t agree on the cost to repair your car.