Bam! It sounds like an explosion went off in your car. Wham! You are jerked violently into your seatbelt and the airbag inflates, momentarily burying you in it.
Perhaps you saw the collision coming, perhaps you didn’t — in either case you are briefly in a state of near-shock. After that passes, what do you?
Here are the steps your should take after you have been in a serious car crash.
1. Check for Injuries
First thing is to determine whether you or any passengers in your vehicle, or anyone else, whether in another vehicle, pedestrian or bicyclist is injured.
Check yourself first. Is there any bleeding? Pain? Inability to move an arm or leg? Have your passengers check themselves as well.
If anyone has anything worse than the most minor injury, call 911. If you don’t have a phone with you, ask a passerby or someone in the other vehicle call (assuming you have hit another vehicle and not an object, such as a tree).
After you have checked on yourself and your passengers, check on any other people involved in the collision, and again, call 911 if anyone has suffered anything worse than very minor injuries.
If anyone has suffered significant injury, dealing with this takes priority over everything else that follows. Get medical assistance as quickly as you can and, if at all possible, do not move anyone who is seriously injured. Furthermore, if you are seriously injured it will be up to someone else to take care of everything that follows.
2. Move Out of Harm's Way
If your vehicle is now sitting in the middle of the road, you are at risk for suffering another collision with any oncoming vehicles.
There is no rule on whether you should move your car after an accident or leave it in place until the police arrive. When the police arrive at the scene one of the things they will do is prepare a report based on their observations, which includes everything up to:
- Time of day
- Condition of the road (including whether it was wet)
- Existence of signals or stop signs
- Visual obstacles, such as parked vehicles or tree branches
- Skid marks caused by hard braking
- Location of the vehicles (including if any crossed over the center line).
Thus, if you move your vehicle you can wreck some of the evidence of what happened and who might have been at fault. On the other hand, if your vehicle is in a position, such that it is highly likely to be hit by an oncoming vehicle, you might want to move it anyway if it is drivable.
After any collision, ensure to turn your hazard lights on, if they are still working, and put out traffic cones, if you have them.
3. Take Photos
If you do decide to move the vehicle, take a few minutes beforehand and take photographs of the vehicle or vehicles from every possible angle, both close-up and from a distance. If you do not need to move your vehicle, you should still take multiple photos of the scene.
The photographs taken from a distance should show where the vehicles are in relation to other things, such as parked vehicles, trees, and stop signs.
A note here on "before the accident". Sometimes it is unclear whether certain damage to a vehicle was caused by the collision or was pre-existing. It’s not a bad idea to have a saved set of photographs of your car from all angles showing the condition that it is in. In case of an accident, you can prove the damages suffered. You could take these photographs today!
4. Do Not Admit Fault
This step is less about what you should do and more about what you should avoid doing. It's second nature for most of us to rush up and apologize to the other driver, especially if you believe the collision was your fault.
Resist this urge. Never apologize, admit fault, or even make an off-hand comment about how you weren’t paying attention.
Saying too much while you're caught up in the panic and emotion of the moment can result in your words being used against you in the police report, or in any litigation that ensues, even if the police report is in your favor.
It's best not to speak with anyone, except the police or your insurance company, about the incident. Also, never sign anything that isn’t from the police or your insurance agent.
Furthermore, do not admit fault to the police. State the facts: I drove, I saw, I braked. Do not state any conclusions concerning fault. State only what you saw, what you did and what the other driver did.
The following are examples of statements that do not admit fault:
- I was driving down the road at the speed limit.
- I came to a stretch of the road where a tree branch partly obscured my vision.
- Suddenly the other car turned into the roadway right in front of me and I collided with it.
5. Exchange Information
Assuming all parties are physically able, you must exchange information. Be as polite as possible. If the other person is being belligerent, wait until the police arrive and ask them to supervise the exchange, which includes:
- Full name
- Contact number
- Insurance company name and policy number
- Driver’s license number
- License plate number
- Make, model, and color of vehicle
- Location of collision
- Names of any passengers
To make the process either, take photos of the other person's driver's license, insurance and registration paperwork.
In addition to providing this information to each other, it’s a good idea for you to take some notes that briefly describe the damage to the vehicles, the injuries suffered by anyone, and damage to any other property either within or outside of the vehicles, such as a computer in a vehicle or a sign on the side of the road that was hit by one of the vehicles.
Also, if there are any witnesses, who were not involved in the collision, try to get their names and contact information.
6. File a Police Report
Laws on whether police must be summoned to the scene of a collision vary from state to state. In some states they need not be called, if the damage to the vehicles is minor and there are no physical injuries at all to people.
However, if you’ve "wrecked" your car, likely the police must be summoned under the law. When they are present, be sure to get their names, badge numbers, and location of the station they work out of. You, your insurer or any lawyer working for you, will be able to obtain a copy of the report at their station.
If for any reason police do not come to the scene, you can file what is often called a "counter-report." Go to the police station closest to the scene of the collision and tell them you want to file such a report. They will have a form for you to fill out and will explain the process to you.
7. Contact Your Insurance or Agent
As soon as convenient, if possible within 24 hours of the accident, call your insurance company or the agent you purchased the policy through. Arrange with them to provide all of the information you have collected, as described above.
Under no circumstances should you provide information to any other party’s insurer. If an adjuster calls you, be 100% certain that this adjustor works for your insurer before you talk to them. If this person does not work for your insurer, refuse to talk to them.
If the adjustor is from your insurer, there are still some caveats. You should provide them with the basic information, which would be the photographs, the exchanged information concerning the other driver, passengers, and any other witnesses, the location of the collision, the identification of the police officers, and a basic statement of the facts.
As with the statement you provide to the police, this statement should not include conclusions about who was at fault. With respect to injuries suffered by you or your passengers, it is best to say that you do not know the full extent of them yet as some injuries can take some days to manifest themselves. After any conversation, immediately take some notes as to what was said.
The adjustor quite likely will want to take a recorded statement. Understand that if you are found to be at fault, among other consequences, there could be a drastic increase in your insurance rates. You have the right to consult with an attorney before giving a recorded statement to your insurer, if you want, and do not let an adjustor persuade you otherwise — you have this right.
However, the insurer has a right to investigate, and you have a duty to cooperate in their investigation. These rights and duties are in your policy, the written contract you have with the insurer. Your duty to cooperate is a serious matter — in extreme cases of non-cooperation the policy can be voided.
7. Get a Property Damage Valuation
As soon as convenient, you will need to have the damage to your vehicle and to any property in the vehicle evaluated. If the car or other property is repairable, an estimate will need to be prepared.
Your insurer might want a certain shop to do the evaluation, but you can have another one done at a shop of your choice as well. If the property is a total loss, you will need to negotiate with your insurer with respect to valuing it. Kelley Blue Book provides an accurate representation of the value of most cars, but don’t be afraid to push for more if the Blue Book number is less than the true value of your car.
In cases of extreme disagreement, especially with respect to high-value vehicles, talking to a lawyer might make sense. If you have coverage for damage to your car, your insurer will deal with this immediately, if it turns out that the other driver is found to be at fault, your insurer will collect whatever it paid you for property damage from the other driver’s insurer.
7. Decide if You Need or Want a Lawyer
Hopefully, you and your insurance company will be able to reach an agreement about what is covered and how much you will be compensated for injuries or damages. If, however, you are having trouble with your insurance company, you can hire a lawyer or mediator to help.
You also have the right to consult with an attorney before giving a recorded statement to your insurer, if you want. If you have been in a collision serious enough to wreck you car, you most likely have been in one serious enough to talk to a lawyer. This is especially the case if the other driver was at fault and you want to sue them for your injuries. A lawyer will also help guide you through particularly difficult situations and advise if you have questions that your insurance agent cannot answer.
If the other driver sues you, your insurer will hire, at its cost, an attorney to represent you. The attorney is one of their choosing, not yours, though you can consult with an attorney of your choosing (at your cost) as well.
If you're in doubt, a brief consultation with a lawyer prior to giving a recorded statement to your insurer might be in order. Many well-qualified lawyers offer free initial consultations of up to 30 minutes or so.
The key here is to keep all avenues open. Do not admit fault to your insurer, not in a recorded statement nor in any other statement, written or spoken. Do not prematurely state that your injuries are less significant than they turn out to be. In any conversation with your insurer or its agent, recorded or not, stick to the who, what, where, when, just as you do with the police, regardless of whether you choose to consult with an attorney before giving a recorded statement.
An accident serious enough to wreck your car is also one that has likely caused you injury, emotional and mental if not physical. Litigation might follow.
Remember that healing is more important than money. While following your lawyer’s advice is important, following your doctor’s advice, and your own common sense when it comes to healing yourself, is more important.