Personal Injury

What to Do after a Car Accident

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
The steps you take immediately (and soon after) a crash are crucial to protecting any car accident claim you may decide to make.

Car accidents injure, disable, or kill more than 2.35 million people a year in the United States, and end up costing more than $230 billion annually, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel. A vehicle crash can be caused by any number of factors, including inattention, unsafe driving, dangerous road conditions, even faulty vehicle components. Car accidents can also take many forms, from a "fender-bender" with minor vehicle damage and no injuries to a multiple-vehicle accident with serious car accident injuries, even death.

If you drive a car, it’s important to understand what to do after a car accident -- immediately and in the longer term -- to ensure that your well-being and your legal rights are protected (especially if you end up filing a personal injury claim).

Assess the Situation and Get Help

Even the most minor of accidents can cause major stress. It’s important to stay as calm as possible, and follow a few key steps.

  • Exit your vehicle if it is safe and you are physically able to do so. Make sure to turn on your hazard lights.
  • If the accident is anything more than minor and/or you or anyone else (another driver, a passenger, a pedestrian, etc.) are injured, call 911 so that emergency medical services can be sent to the scene. Doing this will also bring law enforcement to the scene, in most instances.
  • If no one requires medical attention, call the non-emergency number for your local law enforcement agency and report the accident. Depending on where you live, an officer may or may not come to the scene (especially if no one is injured and you are in a larger city, they may not come).
  • If you feel well enough and it’s safe to do so, take pictures of the car accident scene and anything that may become important if any claim is made in connection with the crash. That means taking photos of the location of the vehicles when they came to rest; damaged areas of the vehicles; debris on the road; condition and location of traffic signals, stop signs, and other signage; and your injuries, where possible.
  • Exchange contact, driver’s license, and insurance information with the other driver and anyone else involved in the accident. If anyone witnessed any part of the accident and is willing to stop and talk with you, make sure you get that person’s contact information as well.
  • If you're able to safely move your vehicle, move it to the shoulder of the road.
  • At this point you may want to contact your car insurance company and let them know what happened. They may send an agent to the scene or help you arrange a tow to a local repair shop.
  • Get medical attention if you feel even the slightest inkling of injury. Pay particular attention to your neck and back, watching for any pain, stiffness, or just the sense that something is “off.” Car accident injuries are notorious for being late-appearing, meaning you may not be aware of them right away. Learn more about how medical treatment affects an injury claim.

Get Your Records Together

If an injury or vehicle damage claim is made after an accident -- whether in the form of an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit -- documentation will become crucial, especially on issues of fault for the accident, and the extent (and dollar cost) of injuries and other losses.

Here are some records to gather and prepare:

  • Vehicle damage inspection reports, repair estimates, valuations, and invoices for work done.
  • Any police report generated in connection with the accident, if law enforcement came to the scene.
  • All records related to any injuries and medical care you received in connection with the accident, including bills and treatment records (you’ll need to request these) from emergency medical services, the ER, your own physician, specialists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other health care professionals.
  • A personal journal in which you record your recollections about the accident itself, your injuries (including the impact they are having on your emotional health and your daily activities) and any other effects of the accident.
  • Employment and income-related records that document your earnings as well as the amount of time you have missed at work because of your injuries, physical limitations, and doctor appointments.

Talking to Car Insurance Companies

As mentioned earlier, it’s sometimes a good idea to contact your car insurance company right at the scene of the accident. In any event, you’re most likely contractually obligated -- it’s in the fine print of your policy, in other words -- to report any incident that could trigger a claim under the policy "promptly" or within a "reasonable time."

No matter how minor a car accident appears to be, it’s wise to report it to your car insurance company. You may end up experiencing late-appearing injuries, your vehicle may be damaged much worse than you initially thought, or the other driver may decide to escalate things by suing you over the accident (despite what you promised one another at the scene). If any of those things happen, and it’s now a month or more after the accident, you may run into trouble when you do finally tell your insurance company about the accident.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If the other driver and I agree to make a deal without reporting the accident to our car insurance carriers, and the other driver files a claim anyway, will my insurance company still defend me?
  • Will the fact that I was taking pictures of the accident scene right after the crash affect my claim that I was injured?
  • Will my insurance company pay my claim if my car was damaged by a hit-and-run driver?

Learn more about why it's a good idea to have a personal injury lawyer.

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2018 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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