Do you know what to do right after a car accident? Here’s how to stay safe at the scene, protect your rights, collect evidence, deal with insurance, and more.
Every year in the United States there are over 6 million auto accidents.¹ That means on average there are over 16,000 car crashes every single day.
The aftermath of a serious auto accident is a stressful and dangerous situation. People may be injured or disoriented, vehicles are often mangled and leaking fluid, and traffic can continue to pass dangerously close to the scene.
There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with the scene of an auto accident.
Here we describe how to handle yourself at the scene, deal with any injuries, and gather the information you’ll need to file a car accident claim.
What to Do At the Accident Scene
Your safety and the safety of your passengers is your first priority.
After an accident, check yourself and others for injuries. Then call 911 and wait for the police to arrive. Make sure you’re waiting in a safe location. This is especially important if you’re on a busy road, highway, or intersection.
Do not leave the scene of an accident. Even if you’re not at fault, you need to stay at the scene in a safe place near your vehicle. Leaving the scene of an accident could result in you being charged with a crime.
At the scene, you’ll need to take photos and video, write down important information, talk to the police and witnesses, and take other important actions to protect your claim.
Steps to Take Immediately After an Accident
1. Move Your Car Off the Road
If your car is drivable, move it off the road. You may only have the shoulder available, but that’s better than staying in the middle of an intersection or highway. Get as far off the road as possible without risking further injury. If your car is not drivable, you will have to leave it as-is.
It’s not your job to clear glass or other car parts off the road, or to direct traffic around the accident scene. Let the police do that when they arrive. Your job is to stay safe.
2. Turn on Your Hazard Flashers
This will call attention to the scene and warn other drivers to slow down.
If you carry additional warning devices, such as flares or reflective safety triangles, now is the time to use them. But place them only if you can do so safely. Don’t put yourself in danger by entering a busy roadway.
3. Move Away from Your Car
Once your car is safely off the road, move away from the car if possible. You don’t want to be the victim of a second collision because of some impatient driver. Never assume that other drivers will act safely just because they’re approaching the scene of an accident.
If there’s a safe place for you to wait until the police arrive, exit your car and go there. Use extreme caution when getting out of a car into oncoming traffic. If the crash happened in a busy intersection, or on a roadway lined with concrete barriers, the safest place to wait may be inside your car.
If it’s unsafe to exit your car, or you’re injured and unable to move, stay put and wait for the police and emergency services to arrive.
4. Call 911 and Let the Police Do Their Job
As soon as you and your passengers are safe, immediately call 911 if you have a working cell phone.
The police know how to secure an accident scene. They will set out flares, direct traffic around the accident, investigate the scene, and complete a police report.
5. Stay Calm and Don’t Admit Fault
While you’re waiting for the police to arrive, avoid the temptation to talk to the other driver. Stay quiet. Don’t even talk to witnesses yet. The minutes following a car accident are stressful. Don’t let that stress cause you to start saying things you may regret.
At most, you can exchange insurance information with the other driver. If you’re injured or not up to exchanging info, don’t worry, the police will get the other driver’s insurance and contact details when they arrive.
If the other driver wants to talk to you, great. Just listen. Let the other driver admit fault if they want, but never say anything that would imply your own fault. Use the video function on your smartphone to record the scene and any statements made by the other driver.
Dealing With Your Injuries
Don’t be quick to say you’re not injured. Sometimes the stress and adrenaline that accompany a car crash can cover up the pain from injuries.
If you have an obvious injury, allow the police and emergency medical services (EMS) to evaluate you. If EMS suggests you go to the hospital, then go to the hospital. If not, you should still go to your primary care doctor for an evaluation.
Getting immediate medical treatment not only protects your health, but it also creates a medical record to back up any future claim for personal injuries.
In the days following an accident, don’t ignore signs or symptoms that may be related to an injury. It can take hours or even days for you to become fully aware of the injuries you suffered.
Common Injuries from Car Accidents
Neck strain, also called whiplash, is caused by your head snapping sharply forward or backward. Some symptoms of whiplash include neck pain or stiffness, dizziness, shoulder pain, and hand or arm numbness.
Concussions are mostly caused by your head hitting the steering wheel or window. A sudden blow to your head can actually cause your brain to impact the inside of your skull. See a doctor if you experience such symptoms as confusion, slurred speech, nausea or vomiting, headache or sensitivity to light.
A herniated disk, also called a slipped or ruptured disk, occurs when the disk between two vertebrae in your spine is knocked out of place and contacts the surrounding nerves. A common symptom of a herniated disk is pain radiating down your hip or leg.
Spinal cord injuries are common in auto accidents. Each year over 40% of all spinal cord injuries are caused by car crashes. The symptoms of a spinal cord injury depend on what part of the spine is involved, but can include difficulty standing or moving, muscle spasms, or difficulty breathing.
Foot and Leg Injuries
Injuries to the legs, knees and ankles occur often in car accidents, especially in front-end crashes. This is often because airbags leave the lower extremities exposed. When the legs or knees collide with the steering column and surrounding housing, the impact can easily cause sprains, strains or broken bones.
The force of your body being thrown against some part of the car or being restrained by the seat belt can cause injuries to your internal organs. Common internal injuries caused by the trauma of a car crash can include internal bleeding, damage to the liver or spleen, or a collapsed lung.
Seek help at the scene or see a doctor immediately if you’re suffering from abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, large areas of bruising, headaches or dizziness, swelling, loss of consciousness, or any other symptom you suspect may be the sign of a serious internal injury.
Physical injury is not the only kind of injury that results from a car accident. You also may suffer emotional distress.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues can all result from being in a collision. See a doctor, psychologist or counselor immediately if you’re suffering from any of these problems after a car accident.
Gathering Information for Your Injury Claim
As part of gathering information for the police report, the investigating officer will get statements from you and the other driver. The police will also get both drivers’ contact and insurance information, and will talk to any witnesses at the scene.
Never talk or argue with the other driver about who is at fault. Wait for the police and tell them what happened. You may discuss fault and liability with the driver’s insurance company after filing your claim, but don’t do it with the driver at the scene.
Photographs and Video: If you have a working cell phone, take photographs and video of the damage to your car, the other car, and the scene as a whole.
Make sure the area is safe for you to move about. Never put yourself at risk to get a photo.
Take photos and video from many different angles and perspectives: wide views, close up, side views, etc. In addition, take photos and video of the scene itself, including photos of any debris and tire skid marks, street signs, traffic lights, etc.
If you or a friend are able, get photos of your injuries at the time of the accident and throughout your recovery. Graphic pictures of injuries can be powerful evidence in an injury claim.
Damaged Personal Items: Save any torn or bloodied clothing from the crash, and any other damaged personal items such as laptops, cell phones, jewelry, etc.
The clothing will clearly show the trauma you experienced during the crash. You’ll also need to verify any personal property damaged in the crash, so you can get fair compensation from the insurance company.
Witness Statements: Finding an independent third-party to verify what happened in the collision will help your claim. If you’re not seriously injured after the crash, try to find any onlookers willing to give a written summary of what happened. Ask them to sign and date their statement, and write down their contact information.
If you’re injured and unable to gather information after the accident, don’t worry. The police will gather driver and witness contact details, and other evidence for their report. You can get a copy of this report several days after the accident, and use the information when filing your insurance claim.
Notifying Your Insurance Company
You do not need to call from the accident scene, but you should call your insurance company soon after you arrive home, or the next day if you get home after business hours.
Letting your insurance company know about the accident is important, as your auto policy likely has a “notification clause.” This clause requires you to notify your insurance company any time you’re involved in an auto accident, and to cooperate with the company’s investigation of the accident.
A typical notification clause reads something like this:
“Insured (you) agrees to notify the insurer (your insurance company) of any accidents and thereafter comply with all information, assistance, and cooperation which the insurer reasonably requests, and agrees that in the event of a claim the insurer and the insured will do nothing that shall prejudice the insurer’s position…”
Not only are you contractually obligated to notify your insurance company of the crash, but doing so puts them in a better position to protect your interests. Most auto policies state the insurance company must provide an attorney to defend you if someone from the other car files a lawsuit against you.
The Other Driver’s Insurance Company
Don’t talk to anyone from the other driver’s insurance company until you’ve had a chance to calm down and treat your injuries. Be very careful if a claims adjuster calls wanting to make a quick settlement. They are not looking out for your best interests.
The adjuster will likely call and ask you to describe what happened, or to send them documents or other information. You do not have to give a recorded statement or send them anything at this time. If you plan to hire an attorney, simply inform the adjuster you will be retaining counsel.
If you have only minor injuries and plan to handle the claim yourself, be careful when giving a recorded statement. Adjusters are expert negotiators and can get you to make admissions against your own interests.
If you’ve already retained an attorney, the best thing to do is refer the adjuster to your attorney.
Serious Injuries Require an Attorney
If you suffered only minor injuries in the accident, perhaps missing a day or two of work with a few hundred dollars in medical bills, you may be able to handle your own insurance claim.
If you suffered more serious injuries, you will need a personal injury attorney to handle the claim for you.
If You’ve Been Seriously Injured
What you need to do immediately after an accident can change dramatically if you’ve suffered a serious injury. Your health and safety are the most important things to think about at the scene.
If you’ve been seriously injured, don’t concern yourself with gathering information or taking photos. Your attorney can gather what’s needed for your claim after you get medical treatment.
After calling 911, you should limit your movements. You can make a serious injury worse if you try to get out of the car or move too much. Be smart and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Wait for emergency medical professionals to arrive and assess your situation.
How an Attorney Will Help
There’s a lot involved in a personal injury claim: determining who is at fault, your potential comparative negligence, MedPay under your own insurance, uninsured and underinsured coverage, medical bills and lost wages, liens and subrogation claims, and more.
An experienced plaintiff’s injury attorney can be a valuable asset in helping you get the compensation you deserve.
Most reputable injury attorneys offer a free initial consultation to review your claim and answer your questions. Your attorney will also work on a contingency fee basis, so you will owe nothing if the attorney doesn’t settle your claim or win a lawsuit in court.
It costs nothing to see what an experienced attorney can do for you.
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