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What to do after a car accident

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What To Do After a Car Accident

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What To Do At The Scene of An Accident

As a rule, getting into a car crash is one of the scariest things you're likely to go through. Apart from the immediate danger, there's a lot going on during and after a crash that can have long-lasting effects on your life. 

Because the law varies from one location to another, and because there are so many ways to have an accident, it's not possible to briefly summarize what everybody should do in every case. There are some near-universal good moves to make, however, and what you're expected to do depends in part on how serious the accident was and whether you think you might be at fault. Remember that only your own lawyer can give you legal advice, which you should seek out to answer any questions you have about your own particular situation.

Minor Accidents: What to Do After a Fender Bender

Most people are familiar with what a fender bender is. It’s a relatively minor accident that might cause limited damage to one or more vehicles, but typically doesn't involve obvious injuries or the totaling of a vehicle. It's common for cars involved in an accident like this to still be operable, and the people in both cars are probably well enough to drive home after.

Regardless of who's at fault, it's generally a good idea to do several things as soon as you safely can:

  1. If possible, safely drive your vehicle to the shoulder of the road out of direct traffic.

  2. Check to make sure you and your passengers are not injured.  

  3. If this is a multi-vehicle accident, and you can safely get to the other vehicle, confirm the other occupants are not injured.  

  4. Call 911 to report the accident and request assistance for injuries if necessary.

  5. Do not leave the accident scene until you have completed the report with the responding authorities.

  6. Use your phone to take pictures of the points of impact of the vehicles. Photograph all areas of damage to the vehicles.

  7. Exchange insurance and driver’s license information. Get the names of any passengers of other vehicles.

  8. If possible, take names and phone numbers of any witnesses. 

  9. Do not discuss liability with the other driver(s).

  10. Provide truthful details of the accident to the responding authorities.   

  11. Report the incident as soon as possible or within 24 hours to your insurance company to file a claim.

If You Are at Fault

It can be hard to know whether you're at fault for a minor accident, although some states require blame to be assigned predominately to one of the drivers. While there's a lot of variation in assigning liability, you're generally at fault if you rear-ended the other car, you violated right-of-way, or you were driving in an unsafe manner, such as if you're impaired by alcohol or drugs, distracted by the phone or some other clear cause. If you are at fault for a minor accident, your concern (after making sure nobody is hurt) should be to limit your potential liability. You can limit your liability by doing the following:

  1. Don't make any admissions or speculate about why the crash happened. 

  2. Advise the reporting officer of the accident details and any injury information of all parties involved.  Ensure all occupants of vehicles and any witness are documented in the accident report. 

  3. Ask the officer for a case report number. This will help you get a copy of the report for your insurance company or lawyer.

If You Are Not at Fault

Sometimes it's obvious you're not at fault, but it's always dangerous to assume how a court might rule. If you've had a minor accident, and you're pretty sure the other driver is at fault, do the same things you would if you were at fault yourself. Make sure to get the other driver's current and accurate information, including a picture of their driver's license if possible, so you can get in touch later if you have to. Copy their insurance information, and note or photograph the license plates of any potential witnesses. The police or insurance investigators might need to talk to them later. 

What to Do After a Major Crash

Major accidents are very serious. If you've been in a major accident, you might have a totaled car or serious injuries. The other driver could also be seriously hurt or have a severely damaged vehicle. The potential liability in a case like this could be the cost of the repair of the damaged vehicles, medical bills, and potentially, wrongful death and criminal charges. 

After a major accident, you should obtain all relevant information that would help you provide a defense for any potential claims or litigation against you. This information can also help mitigate the potential of a property damage or bodily injury claim from the other driver.

If You Are at Fault

  1. Do not leave the scene of the accident until the authorities arrive and complete their investigation. If you don't know for sure whether you're at fault, do not make any admission of fault and refrain from discussing the accident details with the other driver. 

  2. Call the police to respond to a major accident, and always answer the officers' questions truthfully. Do not admit to being impaired. The police will investigate this themselves, and you don't need to help them build a case against you. You may get in trouble for refusing a field sobriety test, however, and many states treat a refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test as a crime in itself.

  3. Do not lie. Lying to law enforcement is a crime, and will ruin any credibility you might have had in court. It's always better to respectfully invoke your right to remain silent than it is to lie to a responding officer. 

  4. Do not resist arrest. Even if you are 100% convinced you haven't done anything wrong, you might still have to go to jail. You can only make things worse by trying to argue with the officer or escape, and you could be charged with a felony for fighting with the arresting officer. 

If You Are Not at Fault

If you've been hit on the road, and it's obvious the other driver is responsible, you still have to protect yourself. 

  1. Remain calm, and determine if you, your passengers and occupants of the other vehicle are injured. 

  2. Call and wait for law enforcement, and take pictures of the scene. 

  3. Get potential witnesses' contact information and give it to the officer. 

  4. Finally, even if you feel okay, it's still a good idea to see a doctor to make sure nothing is wrong.

What Should You Do When in a Car Accident With No Car?

In 2019, more than 51,000 vehicles were involved in around 33,000 car accidents. Not all of these accidents involved two or more cars, however. A full 6,205 pedestrians and 846 bicyclists were also involved in those accidents. Other accidents involved large trucks, animals, trees and other objects. If you find yourself in the unfortunate accident of being involved in a car accident with no other car, it can be difficult figuring out what to do. Thankfully, you can use a few basic guidelines when involved in one of these one-car accidents. 

Accident With an Object

Accidents with objects happen frequently. For example, you may hit a road sign, tree, railing or building. When this happens, the first thing you must do is quickly check yourself for injuries. If you're not in serious pain and don't have any apparent injuries, you should next check on any passengers in the car with you.1

If anyone is seriously injured, you should call 911 right away so that emergency first responders can be on their way. Even if there weren't any severe injuries, you could call the local police station to report the accident. They'll still send first responders to check everyone involved, and you must cooperate with them. 

Anyone injured shouldn't be moved, if possible. Moving them can make injuries worse. However, if your vehicle is in the road, you should attempt to move it to the shoulder. If this isn't possible and there are no serious injuries, you and your passengers should evacuate the vehicle and move to the shoulder. 

After your accident with an object, you should call your lawyer as soon as possible. If you don't already have one, now is an excellent time to find one. Depending on the object, you could be responsible for damages and may be facing points against your license. 

Accident With an Animal

If you're in an accident with an animal, move to the side of the road when safe and if possible. Hitting a large animal like a deer can total your car, so if your vehicle is no longer running, stay inside the car. Never approach the injured animal because they could hurt you. Wild animals can attack when approached, but any animal can lash out when they're injured or feel cornered.

Immediately contact the police and let them know you hit an animal and your approximate location. They'll send animal control to the scene to take care of the animal if it's still alive. Once the animal is no longer a threat, take photos of the accident and inspect your car for damage. Call your insurance company as soon as you get home. If it's late and they don't have a 24/7 hotline, you can call them first thing the following morning. 

Accident With a Truck

If you're in an accident with a truck, the very first thing you should do is call 911. Accidents with large trucks like semis can cause serious injury, so even if you think you're okay, it's important to get looked at by an emergency first responder. 

If there are no life-threatening injuries in the accident, try to get the truck driver's insurance information and contact details. You should attempt to collect their name, phone number and address. However, if the truck driver has been seriously injured, don't worry about getting their information. Although the process takes longer, the police who attend the accident scene will collect this information instead.

If you're told by a medical first responder that you need to go to the hospital, you should do as instructed. Ensure any passengers in your vehicle also seek medical treatment if told to do so. Injuries (even serious ones) aren't always evident in the minutes or hours following an accident. Once cleared by a medical professional, call your insurance company. If you believe there are any questions about fault, be sure to reach out to your attorney. 

Accident With a Bicycle

An accident with a bicyclist can be dangerous, especially for the person riding the bike. Call 911 right away, even if it appears that nobody was seriously injured.

If you're the person on the bicycle, make sure you speak with the police at the scene to give them your detailed account of the incident. Sometimes, officers only talk with the vehicle driver and not the bicyclist. You want to ensure this doesn't happen. Additionally, you'll want to leave your bicycle in the damaged condition and not try fixing it before your claim has been resolved. 

Both parties will want to take pictures and exchange information. If you're the car driver, you should cooperate with the police and the bicyclist. You're required to give your contact and insurance information. Then, you'll want to call your insurance to report the accident. If you hit a bicyclist, reach out to an attorney. This is an accident that could result in serious legal problems if you're determined to be at fault. 

Accident With a Pedestrian

Managing the crash site between a vehicle and pedestrian is similar to hitting a bicycle. However, the risk of injury to the pedestrian can be far more significant if they are hit head-on. Before anything else, call 911 immediately. Don't attempt any medical interventions beyond what you're supposed to. For example, you can perform CPR if licensed to do so or apply pressure to an open leg wound. But don't do CPR if you aren't trained to, and never move the pedestrian or attempt other interventions.

If the pedestrian can walk on their own, help direct them to the side of the road, so they aren't hit again. You should also move your vehicle to the shoulder, if possible. Wait for emergency first responders to show up on the scene and seek medical treatment. Exchange contact and insurance information, take pictures of the crash site and call your insurance company. You'll also want to contact an attorney as soon as possible. 

In All Accidents With a Non-Vehicle

There are a few golden rules to use in all accidents with a non-vehicle. If you can't remember anything else at the time of a crash, try to recall the following:

  • Always check for injuries.

  • Call 911 or the local police station right away.

  • Move people and vehicles to the road's shoulder, if at all possible.

  • Cooperate with police (but don't ever confess to fault).

  • Exchange contact and insurance information.

  • Take pictures of the crash site.

  • Seek medical attention, even if you don't feel hurt.

  • Contact your insurance company as soon as possible.

  • Get in touch with an attorney (if in doubt, call).

Accidents With Missing Paperwork

After an accident, you need to view a lot of paperwork from the other driver. You should see the other driver's vehicle registration, insurance documentation and driver's license, noting down all the relevant information and taking photos if possible. But sometimes the other driver doesn't have the documents they're supposed to carry. Maybe they're uninsured or even unlicensed. Here's what to do if you're in an accident and the other driver is missing paperwork.

Accidents with Uninsured Drivers

If you're hit by an uninsured driver, you may be concerned about who will pay for the damage to your car. Report the accident to the police and your own insurance company so you can get any repairs started. Do not admit any fault in the accident, as your admission can be used against you, even if the accident was 100% the fault of the other driver.

When you're in an accident with an uninsured driver, you need an attorney. Don't agree to a settlement of any kind without getting an attorney involved. The uninsured driver is likely to offer an under-the-table payment to cover damages. Don't accept any such offer. You don't know what the repairs will actually cost until a body shop has started the work (even an initial estimate could be low), and you could end up paying a lot out of your own pocket.

Drivers With Suspended Licenses or No License

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, about 1 in 6 fatal accidents involve a driver who is unlicensed or driving with an invalid license. If you're in an accident with someone driving without a valid license, there's a good chance the driver also has no insurance. Don't assume, however, that the other driver is 100% at fault because of this.

Go ahead and file a claim with your own insurance company. If you have uninsured motorist coverage, which is fairly standard, your insurance will cover the damages. You can also file a personal injury lawsuit against the other driver to recoup damages.

Drivers With Expired Registration

Accidents aren't caused by expired registration. What matters is whether the other driver is insured. The state may come after a driver for their expired registration, and if the police are called to the scene of the accident, they may cite that driver. But you should just go ahead and gather all the information and file your insurance claims as you normally would.

Drivers Who Don't Own the Car

If you discover after an accident that the other driver doesn't own the car they were driving, don't worry. The insurance is attached to the car, and it contains a clause saying that anyone driving the car is covered by insurance if the driver gave them permission to drive the vehicle. That means you'll file an insurance claim against the owner of the car, not against the driver.

Hit-and-Run Accidents

While the laws regarding hit-and-run accidents vary from state to state, the procedure you should follow if you're the victim of a hit-and-run is constant no matter where you are. First, make sure you and any passengers are okay, and then, call 911 if needed.

Next, call the police (this may also mean calling 911) to file a report. Even if the damage is minimal, you may need the police report to file your insurance claim in the case of a hit-and-run. Take photos of all the evidence, and jot down some notes (possibly using the voice memos feature of your phone) about exactly what happened while it's fresh in your mind. If there are eyewitnesses on the scene, ask them to talk to the police or get their contact information for later. With all that evidence, you'll be ready to file an insurance claim — and it may help the police catch the perpetrator.

Accidents Involving Underage Drivers

An accident involving an underage driver is essentially the combination of an uninsured driver accident with one where the driver has no license. While you may feel bad for the teenager who hit your car, you still need to report the accident to the police. Your insurance should cover the damages if you have an uninsured motorist clause, but your insurance company is likely to want to see that police report. Let your insurance company know all the details to get the claim started, and don't delay because you don't want to get the teenage driver in trouble.

Accidents Involving Unconscious Drivers or Drivers Under the Influence

If you're in an accident involving someone whom you believe to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, call the police immediately. Stay at the accident scene until you've spoken to the police, even if the accident was relatively minor.

The person driving under the influence may try to leave the scene or persuade you that it's not a big deal, and you shouldn't call the cops. But this is a person who should not be behind the wheel, so it's imperative to keep them at the accident scene and get the police there so the impaired driver doesn't cause another accident. Once the police arrive, cooperate with them and gather all the information you need for your own insurance claim.

If the accident involves a driver who is unconscious, perhaps because they've had a stroke or heart attack while driving, call 911 immediately. Once the emergency medical steps have been taken, you can ask the paramedics or police to help you gather the information you need.

Accidents Where the Other Party is Belligerent

If you pull over after an accident and realize that the other driver is belligerent, try to avoid confronting them. Yes, you're shaken, upset and possibly even angry. But there's nothing to be gained from getting into an argument or confrontation. That belligerent driver may try to attack you or your car or passengers.

Instead, call 911 and report the accident. Let the 911 operator know that the other driver is belligerent (and possibly drunk, if that's the case) and that you need police on the scene as soon as possible. Also, report any injuries so medical care can arrive. Gather the information that you can gather safely (such as photos of the scene and the other car's license plate), and let the police handle the belligerent driver when they arrive.

Filing a Police Report after a Car Accident

If you're in a car accident, you may think that a report is only required if someone is injured or if the damage is significant, believing that exchanging information with the other driver is sufficient. But your insurance company is likely to want the police report, as will any personal injury attorneys you contact if you're hurt in the accident. Filing a police report may seem unneeded at the time, but it's always a good idea.

A police report contains a law enforcement officer's account of a car accident. It includes details about the accident, including all the vehicles and people involved. The police officer will take statements from all involved drivers, passengers and any witnesses. Often the report includes a diagram illustrating the accident, as well as the officer's conclusions about the accident's causes.

Do Police Always Have to Come to an Accident?

Especially in busy cities, police may only come to the scene of an accident if it involves injuries. In this case, you may have to file an accident report separately, after the incident, with the police or the DMV.

Your first step after an accident should be to call 911, especially if anyone is injured. If police are required to come to the scene, depending on your jurisdiction, the 911 operator will alert them.

The police will collect information about the accident, noting any violation of laws, such as failing to stop at a red light or making an illegal lane change. They will take statements from the drivers and passengers and collect all your personal and vehicle information. If there are witnesses, police will also collect witness statements. They will note any injuries and call for an ambulance or paramedic if necessary.

You should get the name and badge number of the officers who show up at the accident. That will make follow-up easier if you need to add any information to the police report or if you need to get a copy of the report.

What Happens When a Police Report Is Filed?

Once the police officers at the accident scene have finished gathering information and interviews, they will assign the accident an incident or police report number. This number lets you and the insurance companies involved reference the case for the purpose of getting the report. Make sure to get that incident number before the police officers leave the scene.

The police officers then generate a police report by filing the information they collected. In some jurisdictions, that police report is then used to generate a separate accident report with the DMV. Your auto insurance company will get a copy of the report; most major insurance companies use software that downloads police reports automatically. The claims adjuster assigned to your insurance claim will then use the report in determining fault and coverage.

When Can You Access a Police Report After It Is Filed?

If you were a driver or passenger in the accident, you should be able to access the police report within a few weeks. That's the typical time frame for the police to complete their investigation and file the report. If you weren't involved in the accident, it may take a bit longer to have your request processed. If an investigation is still ongoing, you'll have to wait for it to be completed to get a copy of the report.

Does a Police Report Automatically Get Sent to Insurance?

Insurance companies have to ask for copies of the police report when an accident involving their clients occurs. The reports aren't sent automatically. Many insurance companies use software that can expedite the transfer of that report once it has been generated by the police officers at the scene. Your insurance company doesn't know it needs to get the report until you (or the other driver) inform the company there has been an accident.

Why You Should File a Police Report

You may walk away from an accident thinking it wasn't too bad and that you don't need to file a report. However, you may have symptoms pop up days later indicating that you did indeed sustain injuries. Filing that police report helps protect you legally, making it easier for you to file a claim and seek damages.

You may also learn from the auto repair shop that your vehicle was damaged far more seriously than you expected. The police report can make it easier to recover damages here as well. In many jurisdictions, in fact, you're required to file a police report if damages exceed $1,000 — which can happen easily even in a minor fender-bender.  

Pros of Filing a Police Report

A police report is important, and in some states such as Texas and California, it's required by law if injuries or death occur or if there's over $1,000 in property damage.

The police report acts as a third-party account of the accident that's unbiased and accurate. It serves as evidence for your insurance company or even in court if needed. If you end up filing a personal injury lawsuit, having the police report on hand is very important.

Even if you're the driver who's at fault, you need to have a copy of the police report. It can help protect you if the other driver claims to be injured when they're actually not.

Cons of Filing a Police Report

There are really no good reasons to avoid filing a police report.

Can the Police Refuse to File a Report?

Yes, the police may refuse to write an accident report if an accident is very minor or doesn't involve injuries. You can request that the police write a report for insurance purposes, but the officer may still refuse to do so.

How to Look Up and Obtain a Police Report

Usually, the police officer at the scene of the accident will give you a receipt that includes the reference number for the police report. It may also provide you with a phone number or link to allow access to the report once it's generated.

Follow the instructions on the receipt from the police officer to get your report. You may have to pay a small administrative fee.

Tips for Trying to Retrieve a Police Report

If your city charges for the police report, and you can't afford the administrative fee, try asking your insurance adjuster for a copy.

If you lose the reference number for the police report, you may be able to locate it by providing your name along with the location, date and time of the accident.

Obtaining a Police Report Online vs. In-Person

Traditionally, you had to obtain a police report by going into the police department or DMV in person. Some jurisdictions are now starting to take records online, but it varies from one city or county to the next.

Are Police Reports on the Public Record?

Technically, police reports are on the public record because they are government documents. That doesn't mean, however, that any person can obtain access to any police report. Each state's freedom of information laws govern who has the right to see different types of police reports, including accident reports. Typically, people involved in the accident are granted the right to get copies of the reports.

Can You File an Accident Report Retroactively?

While you can file an accident report retroactively, you may be subject to some kind of penalty (such as having your driver's license suspended) if you wait longer than the required period. The police or DMV are still likely to take your input, especially if you left the scene of the accident without calling the police at the time.

If you didn't file an accident report because you were injured in the accident, a passenger in your car can file it on your behalf. In most states, you don't have to file your own report if the police filed one.

How Long Do You Have to File a Police Report?

Laws regarding when you need to file an accident report vary from state to state. Many states require a police report to be filed within 24 hours, but others give you up to 10 or even 30 days. You may have longer to file an accident report with the DMV if your state requires it.

Can You File a Police Report Online?

Some states make it possible to file an accident report online, at least with the DMV. In other states, you can download the forms you need to file a report but then need to file hard copies of the forms.

Can a Witness File a Police Report?

All witnesses to a car accident can make a witness statement, and these statements are often included in the official accident report. In most states, a witness can file the primary police report only if they were a passenger in one of the vehicles.

Can a Police Report Be Updated Retroactively?

While you can make corrections to a police report, the sooner you make them, the better. It's best if you review the police report at the scene and make corrections there. Later on, the police officer may ask you to provide objective evidence, such as new eyewitness statements or video of the accident, regarding any changes you wish to request.

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