There are few things worse than getting into a car accident. Considering everything else on your mind and your already lengthy to-do list, you’re likely not expecting the pickup truck behind you to abruptly become the new backseat driver.
But like the Boy Scouts, you should always be prepared. And there are critical, potentially lifesaving steps you should take upon experiencing that dreaded, whiplashing crunch. What if you’re on a highway during rush hour traffic? What if you get caught in a hit-and-run? Considering the limited time to react in these situations, this post preps you for these scenarios in advance.
Zero to sixty, let’s roll.
According to the auto insurance industry, the average driver gets into a car accident roughly once every 18 years. This means that the average driver experiences three to four accidents over the course of his or her driving lifetime. And that is for the average driver, meaning some of you will unfortunately become car accident regulars.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: But I’m an above average driver. LOL. Perhaps that’s true, but color me skeptical: based on a recent study by AAA, 73 percent of US drivers consider themselves better-than-average drivers. In other words—I hate to break it to you—you’re probably not as good of a driver as you think.
Why do I bring this up? Why do I crush your driving pride? Because overconfidence while driving helps nobody, and you need to acknowledge that any one of these situations could happen to you the next time you get behind the wheel. The point of this post is not to lecture you on how to drive; instead, it’s meant to help you prepare for an accident so that you can make the subsequent steps as safe and seamless and possible.
Steps to Take Now (Before Car Accident)
Let’s start with what you can do now (expand each for details):
Find an accident report form online to print and store, along with a pen, in your glove box. There are several options of these forms online, so make sure the form facilitates documentation of the accident details, other car and driver information (including insurance policy), passenger details, police information, witness details and towing company information.
Within your glove compartment, it’s in your best interest to store the following:
- Car registration
- Insurance card
- Blank accident report form
- Roadside assistance details
- Emergency contact information
While most states accept digital insurance cards, keep a hard copy of your insurance card in your glove compartment in case your phone dies or gets damaged. In addition, upon getting pulled over by cops, they will immediately request your license, registration and proof of insurance. Having these documents accessible will make your traffic stop as straightforward as possible.
And although not absolutely necessary, some drivers prepare in advance for accidents by also carrying a car escape tool, a first aid kit, a flashlight, small orange cones, energy bars, bottled water and blankets (if living in a cold area).
Make sure your auto insurance policy is current (i.e., confirm your policy was not cancelled and you are not underinsured). You can run into this situation if you don’t pay your bill on time or forget to insure all drivers in your household.
These simple steps can make a significant difference. The fourth step, quite obviously, is to drive safely, but even safe drivers cannot always elude a crash. Which leads us to…
Steps to Take After Car Accident
You’re driving down the road, enjoying the nice weather and singing along to your favorite radio station, when – WHAM – you get t-boned by another car, whiplashing you and your car to an abrupt stop. Holy [insert curse word here]. What now?
Car accidents can occur in a wide variety of circumstances, from a routine fender-bender in a parking lot to a fatal pileup on a highway. Nevertheless, regardless of the location or damage, the steps to perform in the moments after a car accident are substantially the same. The following steps will help ensure that you remain safe, abide by the law and get the most out of an insurance claim, potentially saving you thousands of dollars.
After getting into a car accident, you’ll likely feel an immediate rush of adrenaline and shock. Try to stay calm. The world isn’t over, so take a deep breath and collect your thoughts.
Rather than saying “Oh $#!%,” the first words out of your mouth should be, “are you ok?” Check whether you, your passengers or anyone else is injured, and call 911 to request immediate medical assistance, if necessary.
Unless in immediate danger, avoid moving anyone requiring medical assistance to prevent further injury. If any vehicle is on fire, turn off the ignition, get everyone out of the car and move everyone at least 100 feet away from the vehicle. If someone is unconscious and not breathing, perform CPR until the ambulance arrives.
If no one requires immediate medical attention, evaluate your surroundings to determine whether the accident is impeding traffic or exposes you or your passengers to any danger, such as getting struck by another vehicle. Your #1 priority at this point is to keep you and your passengers safe. With safety top of mind, consider the following courses of action:
- If you are at risk of getting struck, immediately move your car to the side of the road (or completely off the road, if practicable).
- If you are not in immediate danger but deem it necessary to move your car off the road, take pictures of the other vehicle’s license plate and the accident scene before moving your car (if you don’t have a working phone, at least write down the license plate number of the other vehicle). This will help you avoid being the victim of a hit-and-run. If the vehicle in fact flees the scene, also write down a description of the vehicle and direction of travel.
- If you are not completely impeding traffic or at risk of getting struck by another vehicle, do not move your car unless required by law. In addition, do not move your car if the vehicle has been totaled or is not running properly, if there is significant accident debris on the road or if there are injuries that could be made worse by moving the vehicle. Upon arriving to the scene, the police will be responsible for documenting the accident details in the police report. If the vehicles have been moved, it can be difficult for the police to take pictures and gather other physical evidence that will determine who was at-fault in the crash. This, in effect, could cost you thousands of dollars.
Whether you move your vehicle or not, further protect the scene by turning on your emergency flashing lights, setting up flares or cones, and/or waving a flashlight to divert traffic and keep everyone safe.
Once you have requested any immediate medical attention and ensured your vehicle is in a safe location, call 911 to notify the police of the accident. While you may be hesitant to involve the police, getting a police report of the accident is very useful when submitting an insurance claim and supporting you during any potential lawsuits. Perhaps more importantly, getting a police report is required by law in most states, depending on the extent of damage.
When speaking with anyone—the other driver(s), passengers, witnesses or police—do not admit guilt or apologize. This could come back to bite you as adverse evidence in an insurance claim.
Before the police arrive, limit your interaction with the other driver. Check whether the other driver is injured and document their information, but don’t chat about the accident or share your license or address with anyone besides the police. Once the police officers complete their report, feel free to flirt with the other driver all you want.
Even before the police arrive, you can start taking pictures of the scene and documenting accident details. Photograph the vehicle damage, visible injuries and accident location. However, consider the accident scene a crime scene: do not tamper with any evidence that could interfere with the police investigation. If you have an accident report form (or notepad) and pen (see Steps to Take Now section, above), start documenting the name, address and phone number of everyone involved in the accident (including passengers and witnesses); the license plate number and damage of each vehicle; the insurance company and policy number for each vehicle; and notes about what occurred. As an alternative, several car insurance companies offer smartphone apps that enable you to gather this information.
Once the responding police officers arrive to the scene, they will question you about details of the accident. Be concise, share facts (i.e., do not speculate or guess) and avoid saying anything that could indicate you were at fault for the accident. If the police ask if you are injured, never answer “no”—rather, share any injuries you have or reply that you are not sure, as injuries may become apparent hours after the collision. Anything you say can be documented in the police report and used against you when filing an insurance claim. After providing the police your statement, ask to hear or read the statements provided by other individuals involved in the accident to challenge their accuracy to the extent possible. Also make sure you request a copy of the police report or the police report number.
After the police finalize their report and you go off on your (no longer) merry way, you will most likely need to contact your insurance company to report the accident.
But before we dive headfirst into the claims process, you may be wondering if it’s always the right move to contact your insurance company after an accident. After all, insurance companies notoriously tend to jack up your insurance rates after filing an accident claim, oftentimes by as much as 50%. As a rule of thumb, it’s in your best interest to contact your own insurance company following an accident. The only circumstances in which you should consider not contacting your insurance company are when the accident involved only you and your car. If the accident did not involve another driver or another person’s property, consider whether either of the following also applies before contacting your own insurance company:
- Your policy does not include collision coverage
If your insurance policy does not include collision coverage and the car accident only involved you and your own car, then your insurance policy may not cover your damages anyways.
To explain further, there are various types of auto insurance you can purchase, most notably of which are liability insurance and collision coverage. Liability insurance, which is required at certain minimum amounts by state, covers the other person’s medical and property costs if you are involved in a car accident and determined to be at-fault. Collision coverage, on the other hand, is not required by law but can cover damage to your own car after an accident. If your policy does not include collision coverage, strongly consider not reporting the accident to your insurer in these scenarios.
- There is minimal damage
If the accident causes minimal damage to your car—say you backed into a pole, denting your bumper—it may benefit you to pay for the repairs yourself rather than filing a claim on your collision coverage. Assuming you plan to fix the damage, get an estimate of what the repairs will cost. If this estimate is less than your collision coverage deductible, you will pay for the damage out of pocket anyways. If the estimate is more than your deductible, you will need to evaluate whether the payout of an insurance claim outweighs the risk of paying higher auto insurance premiums for the foreseeable future.
These limited scenarios aside, be sure to reach out to your insurance company as soon as possible, especially considering that certain policies require immediate reporting. The insurance company will take your statement regarding the details of the accident.
Note: There is no requirement for you to contact the other driver or their insurance company. Occasionally, however, the other driver’s insurance company may call you to record your version of the accident.
When speaking with any insurance company, it’s important to remember the following:
- Be honest (share the facts of the accident)
- Be concise (do not overshare or speculate)
- Do not incriminate yourself (do not admit guilt)
- Do not downplay extent of injuries or losses (request all possible compensation)
Do your best to be prepared before speaking with any insurance company, especially if you speak with the other driver’s insurer. Insurance companies are businesses, so they will inevitably protect their own interests and look for opportunities to save money by pinning the blame on you, minimizing payments or rejecting claims altogether. Don’t automatically accept the first settlement offer, and be sure to push back on the insurance company as necessary. Getting the highest possible compensation usually requires grit and persistence on your part, but it will be worth the effort.
In a perfect world, you would report the accident to your insurer, take your car to a repair shop, visit a doctor (if you were injured) and then receive compensation from your insurer to cover those bills. Well, unfortunately, it’s oftentimes not that easy.
Before taking your car to a body shop or visiting a doctor to treat injuries, make sure that the insurance company has performed any necessary inspections, accepted liability and provided you their assurance in writing (or email). You don’t want to be on the hook for any car repair or medical bills which you assumed would be covered by your insurer. For car repairs, select the best auto repair shop for you; while insurers may be allowed to make recommendations, they can’t force you to use a certain body shop.
In addition, closely monitor your health and well-being for any injuries incurred from the accident. While those with injuries typically report pain a day or two following the accident, certain injuries do not become apparent until well afterwards. Unless you are certain that you did not sustain any injuries, consider visiting an emergency room or doctor to check for any injuries (e.g., concussion or spinal cord injury) that could cause serious, long-term damage if left untreated. Remember to contact your insurer and submit a claim as soon as a related injury becomes apparent.
If you have a pending claim, it’s important to retain documentation related to the accident to support the claim and ensure you receive the appropriate compensation. Keep the insurance policy paperwork, accident report and any notes in one location. Double check that you have received all agreed-upon compensation for any car repair, medical or other bills you incur.
Last but not least, consider whether you still want to hold an auto insurance policy with your current insurer. Many insurance companies raise your rates after a car accident, even if the accident isn’t your fault. If your insurer jacks up your premium rates, or you had an overall lousy experience with your current insurance company, it might be time to switch providers.
To help you remember the primary steps, remember that—with the right mindset and safety precautions—accidents can be SIMPLE:
Injuries (seek any immediate medical attention)
Move to a safe location (if in immediate danger or impeding traffic)
Protect, pictures & police (protect the scene, take pictures & call the police)
Limit your interactions and statements (do not incriminate yourself)
Earn your insurance compensation (notify insurance company)
Be safe out there!