Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve just gotten into a car accident. And what’s worse, you think it’s your fault.
Obviously this is a terribly upsetting moment. In addition to the serious injury you just risked, you’re saddled with the guilt and shame of having possibly caused an accident. Then there’s your fear for the future: How will this affect your insurance rates? Will your policy cover the damage? Will there be points against your license?
With all of these questions swirling about in your head, it can feel enormously taxing to keep your composure. And yet that’s exactly what you need to do. Don’t panic. Try to stay calm. And follow these 10 basic steps.
1. Check for injuries.
There’s no higher priority than the immediate physical safety of everyone involved in the accident. So check in with yourself. Have you been injured? In the immediate wave of shock and adrenaline, you might not even realize that you’ve been hurt, so take a careful inventory. Are you sure you’re OK?
Also check in with the other vehicle’s driver and passengers. Are they OK?
If you or anyone else is seriously hurt - or even _might _be seriously hurt - don’t take any risks. Contact the authorities and get emergency medical assistance ASAP.
2. Call in the police.
If the accident is relatively minor, you might be tempted to skip this step. Don’t! The police can prove essential to filing a successful claim, so alert them right away. They’ll come to the scene and take a report from you and the other parties present. Again, this police report may turn out to be very important. Make sure to get the number of the police report, as well as the officer’s business card and/or badge number.
3. Exchange information with the other driver.
This can be a tense moment, and you both might be a little upset, but it’s very important to get the other driver’s contact information (i.e. phone number and email address), home address, license number, insurance company and policy information, and license plate number.
4. Don’t assign blame.
Don’t blame the other driver, and don’t admit fault yourself. Even if you think _you were at fault, now is simply not the right time to work that out. Your thinking won’t be clear immediately after an accident, and important information may come to light later. So do _not assign blame. The importance of this step cannot be overstated.
If you do admit fault, or even use language that _implies _fault (such as “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t see you coming”), it can later be used against you with catastrophic repercussions.
Please note: This isn’t about trying to avoid accountability or “get away with” anything. It’s about not leaping to conclusions. And as we said above, you also shouldn’t try to get the other person to admit guilt. Simply be polite, be kind, be courteous, and say as little as possible about the actual accident.
5. Talk to any witnesses.
If pedestrians or other drivers stopped, ask them if they witnessed the incident. If so, see if they’re willing to swap contact information with you. Like the police report, witness testimony may be something you don’t need - or it might be very important. There’s no way of knowing yet.
6. Don’t block traffic.
If the accident was relatively small and it’s safe to move your car out of the roadway, do so now.
7. Document the scene.
Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones, this step is easier than ever. Take copious pictures or even slow, careful videos of the scene. Capture it from all angles. Show any damage to the cars, skid marks on the road, etc. You should also document the weather and road conditions, signage and stop lights, street lighting, etc. The goal here is to create as complete a record as possible of your immediate circumstances.
8. Take notes.
Now is a good time to write down some notes, or record a video of your live thoughts. Try to capture what you remember about the accident, including the exact sequence of events, driving conditions, damage to the vehicles involved, etc. If witnesses have provided useful information, take notes on that as well. You’ll be hit with a huge amount of information within a very short span of time, and these detailed notes can often prove essential.
9. Notify your insurance company.
You may be tempted to avoid telling your insurer about an accident, especially if it seems minor. All we can say is that this is a serious mistake. As we documented in this article on auto insurance myths, even if you’re _not _at fault, you should absolutely notify your insurance agency after an accident. This is for several reasons:
First, it’s your legal obligation. Your insurance contract almost certainly requires you to notify your carrier after a collision. Failing to do so would therefore be a breach of contract. This means your insurer could justifiably cancel your policy (e.g. after a more serious accident), leaving you stuck with catastrophic financial liabilities.
Second, notifying your insurance company is crucial to protecting yourself in the long term. If the other driver later makes a false claim against you - perhaps alleging that you caused them grave injury - your insurance company will have no record of the incident and will be unable to protect you.
10. Be the last to leave.
If you think you might have been at fault in this accident, make sure you are not the first person to leave. This is important because leaving preemptively can be misconstrued or misunderstood as fleeing the scene of the accident.
So stick around, make sure the police officer speaks with all parties, create documentation of the accident, talk to witnesses, take notes, call your insurance company, etc. Be the very last person to leave, and you’ll be able to depart with a clean conscience.