Driving is probably the most dangerous thing most of us will ever do. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2008, there were more than 5.8 million police-reported traffic crashes in which 37,261 people were killed and more than 2.3 million injured the United States.
Although you do your best to drive responsibly and defensively, it’s still smart to know what to do just in case you end up in a collision. Crashes can be very scary, but here are some tips if one happens to you:
Take some deep breaths to get calm. After a crash, a person may feel a wide range of emotions — shock, guilt, fear, nervousness, or anger — all of which are normal. But take a few deep breaths or count to 10 to calm down. The calmer you are, the better prepared you will be to handle the situation. This is the time to take stock of the accident and try to make a judgment about whether it was a serious one.
Keep yourself and others safe. If you can’t get out of your car — or it’s not safe to try — keep your seat belt fastened, turn on your hazard lights, then call 911 if possible and wait for help to arrive. If you can drive your car and are in an unsafe spot or are blocking traffic, find a safe and legal place to park your car (like the shoulder of a highway or a parking lot). In some states it’s illegal to move your car from the scene of an accident, though. Ask your driver’s ed instructor what the law is in your state.
If the collision seems to be minor, turn off your car and grab your emergency kit. If it’s safe to get out and move around your car, set up orange cones, warning triangles, or emergency flares around the crash site.
Reporting the Incident. Check on everyone involved in the crash to see if they have any injuries. This includes making sure you don’t have any serious injuries. Be extremely cautious — not all injuries can be seen. If you or anyone involved isn’t feeling 100%, you should call 911 or any other number your state uses to request emergency assistance on roadways. Be ready to give the dispatcher the following information:
- Who? The dispatcher will ask for your name and phone numbers in case the authorities need to get more information from you later.
- What? Tell the dispatcher as much as you can about the emergency — for instance, whether there is a fire, traffic hazard, medical emergency, etc.
- Where? Let the dispatcher know exactly where the emergency is taking place. Give the city, road name, road number, mile markings, direction of travel, traffic signs, and anything else you can think of to help them know how to find you.
Make sure you stay on the line until the dispatcher says it’s OK to hang up.
Sometimes, you can get the police to report to the crash scene even if there are no injuries, especially if you tell them you need someone to mediate — in other words, to help you figure out what happened and who’s at fault. But in certain areas, as long as both vehicles can be safely driven away, police officers won’t come to the scene unless someone is hurt. If the police do not come to the scene, make sure you file a vehicle incident report at a police station.
Take Down Driver Information
If you are feeling up to it, ask to see the driver’s license of the other drivers involved in the crash so that you can take down their license numbers. Also get their name, address, phone number, insurance company, insurance policy number, and license plate number. If the driver doesn’t own the car involved, be sure to get owner’s info as well.
Take Notes on the Crash
If the crash is minor and you feel that you can describe it, try to do so. Detailed notes and photos of the scene may help the court and insurance agencies decide who is responsible. Get a good description of the cars involved — year, make, model, and color. If your phone has a camera, use that or another camera to take photos of the scene — including the cars and any damage, the roads, any traffic signs, and the direction each car was coming from.
If you feel well enough, try to draw a diagram of the exact crash site and mark where each car was, what direction the car was coming from, and what lane it was in. Also, write down the date, time, and weather conditions. If there were any witnesses, try to get their names and contact info so that they can help clear up matters if one of the other drivers isn’t completely honest about what really happened.
Remember, you can only do these things if you think the collision was minor (for instance, if the airbag did not inflate). Even if you think it was your fault, it might not be. That’s why insurance companies say that you should not admit fault or accept blame at the scene.
Things To Do Shortly After The Emergency Is Over:
1. Consider Contacting an experienced attorney. We know that it sounds self-serving, but the sooner you get an experienced attorney involved, the better the odds of getting a fair settlement. The attorney will almost certainly be able to better locate, preserve and protect the relevant evidence and hire experts who can visit the scene before skid marks and other physical evidence disappears. If you do hire an attorney, tell everyone who contacts you about this crash that you can’t discuss it with them, and that they should speak to your attorney. Tell them, “I’m looking forward to cooperating with you, but my attorney said not to speak to anyone about this matter unless he’s present.” Then give them the attorney’s name and telephone number, and politely and apologetically hang up the phone.
2. Promptly take many high quality photographs of all of the physical evidence. A disposable camera is okay if there is no alternative, but, if possible, use a good digital camera set on the highest number of pixels it can take. The physical evidence to be photographed includes, at a minimum: (i) your vehicle, (ii) every other vehicle involved in the crash, (iii) the accident scene, showing skid marks, damaged physical objects such as telephone or streetlight poles, etc. and (iv) photographs of visible injury to you (such as bruises, scars, road rash, etc.) When taking photographs of a vehicle involved in the crash, imagine the vehicle at the center of a clock, facing 12 o’clock. Take pictures showing the whole vehicle while you’re standing a 12 o’clock, then 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, etc., all the way around the entire clock. Then go back and take many close-ups of each and every damaged part of the vehicle, as well as the entire interior, again from many different angles. Take at least two or three times as many pictures as you think you will need. Look at the photographs immediately afterwards, on a full-size computer monitor, to make sure that they’re not blurry and that the lighting is adequate. (Blurry pictures sometimes seem clear when viewed on the small monitor on the digital camera.) Immediately take more pictures if these did not turn out well. If you’re using a camera with film, get the pictures developed immediately and also have them put on CD, to give to your lawyer as a backup.
3. Take steps to preserve all of the physical evidence. There may be very serious consequences for you if you destroy evidence (even innocently, such as if you have photos of it, or just to avoid storage charges) or if you permit someone else to destroy evidence. For instance, there are certain types of claims, such as product liability claims, where it’s extremely difficult or impossible to win a suit against the manufacturer of a defective product if you no longer possess the product. When the evidence is something that you own, you can preserve it by keeping it safe and refusing to give anyone else permission to take it. That may be inconvenient, or interfere with your settlement with the insurance carrier for the person in fault, but if a serious injury has occurred, that’s a small price to pay for protecting your rights. When the evidence is something that someone else owns, you can do your best to preserve it by sending a certified mail, return receipt requested letter to the owner, the owner’s insurance company and anyone else involved (such as the police, towing company, storage lot, etc.), advising them that they are in possession of material evidence, and that they should not permit it to be destroyed or modified in any way. If you have not had a chance to photograph it yet, in your letter request permission to go photograph it. In an appropriate case, you may consider offering to buy the evidence for salvage value simply to preserve any potential products liability claims. For instance, if the defendant drove a defective vehicle that burst into flames and caused injury to you, keeping that vehicle available may be crucial to your suit against the vehicle manufacturer. If someone tells you that they are going to destroy important evidence in your claims, you should immediately hire an experienced attorney to go to court and get a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent the evidence from being destroyed.
4. When you go to your doctor, bring a written list of all your specific complaints, no matter how minor or insignificant they may seem to you, and tell the whole truth. Tell the doctor that you brought the list because you were afraid that you would forget some of your symptoms. By giving the doctor all of the pieces of the puzzle, you give the doctor the best chance of making a correct diagnosis, and maximizing your chance of recovery. (By the way, unless they ask, don’t mention to your doctor anything about getting a lawyer or filing a claim because unfortunately, many doctors will immediately write you off as a gold-digger or faker, regardless of how serious or significant your injury may be or the fact that you’re only trying to obtain just compensation.)
5. Follow your doctor’s advice. Don’t think that you know more than they do; you don’t. For instance, if the doctor gives you restrictions on how much you can lift, don’t try to lift more.
6. Keep every medical appointment unless you have a very good reason for missing it. If you must miss one, be sure to contact the doctor’s office in advance as a courtesy to let them know that you’ll be unable to keep your appointment, and explain why you can’t be there.
7. Get a bound notebook and use it to keep a written journal of notes to your lawyer, keeping track of everything that happens, including:
- a list of all your physical complaints and problems;
- a list of all medical appointments you had, all tests that were done, etc.
- a description of all the telephone conversations you have (showing the name and phone number of the person you spoke to, which insurance company they were with, who they insured, the date and time of the call, what was said, etc.);
- the dates of each time you missed work because you were physically unable to work, had to go to the doctor, or earned lower wages due to being on “light duty”, etc.
- the cost of things you had to pay for that you would not otherwise have had to buy (such as medicines, babysitters, cab fares, etc.)
8. Get a calendar and use it to keep track of important events, such as your doctor’s appointments, days missed from work, plans you had that had to be canceled because of physical problems or doctor’s appointments, etc.
9. Get a copy of the police report from the police department. Read it carefully, and if anything is incorrect, promptly bring it to the attention of the reporting officer. If the officer will not fix it, file a supplemental report describing how the report is inaccurate.
10. DO NOT give a recorded statement to anyone. People are sometimes confused by this advice, thinking, “If I’m only going to tell the truth, why shouldn’t I give the insurance company a recorded statement?” The truth is that insurance companies don’t want a recorded statement from you to honestly figure out who is at fault; they can do that from a conversation with you without recording it. The only reason they want to record your statement is so they can use it in court against you later. They know that no one’s memory is perfect and can change somewhat. If I interviewed you today about an accident that happened yesterday, and then interviewed you again a week from today, asking the same questions, you would probably have minor changes in your story, even though you did your best to tell the truth both times. The insurance company is trying to create evidence that your story has changed, solely for the purpose of making you look like a liar. And here’s how I prove it to my clients: Instead of refusing to allow them to take a recorded statement from my client, I frequently send the insurance company a letter saying that I will allow them to take a recorded statement from my client, as long as they simultaneously allow me to take a recorded statement from their insured. In all the years I have been doing this, I have never once had an insurance company take me up on that offer. They’re not trying to get at the truth. They’re just trying to get as much ammunition as they can to use against you and minimize the value of your claim.
While the crash itself might be upsetting, dealing with the aftermath can be too. In the hours or days following a collision, some people may still be shaken up. They may be beating themselves up over what happened — especially if they feel the crash was avoidable. Sometimes, people close to those who were involved (like families and best friends) can experience some emotional problems too. These feelings are all normal. Once some time passes, the car is repaired, and the insurance companies are dealt with, most car crashes become mere afterthoughts.
In some cases, though, these feelings can get stronger or last for longer periods of time, keeping a person from living a normal life. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur when a person has experienced a devastating event that injured or threatened to injure someone. Signs of PTSD may show up immediately following the crash, or weeks or even months after.
Not everyone who experiences stress after a trauma has PTSD. But here are some symptoms to look out for:
- avoiding emotions or any reminders of the incident
- constant feelings of anxiousness, crankiness, or anger
- avoiding medical tests or procedures
- constantly reliving the incident in one’s mind
- nightmares or trouble sleeping
If you notice any of these symptoms after you’ve been in a car crash, try talking through the experience with friends or relatives you trust. Discuss what happened, and what you thought, felt, and did during the collision and in the days after. Try to get back into your everyday activities, even if they make you uneasy. If these things don’t help, ask your parent or guardian to help you check in with your doctor.