D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook, Catch & Release, won the 2012 Robin Becker Prize from Seve...

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has appeared on legaladvice.com, themanifest.com, and vice.com.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer

UPDATED: Oct 23, 2019

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For a minute, life stops. You don’t remember how you got to this moment, but here you are. You’ve just been in a car accident, and you’re trying to put all the pieces together between the feeling of the jarring impact, the sounds of crashing steel and shattered glass, and the potential pain you and the other driver might be feeling. It’s the moment no one wants to experience, but it will most likely happen several times to you over the course of your driving career, so it’s imperative that you know the best ways to handle accidents, regardless of the situation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.5 million drivers were involved in accidents in the U.S. in 2009, out of 211 million total drivers – meaning drivers had about a one in 13 chance of getting in a car accident. Statistically speaking, accidents are inevitable. Learn the basics of how to respond to a car accident and what not to do.

What to Do After a Car Accident

  • The first thing you need to do when you’ve been in an accident is to keep safety in mind. If you fear you have a head or neck injury, try to keep yourself stable. If you can safely get out of your vehicle to assess the property damages and check on the other driver, do so. If not, keep your seatbelt fastened, turn on your hazard lights, call 911, and wait for help to arrive.
  • If you or the other driver or a passenger is in need of immediate medical attention, tell the 911 operator so. If not, tell the operator that you have been in an accident, tell them your location, and ask them to send a police officer.
  • If you can safely move your vehicle, clear it from the roadway so as not to block traffic. If you can’t move your vehicle, alert other drivers of the accident using your hazard lights or flares, orange safety cones, or warning triangles if you have them.
  • If there is another person involved in the accident, once you have checked to make sure they are not in need of medical attention, exchange insurance information with them as well as your name, address, phone number, driver’s license number, and license plate number. If the driver is not listed on the insurance policy card, find out their relationship to the insured.
  • While speaking with a 911 operator, the police, the other driver, or a witness, do not say that you caused the accident, even if you think you did. Do not apologize for the accident. The police report, witness statements, and scene of the accident will indicate the facts, so don’t assume fault for an accident, especially if you’re still recovering from the shock of what happened.
  • Use your cell phone or a camera to take photos of the accident scene, if you can do so safely. While it is still fresh in your mind, jot down your recollection of events: the moments leading up to the collision, any external distractions, the road conditions, and the collision itself. Keeping a detailed account of the incident will also be useful in the even that you choose to negotiate a settlement.
  • If there are any witnesses who stop, try to get their contact information so they can explain the accident to the insurance company.
  • If police are present, file a police report. Many insurance companies can speed up the claims process if a report is filed. If police are not present, drivers should still file a vehicle accident report with their state, available from a state’s department of motor vehicles website.

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What Not to do After an Accident

Staying calm after a car accident and navigating the subsequent hassles of the claims process and car repairs can be tricky. But car accidents happen every day, and there is a proper protocol for how to handle them. With the correct process in mind, here are some pointers on what not to do.

  • Don’t freak out. Accidents are scary and chaotic and confusing. But getting hyperemotional doesn’t help anything and may actually cloud your judgment and keep you from making good choices. The best thing to do is stay calm, call 911, and pull over if you can. Don’t make the accident worse than it is.
  • Don’t apologize. Even if you are at fault in the accident, do not apologize. Don’t lie about the sequence of events, but don’t apologize. You can try to help and ask the other driver or passengers if they are ok, but apologizing is an admission of guilt, and can make settling the case more complicated.
  • Don’t stay in your vehicle. If you can safely get out of your vehicle following an accident, do so. If the accident is particularly bad, you don’t know that your car is the safest place to be, and even if the accident is minor, you are likely safer standing on the side of the road than inside your vehicle.
  • Don’t settle without proper authorities. It may be tempting to try to settle a minor car accident without calling the police or your insurance company, but there are several reasons why that’s not usually a good idea. For starters, you may not be correctly assessing the damage, you may be legally obligated to call the police, and you may not be able to trust the other driver to pay as promised.
  • Don’t give out more personal information than is necessary.In the chaos of a wreck, you may accidentally end up giving out more information than you need to, and you could in turn fall victim to an identity theft scam. The only information you need to exchange with the other driver is name, address, phone number, insurance information, and vehicle information. Do not exchange financial information or personal identifiers such as a social security number.

If you’re unsure of what to do or how to handle the situation, you can always ask a responding police officer for assistance, or call your insurance claims hotline for help. Most claim representatives have experience at walking customers through the first steps following a wreck, even if they are still at the scene of the accident. If you start to get flustered, just remember that after this accident is resolved, statistically speaking you’re likely about ten years away from your next one!