Getting in a car crash — whether it’s a fender bender in a parking lot or a high-speed crash on the highway — is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. In 2015, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showed that there were nearly 6.3 million crashes in the United States. Statistics suggest that you’ll file a collision claim once every 18 years. That may sound harrowing, but it also means there are a lot of people who can advise what to do (and what not to do) if it happens to you.
We sifted through resources from DMV.org and auto insurance companies, then spoke to personal injury lawyers to find out how you can best protect yourself — physically and legally — after a car crash. We’ve also created a printable version to keep in your glove box, so you don’t have to rely on your memory if the worst happens.
There are four main areas of concern when you find yourself dealing with a car accident: safety, medical treatment, the law, and insurance. The right approach to each can save you headaches and hassle in the long run.
In the aftermath of an accident, the most immediate concern is your physical safety, then the safety of your car and any other people involved in the accident. Take an airplane-emergency mentality: Put on your own oxygen mask on first, then help others with theirs. If you’re injured, you should seek treatment right away.
Start by asking yourself these questions:
Never leave the scene of an accident before exchanging personal information and making sure everyone’s ok. A hit-and-run is punishable by anywhere from $5,000 to 15 years in prison.
Call 9-1-1 right away
Once you’ve taken stock of the situation, call the police and tell them what happened. If there are injuries, they’ll send help. Some states require you to report all accidents that cause injury, while others require a report if property damage is valued over a specific dollar amount. To find out your state requirements, visit AAA’s Digest of Motor Laws.
Regardless of your state laws, Tittle told us that calling the police is in your best interest. “It’s very important to have an unbiased third party document the crash,” Tittle told us. “And nine times out of 10, the police officer will make a decision on liability and cite the at-fault driver. A lot of times insurance companies will use that to make a determination of their own liability for their insured.”
Exchange information (carefully) with any other parties and witnesses
Car accidents are often emotionally fraught scenes, and tensions are likely running high — but the lawyers we spoke to advised that you should never admit fault, even if it feels like you caused the accident.
“After an accident, it’s tempting to get out of your car and say, ‘I’m sorry’ to the other driver, says Jared Staver, car accident lawyer at Staver Law Group PC in Chicago. "However, apologizing can be taken as an admission of guilt.”
This might be used later to determine that you caused the accident and are therefore liable for damages. The police and insurance companies will figure out who’s truly at fault after gathering all the information they need.
Instead, maintain politeness and neutrality while talking to the police and collecting the following information from any other drivers:
- Insurance information
- Contact information only if they don’t give you their insurance information
While you’re talking to others at the scene, take notes on your conversations. Record the name and contact information of every person you speak to (police officers, claims adjusters, witnesses, etc.), plus the details of what was said and the date and time you spoke; this will come in handy if you need to substantiate any claims for your insurance company.
You should provide other parties and the police with your name and insurance information in return, but the DMV.org warns against oversharing:
If the scene is safe, take photos of any damage (to your car and others’), license plates, and “clues” that help paint a picture of what occurred. This might mean location markers, shards of glass, skid marks, or even the missing sign or broken stoplight that prompted the collision in the first place. Any minute detail may come in handy when you need to back up your story later on.
“Make sure that someone is able to photograph both vehicles. If there is extensive damage, it will help convince a jury that your injuries are real.”
It’s important to note that those photos should stay private. Car accident lawyer Jared Staver warns against posting any photos of or stories about an accident publicly: “Posting on social media about your accident is an absolute mistake. Lawyers and insurance companies will track down your social media activity to try to find inconsistencies within your story.”
It’s also worth your time to write down seemingly obvious details about the accident while they’re fresh in your mind. If you have a copy of your state’s accident report form, you can fill in the details there. DMV.org provides downloadable paperwork for each state (and details about how and when you’ll need to fill one out). If you don’t have the paperwork, write down every descriptor (time, date, weather, police involvement, injuries, etc.) you can possibly think of — it will help you stick to the story later on when details may get fuzzy.
Keep those documents, along with receipts related to the crash and copies of reports filed by the police and other parties, close at hand while the process shakes out.
File a claim with your insurance provider
Some insurance companies require a phone call to report an accident, but others facilitate claims filing online or through a mobile app. You can find your provider’s contact information on the back of your insurance card.
Shopping around for insurance? We dug into the best auto insurance companies and found five providers that boast impressive coverage and painless claims processing. We recommend plugging your zip code into our quote tool to find out which one is the best fit for you.
Consider hiring a lawyer
The lawyers we interviewed — no surprise here — all recommended teaming up with an attorney as soon as possible after a crash. They may have had their own interests at heart, but their advice is worth considering, especially when it comes to the complexities of insurance companies.
After a car accident, other drivers’ insurance adjusters will likely call you to get a statement. That timing is no coincidence. Justin Lovely stressed that anything you say could be used against you later on. “Often, your adrenaline is still pumping from the accident, and your true injuries are not even known yet.” An insurance company can then cite your original statement to their advantage if additional injuries crop up.
Don’t let anyone rush you into a settlement
Lovely mentioned that an adjuster may offer what he calls a “‘snap’ settlement of $500 to $1,000” in order to relieve their client of fault on-the-spot. Unfortunately, those settlements may appear to be a good deal but “bar any future recovery when the true extent of injuries arise.”
“Their job is to save money, added Paul Byck, Managing Partner at personal injury firm Kreiter, Byck and Associates. "Unless you are a skilled attorney, it is a huge disadvantage to engage with someone who understands the laws and how to use them as tools for defense.”
You can relax a little more when dealing with your own insurance company, but Byck did point out one instance when you might be at odds: If the other driver doesn’t have insurance or high enough insurance limits.
In that case, Byck said, “You could file an Uninsured or Underinsured Motorist claim for injuries against your own insurance company … While you may be required to cooperate with them to some degree, having legal representation is very important.” If you’re reporting physical injuries (not vehicular damage), Byck recommends that retaining an attorney at the earliest time, especially before making any statements to the insurance carrier.
When it comes to making payments on medical bills and working with health insurance, lawyers play a role, too
“A personal injury attorney will get you to good doctors," says Josh Wagner, Partner at South Daytona, Florida personal injury law firm Vasilaros Wagner. "However, and equally as important, the attorney will get you to doctors that understand the proper billings practices for your state.”
The moral of the story is this: You’re not at your best after a car crash, and it's easy to make mistakes. At the very least, Indianapolis personal injury attorney Tom Doehrman recommends getting in touch with a lawyer for an opinion on whether or not you’ll need legal representation. “Most attorneys will provide a free consultation and you should take advantage of this to make sure you are acting in a responsible manner for yourself and your family,” Doerhman said.