After the Accident: Ten Car Wreck Do's and Don't's

Car wrecks are no fun, and they can get a lot more unpleasant if you don't take immediate steps to protect yourself.

Car wrecks are no fun, and they can get a lot more unpleasant if you don't take immediate steps to protect yourself.

Okay, so you just got in an accident.  Your adrenaline's up, your heart is racing, and you're fighting off a massive surge of panic.  Never having been in a car accident, you're at a complete loss as to what you should and shouldn't do.  Do you pull your car off to the side of the road?  Do you put out flares?  Do you call the cops?  Do you talk to the other driver?  Where was all this information in Driver's Ed?

Car accidents are pretty straightforward, though, right?

I've been in a couple accidents, and I know that they're terrifying.  When I was 16, I was on my way to school one morning when I had to get off the road to avoid a car coming the other way.  When I got back onto the road, my car hit a patch of ice and started spinning.  It hit a sign and knocked over a magnolia tree before crashing into the sanctuary of my church.  As in the church that I grew up at, where everybody knew me and my entire family.  Yeah.  The next Sunday was pretty awkward when everybody kept asking what happened to the back of the sanctuary.  

I say all this simply to say that I know that experiencing a car accident is awful enough to stick with you for the rest of your life.  Even 13 years later, I still remember what the other driver's hair looked like in the other car as she came toward me.  I remember my little sister screaming her head off, I remember the nasty chemical smell of the airbag when it hit me in the face, and I remember what song was playing on the radio.  It was Kryptonite by Three Doors Down, by the way.  Great song.

I also remember the utter confusion that I felt when I got out of the car and looked around.  I didn't have the slightest clue about what I should do in that moment.  Now that I'm all grown up and I spend most of my waking hours studying car accidents, I thought it might be helpful to give you, dear blog-readers, some tips on what you should -- and more importantly, shouldn't -- do after you've been in a car wreck.

One.  Take a deep breath.

Literally take a few deep breaths and count to ten.  Gauge your surroundings.  Take a second to let your heart rate come down, then do a quick check to determine whether you or your passengers are injured.  If you are hurt, and if you think you can stay in the car without putting yourself in further danger, then stay put.  Spinal injuries, for example, tend to get a lot more severe if the victim tries to get up and move around.  If you're not hurt and there isn't heavy traffic around, then put your car in park and calmly exit the vehicle.  Do not go hollering at the other driver, cast blame for the accident, or do anything else to escalate the situation.  Car wrecks are stressful enough as it is.

Two.  Call the police.

This one is important for a bunch of different reasons.  For instance, the cops will need to clear the roadway and get traffic moving again.  They'll also need to determine whether there are any injuries and possibly summon the ambulance to take people to the emergency room.  Finally, the cops will need to take statements from those involved in the accident, as well as any witnesses.  They need to write a report detailing what happened, the drivers' contact and insurance information, property damage, injury status, any traffic citations, and a bevy of other information.  Fun tip; your personal injury claim is going to be really tough to prove without the crash report.

Three.  Safety, safety, safety.

What I mean is that you need to take steps to make sure that your accident won't cause additional accidents.  This means putting out flares or cones if you have them, turning on your flashers, or waving a flashlight to alert oncoming motorists.  Do not get out in the road and try to direct traffic.  That's how people get run over.

Four.  Take pictures.  

Before the vehicles are moved, get out your camera phone and take pictures of their position in relation one another.  If you don't have a camera phone, keep a disposable camera in your glove box.  You want detailed pictures of the damage to all involved vehicles, and you also want detailed pictures of the scene of the accident.  I'm talking about skid marks, any glass or car parts on the road, potholes, weather conditions, lighting conditions, any obstructions (like overhanging tree branches or signs), nearby businesses, all that good stuff.  If you have any injuries, like cuts or bruises, take pictures of them too.  If you're too injured to take the pictures yourself, ask a passenger or bystander to take them for you.  If you can't do that, then come back and take pictures as soon as you can after the evidence.  With evidence like skid marks and road debris, once the evidence is gone, there's no getting it back.

Five.  Talk to witnesses.

Unless you're in the Northern Territories of Australia, there's almost certainly going to be people who saw the accident take place.  You need to speak with these folks as soon as you possibly can.  Get their names, contact information, and any narrative statement that you can elicit from them.  This is another situation where you won't be able to get ahold of your witnesses once they leave the scene.  In addition, take note of any homes or businesses within a line of sight of the scene of the accident.  It's common that banks, ATMs, gas stations and department stores use surveillance video cameras, and these can be invaluable in proving your case.

Six.  Exchange information with the other driver(s).

This might be taken care of by the police; contact and insurance information is included in the crash report, and often the responding officer will also complete a "Driver Information Exchange Form" for the drivers to hold onto.  But just to make sure, especially if the police don't respond to the scene, you need the other driver's information in order to open your claim.  Be certain that you don't divulge too much information to the other driver(s); don't apologize, don't give your account of the accident, and don't try to solicit a similar response from anybody.  Chances are that anything you say could come back to bite you.

Seven.  Talk to the police.

The responding office is going to ask you for your driver's license, your insurance information, and your account of the accident.  Your narrative should be just that; an objective narrative.  Don't get into name-calling, don't yell at the cop, and don't cast aspersions on anybody.  Tell the officer what happened in as much detail you can, but try your very best to stay objective.

Eight.  Get medical attention.

Even if you don't feel hurt, you need to go and get checked out as soon as you can.  Remember that your adrenaline is flowing after a car accident, and that adrenaline can mask the symptoms even of serious injuries.  It's common that car accident victims won't begin to suffer pain until hours or even days after the accident.  If you wait too long and it turns out that you do have an injury, then the adjuster might deny your claim.  Then you'll be in a situation where you're hurt, you have bills piling up, and you have to go through an entire lawsuit to try and get compensation.

Nine.  Talk to your insurance provider.

Call your insurance provider's claims department as soon as you can to let them know what happened.  They'll have valuable advice on what you should do moving forward, and they can't help you if they don't know about the accident.  On the flip side of this coin, you want to seriously limit any contact between yourself and the other driver's liability provider.  If the other driver was at fault, it's standard operating procedure to call the victim the next day, or even the same day.  They might ask for a recorded statement, and they might even offer you some money to go ahead and settle your claim.  Please, please, please know that you never have to give a recorded statement to another driver's liability carrier, and don't ever accept a settlement offer until you're done treating with all of your doctors.  You don't get to go back and make a second claim once you're accepted a settlement.

Ten.  Talk to an attorney.

Lots of people try to handle their own personal injury claim, and in a lot of cases, I encourage that.  The more straightforward claims can absolutely be handled by the average person, and if you can do it without having to pay someone like me, then more power to you.  But personal injury claims have a ton of moving parts and they can get complicated very, very quickly.  If you get in over your head or you're unclear about anything, then please get in touch with an experienced personal injury attorney.  Trust me, you will be glad you did.