En español | Each year, more than 6 million car accidents happen in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Whether you've been in a minor fender bender or a serious collision, you may be too shaken up to think clearly, so it's important to educate yourself a bit ahead of time. Here's what to do at the scene and afterward to make the claims process easier.
1. Determine whether anyone is hurt
Never leave the scene of an accident, even a minor one. Your first priority is safety; everything else can wait, says Rob Luna, group manager of auto claims at the American Automobile Association in Costa Mesa, California.
"Make sure everybody's OK and get medical assistance if you or somebody else needs it,” Luna says.
2. Get yourself and your vehicle out of danger
If you're not injured and the accident was minor, carefully drive your car to the side of the road so it doesn't impede traffic. Keep your hazard lights on and set up flares or reflective emergency triangles to alert other drivers to slow down. However, if the crash is more severe or if anyone is hurt, leave the vehicles where they are.
Even if you don't think you've been injured, be extra careful when getting out of your car, especially if the accident took place on a highway or busy street. You may not be thinking logically, which could put you in danger.
3. Contact the police
While it's important to report the accident, in some areas the police may not respond to a minor collision, Luna says.
"Some police departments are transitioning to online reporting versus dedicating resources to the scene of the accident,” he says.
If police arrive, note the officer's name, badge number and contact information. Be sure to get a copy of the accident report from the officer. If the police do not come, you can request a copy of the report from the law enforcement office, or through the insurance adjuster handling your claim.
4. Collect important information
Use your cellphone camera to take pictures of documents or, with pen and paper, get the name, address, phone number and driver's license number of everyone involved in the accident. If the driver's name doesn't match up with the car's registration or insurance papers, detemine the person's relationship to the vehicle's owner.
Then, gather all vehicle information including year, make and model, color, license plate number and vehicle identification number. Get the insurance policy number and the company's phone number, in case the other person doesn't report the accident, Luna suggests. See if any witnesses are willing to provide you with contact information and details about what they saw.
Never share your Social Security number, the coverage limits on your insurance policy or other personal information.
5. Document the scene
Record as much detail about the accident as possible using your smartphone's camera, video and voice memo features, Luna advises.
"Check the impact to the car: Was it on the front side, driver's side, rear? It's easiest to do that by taking a photo of the entire car and close-up photos of the damages for both your car and the other party.”
Record the date and time of the accident, and photograph or video the entire scene of the accident, including skid marks or property damage. Note street names and the direction each vehicle was heading both before and after the accident.
"One thing that often gets missed is the position of the cars [relative] to the street. This is critical information, because it helps the adjuster re-create the accident when you report the claim,” Luna says.
Sketch a diagram of the crash scene. Using the voice memo app on your phone, dictate what happened while the details are still fresh in your mind. Include information about the weather and visibility.
6. Avoid roadside discussions about responsibility
A few years ago, Denise Schipani, 54, and her son were stopped at a traffic light near her home in Huntington Station, New York, when a car slammed into theirs from behind.
"We were jerked forward and I braked hard, stopping just as I touched the bumper of the car in front of me,” she says. “In that moment, I had no idea what happened, and I remember being confused that there were little pieces of black stuff all over the back seat. Turns out the back window had shattered. We were shaking, but no one was hurt."
Schipani put on her hazard lights, double-checked that her son was OK and called 911.
"Then I approached the other driver. He tried to blame wet leaves on the road, but there were none,” she says. “Clearly, it was a case of him accelerating while distracted."
Schipani correctly chose not to argue. Emotions can run high after a car accident, so if you believe the other driver is impaired or aggressive, trust your instincts, Luna advises.
"Stay in your car and don't interact with the person, because a police intervention might be necessary,” he says.
7. Call a tow truck if needed
Depending on how much damage your car sustained, it may need to be towed to a collision repair center, Luna says. Many people have motor club memberships, and roadside assistance is one of the benefits. The police may call a tow truck company, and some car manufacturers offer driver assistance programs, too.
Don't assume a tow truck that magically shows up at the crash is reputable; always verify its credentials and take down all contact information, Luna adds.
8. Call your insurance company
While it may be tempting to negotiate a cash deal to avoid making an insurance claim, not notifying your insurance company after a crash can leave you liable for damages stemming from the accident.
Schipani's insurance agent pronounced her car a total loss — the cost of potential repairs outstripped the car's value. Then, she learned the driver who had hit her had rock-bottom insurance coverage.
"They said it was possible to try to extract money from him, but it would be better for them to handle the claim,” she says. “My advice is to never leave the scene — even for a minor fender bender — without a police report, especially if it's clearly and obviously not your fault.”
In cases like Schipani's, your insurance claims professional can help you navigate your options.
"If the other person's insurance isn't sufficient to cover your damages, your insurance professional can check your policy for any coverage that might address that,” Luna says.
For example, if your insurance company deems you were not at fault, it may have a liability waiver so you don't pay your deductible.
9. Take the high-tech route
Many insurers now offer virtual tools such as a mobile phone app to allow you to begin the claims process online. Check your proof of insurance card for instructions or call the toll-free phone number. Your insurance company will ask for lots of information about the accident, and may even prompt you to use a remote inspection tool via your smartphone.
Beyond documenting crash details, some insurers can send a tow truck, arrange a rental car or provide other roadside assistance through the app.
Stay in contact with your insurance company after reporting an accident, and keep all your accident-related documents organized as you work with your adjuster to process your claim, Luna says.
10. See your doctor
You may feel perfectly fine right after an accident, but some injuries become apparent only after a day or two. You can sustain serious head or spinal injuries from a minor impact, so visit your doctor if you experience pain or unusual symptoms.
Injuries resulting from a crash are usually included in your auto insurance claim, so it's important to document any physical harm stemming from the accident.
11. Be proactive
It's easier to remain calm after an accident when you're prepared. Luna suggests downloading your insurance company's app or forms that guide you through the insurance claim process.
Designate a spot in your car to keep your registration, proof of insurance card, contact information and a list of key things you need to remember at the scene of an accident.
"These things don't come naturally to people, so having a checklist right at hand will help you navigate the process,” Luna says.
5 Tips to Keep You Safe in the Event of a Car Crash
Car crashes are scary, but being prepared can help you make the best of a bad situation or even prevent it.
Wendy Helfenbaum is a contributing writer who covers home improvement, gardening, automotive issues and travel. She's written for outlets including Apartment Therapy, Houzz, BBC.com, WomansDay.com and Costco Connection.