Each year, more than 6.1 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 AAA 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 and change lanes to respect the Move Over law, which helps ensure the safety of passengers and first responders at the side of the road. If the crash is more severe or someone 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
Although it’s important to report the accident, police in some areas may not respond to a minor collision if there are no injuries, Luna says.
A recent study from the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that many police departments are losing officers to retirement and resignations faster than they can hire new ones. In many regions, the shortage of police officers might mean fewer are available to respond to minor car accidents.
“Some police departments are transitioning to online reporting versus dedicating resources to the scene of the accident,” Luna says.
If a police officer arrives, 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.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, you can also file an incident report at the nearest police department or on its website. It’s a good idea to get an official report in case you’re sued by the other driver for damages or injuries, or if your vehicle is later found to have sustained more damage.
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, determine 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.