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.