Even a seasoned driver can feel unsure of what to do after a car accident. Preparing in advance could save your life — and potentially thousands of dollars. These steps will ensure that if you’re ever in an accident, you stay safe, follow the law and leave no holes in an insurance claim.
1. Stay ready
Nobody expects a wreck, but a little preparation goes a long way in those crucial moments after one occurs.
Carry crash supplies. Essential items include a first aid kit, and name and number for an emergency contact.
Have important documents handy. Most states require drivers to have their license, registration and insurance card available. All states except New Mexico accept digital insurance cards, but you might want a hard copy in case your phone gets damaged.
Make sure you’re covered. You don’t want to find out after an accident that your policy was canceled or you’re underinsured. Dan Manges, co-founder of Root Insurance, says you might find yourself in this situation if you don’t pay your bill on time, forget to insure all household drivers or don’t add all cars you own to your policy.
2. Seek medical attention and move off the road
The first thing to do after a car accident is to check whether anyone is injured, including yourself; call 911 and summon medical help, if necessary. If you’re hurt, avoid moving to prevent further injury unless you’re in immediate danger.
But, according to 1st Sgt. Michael D. Baker, spokesperson for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, if no one is hurt, it’s best to move your car completely off the road to prevent being a danger to others. (It’s OK to take a few photos of the crash first.)
“People pull over to the shoulder of the road, and before you know it, they’re actually standing in the roadway,” Baker says. “We’ve had pedestrians struck.”
3. Call the police
Getting a police report is one of the smartest things you can do after an accident. Not only is it required by law in most states (depending on how serious the damage is), a report filed right away will provide the freshest, least biased account of what happened. Furthermore, David Abels, law partner at Abels & Annes of Chicago, notes that, although rare, some companies insuring high-risk drivers require a police report be filed within 24 hours.
The police report will be useful not only for an insurance claim, but also if you decide to pursue a lawsuit. Be aware that you may need to request a copy of it from the department; it won’t necessarily be sent to you automatically.
4. Document the accident
Gather information at the scene of the accident and keep copies of everything, including:
Photos of damage.
Notes about what happened.
Other driver’s name, telephone number and insurance information.
Witness contact information.
Copy of the police report, or the officer’s name and police report number.
Don’t skip this — Abels notes that you might receive a redacted police report with limited information.
Additionally, Frank Jones, partner at Mints Insurance Agency in Millville, New Jersey, says you won’t necessarily get a copy of the police report right away. Having the other person's insurance information will help you file your claim quickly and efficiently.
When a crash happens, it might be hard to remember everything you need to document. An app like the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ WreckCheck can walk you through what to document for an insurance claim and even send a copy of the accident report to your insurance agent.
5. Don’t admit guilt or overshare
Whether or not they’re at fault, many people’s first instinct will be to apologize. Still, experts caution drivers to not admit guilt. Check whether the other person is injured and get their information, but limit the interaction to that.
And don’t share your driver’s license or home address with anyone besides the police, says Eric Cioppa, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Insurance.
6. Contact your insurance company
Regardless of how serious the accident is, calling your insurance company is generally better than making an agreement to not report the incident.
Right after the accident, drivers might agree on one thing but change their minds later about who’s to blame. At that point, you won’t be able to easily take photos of the damage or remember what happened as clearly.
You don’t need to submit a claim just because you’ve reported an accident. Depending on your insurer and accident costs, rates could increase 50% or more after filing an accident claim, according to NerdWallet analysis. You can report a crash and pay out of pocket if you decide a small claim isn’t worth the hassle. How long you have to do so depends on your policy.