Life101 Adulting Series
Let’s assume you didn’t read my 3 tips for winter driving post, and you slid into another car on your way to work this morning. What should you do if you’re in a fender bender? Lucky for you I’ve been in several car accidents — none of which were my fault!! — so I can give you some tips on what to do if you find yourself in your first vehicular altercation. Obviously if anyone is injured, your first step is to call 911 and get help as soon as possible, but if you find yourself in a car accident with another driver, here are some helpful tips, especially for new drivers. Car accidents are scary, and few young drivers know how to respond properly. Read on to prepare yourself before you need it.
What to do after a car accident
FIRST: Don’t apologize.
If you go to change lanes and didn’t see that lady in your blind spot, an accident may be your fault. BUT DON’T ADMIT THIS. Your first instinct may be to get out of your car and immediately say, “I’m so sorry!” DON’T. I know this goes against most of your mother’s teaching on honesty and taking responsibility for your actions, but this is the one time in your life where you don’t say you’re sorry.
Instead, ask, “Is everyone okay?”
If someone ISN’T okay, call 911 and request an ambulance. If everyone IS okay, call 911 and request a police car.
Why don’t I admit fault?
You don’t admit fault because:
1) if you do, then the other driver’s insurance and lawyer will take you out and you will lose.
2) It may not be your fault for whatever reason, but if you admit it was, then you have no legal ground to stand on during an insurance investigation and possibly lawsuit.
In today’s cell phone world, many accidents are immediately recorded by someone (whether it’s the other driver or a witness), so getting you on tape admitting fault means it is your fault legally – even if it wasn’t in reality. Leave fault for the insurance companies to figure out. That is what you are paying them for
NEXT: Call the police.
Even if no one was injured, you need a police report number for your insurance claim. A police officer should serve as an impartial observer who will get all the information documented and logged correctly. No police report = no insurance claim. Be sure to get the name of the officer who files the report. You may need this later if the report is not filed in a timely manner (with our most recent hit-and-run outside of our house, the officer went on vacation before filing the report, and it took WEEKS to get everything logged for the insurance company).
Don’t move your car.
If cars are driveable, don’t move them until the officer arrives, unless you are seriously endangering yourself or others by leaving them where they landed. Generally unless you’re in the middle of I-94 in rush-hour Chicago, you can stay put with hazard lights on. Passers-by will go around you. If you have an extra passenger, have them try to direct traffic around while you wait for a police officer to arrive.
If you move your car before an officer shows up, it could be classified as a hit-and-run — even if you don’t leave the scene. It also means evidence of who-hit-whom-where could be difficult to obtain. If the other driver tells you to move, stay put.
If you are blocking substantial traffic, I promise an officer will arrive quickly. They don’t want traffic jams anymore than commuters do.
Take pictures. So many pictures.
In the era of ubiquitous cell phones, you have the ability to take tons of pictures on the spot.
Walk all around the scene; take photos of your car and the other driver’s.
Take photos of the license plates.
Take photos of debris on the ground; many a whodunit can be solved by which direction the tail light glass fell.
Take photos of fluid leaks and brake marks on the asphalt.
Take pictures of traffic lights, signs, and buildings nearby.
You cannot possibly take too many pictures.
Get the full name and contact information of the other driver, as well as their insurance company and policy number if possible. Note the make, model, plate number, color, and VIN number of their vehicle. Write down the time the accident occurred.
The police officer should gather all this info too, but it’s good to have a backup to get a claim started. Volunteer your information as well. This means having a printed copy of your insurance card and registration in your car, or being able to easily access it from your phone.
Move the vehicles
Sometimes a tow truck magically appears because the 9-1-1 dispatcher called one; this happened when I was T-boned at a busy intersection at rush hour.
Sometimes you may be able to drive your car away, as we did when we were rear-ended at a stop light.
Perhaps you need to call your own tow truck, so it’s good to have a roadside assistance number handy (your insurance company probably has one, or I highly recommend maintaining a AAA membership even if you don’t use their insurance just for roadside assistance — and discounts). But once the police officer is done with the scene, you can move your car.
Call your insurance agent.
If insurance claims are going to be filed (even if it is your fault) it’s a good idea to start the claim process and get your side of the story documented. As soon as you can, either start a claim online or call your insurance company. You’ll need all the car info you gathered, and you will probably email or upload all the pictures. Your agent should take it from there.
You may be contacted by the other driver’s insurance company at some point. If you documented all the accident’s information in the police report and with your own insurance company, you can refer an agent to your agent; you don’t have to talk to them. Insurance agents serve as go-betweens in situations like this. It is what you pay them for.
[I must put a special plug in for USAA insurance; we have been USAA members for 8 years, and they have been amazing with all of our car accidents. We got a check for the damage within a week of getting our cars into a shop, and we didn’t have to wait for them to come to a settlement with the other insurance company (I’ve heard of people waiting MONTHS for an insurance check to come). They are definitely not the cheapest option on the market, but the customer service alone is totally worth it.]
Don’t post to Social Media
This seems warning blatantly obvious, but people can make moronic decisions. A year or so ago a student from another area high school was driving on a rural road and ran into an Amish buggy. Before calling 9-1-1 for an ambulance, she took photos and posted them to her social media account. The horse died as a result of the accident and the driver barely survived. This action was incredibly cruel and inhumane, and also idiotic, as her actions were documented.
Don’t post pictures. If there is an active investigation, resist the urge. It keeps you out of extra trouble.
Warning: People can be mean
My high school students regularly report that when they get in accidents, the other drivers are angry and cruel. They often start cussing the teens out. Obviously getting in a car accident is traumatic, and it can cause angry feelings. It can also be REALLY frustrating if you are rear-ended by a teenage driver who was texting and not paying attention to the road. It is an extremely stressful experience, and people rarely behave their best at such times.
Some drivers try to mask their own faulty driving with profanity and accusations, especially if they think they can intimidate a young driver into admitting fault. If you are at the receiving end of such vitriol, just get back in your car and wait for the police. Avoid getting into any verbal or physical altercation.
Warning: Going into shock
The first time I was in a bad accident was when I hit a deer on my way to school in Texas. It was about 6:30 in the morning, and I was doing 70 on the highway to the rural high school where I taught. The deer crossed out of nowhere, and I caught his back flank.
Miraculously I was able to pull over to the side of the road. I couldn’t find the deer (although I’m sure coyotes found him soon enough – there was fur in my grill), and my car was amazingly still driveable albeit missing a headlight. I actually drove it to school by 7:15, and as I was relaying this story to my co-teacher across the hall I suddenly started shaking and burst into tears. It was delayed shock, and it took a few minutes before I could pull myself together. I still can’t believe I went back to work that day.
Eighteen months later, a 19-year-old UT student T-boned my Mercury SUV outside the IKEA in Austin, TX, and I remember standing in the middle of the intersection, holding her shoulders while she sobbed in shock because it was her first accident.
When I retold the story afterwards, I still couldn’t quite believe I responded that way. I was 8 months pregnant, I was pretty sure she had been texting, and it was super scary. But because I remembered my own shock the year before, my maternal high school teacher instincts kicked in. Everyone was okay, and they were just cars. They can be replaced.
Cars can be replaced. You can’t.
A car accident can be scary, life-changing, expensive, or merely inconvenient. But no matter the circumstances, if everyone is okay, take time to be thankful. Cars can be replaced. You can’t. Try to remember this during your next fender bender to keep you cool and make the right decisions in a stressful situation.
DISCLAIMER: I am neither an insurance agent nor an attorney, and this post doesn’t contain any legal or financial advice. It is solely based on my own personal experiences in car accidents.