What to Do (and Not Do) When You're in a Car Accident


If you've ever been in a car accident, chances are that taking photos of the accident scene and remembering to get the other driver's insurance information weren't your first thoughts. (See also: Financial IQ Test: Do You Have the Best Auto Insurance Coverage for Your Needs?)

Making sure you, your passengers, and anyone else involved in the accident are safe, and that medical help is on the way, should be the first step. But once things have calmed down and you have a few minutes to gather your thoughts, there are some things you shouldn't do, and a few you should, right after a car accident.

What You Shouldn't Do

It's hard to think straight after a trauma like an auto accident, but these mistakes can hurt you later, even if you follow all of the "shoulds" outlined below.

Talk Too Much

Police, insurance investigators, and the other driver may want to talk to you to find out what happened. If it's a minor fender-bender that you're at fault for, cooperating with police is a good idea. But if it's a criminal or negligent act, such as running a stop light, you may want to first talk to a lawyer after providing basic information such as proof of insurance, driver's license, and car registration to police.

Talking to someone other than your attorney — including your own insurance company — after a car accident can hurt because your statement can be obtained by the other side's insurance company and used against you. Something as simple as an apology after the accident can be taken as an admission of guilt and liability.

Share Too Much Personal Info

It may be instinctive to give your home address and telephone number to the other driver involved in the crash, but you don't have to. To avoid having your personal information stolen, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners recommends not sharing personal information such as a driver's license number. Since many retailers use that information to verify identity over the phone, it's best to only give your name and vehicle insurance information to the other driver.

Fail to Call the Police

Close to 20% of people believe the only reason to call police after an accident is if someone is injured, according to the NAIC, which has a free smartphone app called WreckCheck to walk users through creating an accident report. Filing a police report, however, can help facilitate the insurance claims process, the NAIC says.

What You Should Do

While you're avoiding saying too much or giving up too much information, you should also be aware of safety and gathering information you will need later.

Get Off the Road

Get to safety as soon as you can. If it's a minor fender-bender, move your car safely off the road and out of traffic. If you can't move your car without creating more damage, don't try — leave it to a tow truck. State Farm recommends keeping flares or other warning devices in your trunk to alert traffic of your emergency.

Take Photos

If you have your cellphone with you, videotape or photograph the accident scene, so that your insurer can see where it happened and get an idea of how it might have happened. You don't want to get in the way of police, and you should only do this if you, any of your passengers, and people in the other car (if one is involved) are safe. There are lots of auto insurance smartphone apps that include accident reporting tools to help you collect photos, audio recordings, and other information so you can more easily file a claim with your insurer.

Take Notes

You should draw a map of what happened for your insurer, and write down how you remember the accident, along with weather and traffic conditions, property and vehicle damage, and injuries to you or others. If there are witnesses nearby, get their names and phone numbers. And of course, get the name and insurance information from any driver whose car was in the accident. If your insurer doesn't provide you with an accident form to keep in your car, print one out from insureuonline.org (PDF) and fill it out if possible at the accident scene.

Tell the DMV

Most states require drivers to report accidents to the DMV, so be sure to do that within a day or so of the accident.

Keep Your Documents Handy

If you've kept your proof of auto insurance forms that most insurers mail to policyholders in your glovebox, then a lot of this should be easy, and you'll have your insurer's phone number handy to call as soon as possible. Some states allow electronic proof of insurance on a cellphone.

You'll probably get a visit from an insurance claims adjustor soon after the accident, which won't be as traumatizing as the accident, but will make life a lot more interesting as you try to recreate the accident and explain what happened. It'll be a lot easier if you've followed the advice above.

File Your Claim

Now that you're safe and have exchanged information, file an insurance claim with your carrier. Your insurer should be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so don't delay in making the call.

If you can do all of this after an accident, you should congratulate yourself on being prepared and getting through a traumatic experience.

Have you ever been in an auto accident? What do you wish you had done, or hadn't done, afterward?

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Guest's picture

Great advice to understand BEFORE a car accident! Thanks!

Guest's picture

Have you heard of any victims of identity theft from giving out too much information at an accident?

I was in a fender bender about two weeks ago and the person took pictures of my information. I asked them to delete it but I can't be sure.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Yes, that's why I mention in the story that the NAIC recommends only giving your name and auto insurance information to the other driver. They don't need your driver's license number or telephone number, or even home address. Insurance companies can resolve this, and another driver shouldn't need to contact you at home; they can go through their insurer.

Guest's picture

Another important tip is to never stand between 2 cars while trading information. If the car in the rear were to be hit by another vehicle, you could be pinned between them and seriously injured.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Excellent advice. As the story alludes to, first get to a safe place off to the side of the road if possible. And follow police instructions for safety.

Guest's picture

Very practical advice - especially the one around taking notes and not talking too much. I can see how these can really help out your case down the road if legal troubles arise.

Guest's picture

My roommate was in an accident a block from our house last Sunday. I heard the accident from our porch and immediately knew it was her. Because my father owns an insurance agency, I have always known what to do in these cases. Luckily for her, I was home and could come to the scene and help her through the steps you mentioned above.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Wow. She's lucky to have such a friend nearby!