A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And since the statistical likelihood of being in a car wreck in our lives is “1,” it’s a good idea to know what to do afterwards!¹
Getting through the aftermath of a car wreck is about four things:
- Stay safe
- Stay out of trouble
- Protect yourself from the other driver
- Deal with insurance bureaucracy
Staying safe after an accident falls into two categories: Injury assessment and clearing the road.
In any car wreck, there is the possibility of injuries. After a wreck, your first action should be to immediately take stock of your physical state. Shock and adrenaline can dull the senses and keep you from feeling injuries. Use your eyes and your hands instead to visual and physically check to make sure you’re ok. Only once you’re sure you’re ok should you try to exit your vehicle. If you can’t feel some or all of your extremities, do not try to move. Call 911 instead, if possible.
You should check on other drivers if you are capable of doing so. For other people, use visual and verbal checks but keep your hands to yourself unless the other person is in immediate physical danger; no need to raise the odds of a lawsuit. If someone cannot feel their legs or other extremities, under no circumstances other than immediate physical danger should you attempt to move them; that’s a job for the med techs, who have training in moving people with spinal injuries.
As long as there are no serious physical injuries and assuming the cars are still drivable, your next step is to clear the road. A stopped car in traffic anywhere, and especially on a freeway, is a great way to cause another accident. Don’t be the cause of another accident. Move to the median as soon as possible, and set out flares and/or reflectors (which you should keep in your trunk, if you’re not already) so that other people can see you and stay away.
Stay Out of Trouble
There are a handful of things you can do immediately after a car wreck to keep yourself from getting in trouble with the law. The first and most important of these is simply to stay on the scene. If you leave before (at minimum) exchanging contact information with the other driver, you’re perpetrating a hit and run. Most accidents are not crimes — that’s why they’re called “accidents” — but running from them is.
The next thing you should do in any accident more serious than a fender-bender is to call the police. Accidents are high-stress events, and it’s not unknown for people to be extremely freaked out or angry after a car wreck. Cops on scene can chill that right out and keep the other guy out of your face while you work out the details. The cops are also there to provide authoritative testimony later on, when insurance comes calling, and to direct traffic if needed. They are a necessity if the wreck is bad enough that your car is immobile.
In some states, you may also be obliged to report any serious accident to the state DMV. Know your local laws.
Protect Yourself from the Other Driver
Now, if there’s one thing we know about people, it’s that people can be assholes. People under pressure are even more likely to walk this path. Car wrecks put people under pressure; it’s an emotional, physical, and financial strain. So there are some steps you need to take to protect yourself from the other person.
TAKE PICTURES. ALL THE PICTURES.
This seems like a minor point, but it is critical. Take pictures of the wreck. If at all possible, take pictures of the wreck both before and after people have moved their cars off the road. You have, in your pocket, a device to preserve the actual state of the wreck so that the cops and the insurance agents can see what happened. Use it. Even if you’re at fault, use it; it’ll keep people from saying it was worse than it was. Pictures keep people honest and keep the insurance agents happy. Take pictures.
Witnesses aren’t as good as pictures (because memory is a terrible tool), but it can be helpful in most cases to find someone who actually saw the accident happen. If any likely candidates are standing around, ask for their names and contact information.
Do NOT Admit Fault
Accidents are chaotic events. As simple as it may seem at the time, there may be elements involved that subtly shift blame one way or the other. I have personally observed wrecks where both parties sincerely believed the other person to be at fault, and I’ve seen wrecks where both parties sincerely believed it was their own fault. The truth is that the insurance companies will come to their own judgement, as will the police if warranted.
The only thing you can do to change this outcome is to admit it was your fault. I’ve seen this done too; I’ve been in fender benders where the other person just jumped out of the car and started shouting apologies. Don’t be that person. Wrecks aren’t like stepping on someone’s toe on the bus; there are liability and legal issues to sort out, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
It’s very hard for the cops and the insurance people to get around an admission of guilt, even if the evidence favors your side in the end. So don’t, ever, admit to fault, even if you’re Canadian.
Don’t Get Mad
I know that accidents are emotional, but getting mad doesn’t do any good. It just increases the likelihood that the police will show up to see you acting like an aggressive psycho, and it increases the likelihood of altercations with the other driver. So stay calm. Take a few deep breaths before you get out of the car if you need to, but stay calm.
If Threatened, Stay in the Car
Unless your car is on fire, it is still the safest place for you to be if someone is threatening you after an accident. Get back in the car, lock the doors, and start taking video on your phone. Then call the police.
This does a few things for you: it alerts the authorities that you are being threatened, it starts an evidence trail of irrational behavior by the other person, and it puts a bit of steel and safety glass between you and them. Not to mention that, as long as your car will still roll, you can drive away if you need to. Yes, that means you might be liable for leaving the scene of an accident. That may be preferable to getting your head bashed in.
Deal With Insurance Bureaucracy
Ok, the wreck is over, the scene is safe, and you’ve got your pictures. Now what?
The next step is to start the process of dealing with insurance, and that means getting the other driver’s information. You will need, at minimum:
- Phone number
- Insurance info
Fortunately, if you have your phone on you, a picture of their driver’s license and insurance card is all you need. Otherwise you can ask them for a copy of their insurance card.
If the other driver does not have insurance, congratulations, you are now both pretty screwed. They’re screwed because they’ve been breaking the law by driving without insurance, and there’s a court date in their future. You’re screwed because now your insurance has to cover the damage.²
Assuming you get their insurance info, call your insurance, give them the information, and arrange for a tow truck if necessary. Most policies cover this. Get your car to an auto body shop and call up your agent for a longer conversation. You are now in the grip of the insurance industry, and you’re going to learn all sorts of things about what your policy does and doesn’t cover. Huzzah.
Most insurance companies will perform an investigation after an accident in order to decide which party’s insurance gets to pay for it. Be prepared to be interviewed. This is also where your pictures come in: dump them all on the insurance agents. This takes the human factor largely out of the equation and makes it much easier for them. This will speed your investigation along and simplify the distribution of blame.
If you are at fault, it will be a hit to your liability coverage, and you will need to pay the deductible on any damages to your car. You should also be prepared for your premiums to go up; congratulations, you’re now a risky driver. If you are not at fault, you may still need to pay the deductible, but you’ll likely get it back, and your premium should not increase.
And Now It’s Time to Wait
Once your car gets to an auto body shop, you should push them to replace rather than repair parts if at all possible. Repaired parts lower the resale value of the car; replaced parts don’t (for the most part).
Finally, keep track of your medical status. Injuries from accidents can take several hours, or even a day or so, to make themselves known. Adrenaline, endorphins, and stress can work together to mask some issues, while others simply take longer to register. Anyone who’s ever had whiplash knows what I’m talking about. You may be able to receive medical coverage for any injuries you receive in an accident — talk to your insurance agent to find out.
And that’s pretty much all you can do. Grab a rental, prepare to not see your car for a few weeks, and pray to the insurance gods that your agent likes you, because your immediate financial future is now in their hands. Good luck and safe driving, friends!
¹For this entry, I’ll mostly be assuming you’re the one who got hit. However, the core pieces of this advice work no matter which side of the accident you’re on.
²You may encounter a situation where the other person offers to settle in cash. This is a big risk, and I don’t advise it. Unless you have excellent documentation of the event, there’s a fair chance that they’ll just run off and not pay you. There’s also the issue that for any actual repair work, you have no way of knowing how much it will cost until you get to the auto body shop. And lastly, if you’re the one offering, you run a pretty serious risk of the other person blackmailing you. Insurance exists for a reason.