10 Things You Should Always Do After a Car Accident

Young man driving a car
Getting into a car accident is one thing, being smart about what happens next is another | iStock.com/aerogondo

It’s your worst nightmare. There you were, on the way to the dentist to have that pesky filling re-capped, and suddenly you find yourself in a tangled automotive mess. Somebody hit someone, and it all happened so fast that no one really knows who’s to blame. Remember, post-accident risks are everywhere, and what happens next could put you in a life-or-death situation or in front of a judge.

While the sight of blood rarely appeals to anyone outside of Transylvania, neither does a court summons for fleeing the scene of an accident. It’s time to be the responsible adult that your state-issued driver’s license says you are, and that means taking appropriate action at the scene of an accident, regardless of who may be at fault.

Over the years various features have surfaced regarding the mandatory steps you need to take after an automobile accident occurs. There are a lot of hoops to jump through in order to get your life back on track after a car crash, and it may seem dauntingly difficult to decide what to do next.

Fortunately, we’re here to help. After perusing every reputable insurance site online, an in-depth report by U.S. News, and referencing tips from the Department of Motor Vehicles, we were able to come up with some important tips. Here are 10 of the most crucial things everyone should do after an automobile accident, each designed to make the whole mess feel a little less painful.

1. Pull to the side and phone the fuzz

A woman uses her cell phone while walking down the street in Boston
A woman uses her cell phone in Boston, Massachusetts | Darren McCollester/Getty Images

How often do you see signs that urge drivers to move over to the shoulder if no injuries are incurred during an accident? Now, how often do you see people standing around in the middle of an intersection, gaping at the fender-bender that just happened?

Pulling out of oncoming traffic isn’t just a courtesy; it’s common sense. So turn on those hazard lights, get over to the shoulder, and even if no one is hurt, call 911 or press that on-board SOS button. While it isn’t against the law to simply exchange insurance information and drive away if the damage isn’t too bad, by bringing in an unbiased third party you’ll be doing yourself a favor if there are complications in the future.

2. Don’t admit to a damn thing

Admitting to causing an accident could create a legal nightmare if the other party decides to sue and records you admitting fault | Foter.com

Admitting that it was your mistake (regardless of whether it was or not) is a foolhardy move, and even the DMV stresses that no matter what the situation entails, “do not admit fault.” Some people are sneaky, and might try to hold what you said against you in court down the line. Let the fuzz figure out exactly what happened and who’s to blame. It’s their job.

3. Swap insurance info

allstate insurance sign
An Allstate insurance company sign is seen outside one of a store in Miami, Florida | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Both your insurance provider and the other driver’s coverage company need one another’s contact information in order to decide who pays for damages incurred. If for whatever reason your insurance card isn’t where it should be, or the glovebox has been compromised in the crash and cannot be opened, don’t sweat it.

Most states have a 24-hour grace period when drivers are allowed to collect things like proof of insurance and bring them down to the police station to avoid any traffic citations. Most insurance providers now have a mobile app as well that allows you to avoid this issue by handing your smartphone over to the authorities on the scene.

4. File a full report with the police

Ford Police Interceptor Utility
One of the perks of calling the police is getting a professional on the scene who can help diffuse the situation | Ford

You don’t want to be in a “your word against theirs” situation, where a judge decides who is at fault instead of relying on an official police report. Some people tend to change their stories the moment they realize their insurance premiums are about to skyrocket, so accurate information in a police report will help set the facts straight.

Some states actually require parties to file a report if there’s an accident, and will issue citations if one isn’t issued. U.S. News found that in Oregon, any damage exceeding $1,500 requires a police report. In Ohio, the police don’t need to be involved as long as no one was injured. So unless you know your state laws like the back of your hand, it’s probably best to call in a report.

5. Deal with the DMV (if necessary)

Waiting in line at the DMV may be a headache, but filing a report with this government run agency is a whole other matter | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Waiting in line at the DMV may be a headache, but filing a report with this government-run agency is a whole other matter | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

After the police have left and your car has been towed away, it’s time to get back to the shattered remainder of your day in order to try and finish what you started out to do. But wait, now the Department of Motor Vehicles might need to see a report.

Not every state requires motorists to report wrecks to the DMV, but quite a few still do depending on how much damage was inflicted during the wreck. So check your local state laws to see if you need to file or not, and if so, ascertain whether a police report will suffice in order to save time.

6. Keep your cool and show some compassion

couple having a conversation
Discussing different topics while you wait for the police to arrive could help calm matters | iStock.com/endopack

Regardless of who was at fault, expressing concern for the other driver is a sign of good faith and will more than likely help diffuse the situation. People act erratically in stressful situations, so by keeping it cool and acting concerned over the well-being of the other driver you won’t be passing on the blame, nor will you be accepting any.

7. Take some snaps and gather a few witnesses

While digital cameras like the one seen in Back to the Future remain unpopular, snapping a few quick pics with your cell phone will help document the accident | Universal Pictures
Snapping a few quick pics with your cellphone will help document the accident | Universal Pictures

If the screen hasn’t been cracked by the impact, break out that smartphone and start taking some snaps, because pictures could help you plead your case if the other driver decides to take you to court. While you’re at it, round up a few eyewitnesses to help the police determine what went down via a few unbiased accounts and to provide insurance companies with the same. Just be honest with any bystanders, and ask if they would be willing to wait around for a moment in order to give their account of what happened to the authorities. Chances are they will.

8. Don’t beat yourself up too much

man lost in depression
Getting lost in the details of an automobile accident and feeling like it’s all your fault won’t help fix what has already occurred | iStock.com

Accidents happen. Making mistakes is just part of human nature, and it often serves as a powerful learning experience. Beating yourself up over something that you did while behind the wheel isn’t going to help de-escalate the situation or help you get your life back on track any faster. Remember, traffic accidents can be fatal, so consider yourself fortunate if it’s just a bit of fender damage and no one is seriously injured.

9. Don’t sign anything unofficial

A man's hand writing on white paper
After an accident there’s no reason to sign a single document unless it is handed to you by the police, your insurance agent, or the paramedics | iStock.com/kmatija

The only documents you should be signing are the ones handed to you by the police, a doctor, or your insurance agent. In order to protect drivers, the DMV suggests that you only give out the necessary facts and refuse to sign anything that could be used against you at a later date. This means that the only information being exchanged should be your name, your vehicle’s make, model, year, color, and VIN, the name of your insurance company, your insurance agent’s name and phone number, and your policy number.

10. Protect your identity at all costs

Identity theft
Identity theft is a very real and widespread crime, so don’t hand over your credentials to just anyone after an accident | iStock.com

The final tip piggybacks on the last one, and is perhaps the scariest. The government says drivers should never allow their license or registration to be photographed. Also, do not provide a home address or contact information to other drivers, passengers, or witnesses. Identity theft and stalkers both remain very real threats, so don’t leave yourself vulnerable after an accident, because that’s when most people tend to let their guard down and stop thinking clearly.