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A car crash can run the spectrum from a minor annoyance to a life-altering tragedy. And even if you’ve been in one before, the emotions and stresses associated can make it difficult to remember what to do in the immediate aftermath. We asked law enforcement officers, mechanics, auto insurance agents and legal experts for their advice on what steps to take after a car crash, including all the details that are easy to forget, and how to protect yourself and your money.

Step 1: Call Emergency Services (If Necessary) & the Police (Always)

If anyone is injured, call 911 immediately and describe the situation and any injuries with as much detail as you can so the proper services can be dispatched.

Even for small fender-benders where no one is obviously injured, it’s always important to call the police and file an accident report. First, you never know if what looks to be minimal damage is actually more insidious, and if there’s no police report, it’ll be your word against the other party’s if you need to involve insurance companies, and that can be a losing game. Be sure to ask the officer for the accident report number — you’ll need this for your insurer. If there are witnesses, ask them to stick around to speak with the police, and at the very least get their contact information so the police can speak with them later.

The police don’t determine fault; the insurance companies do. However, the police do want a factual report of what happened. Most car crashes aren’t criminal investigations, so you can give an honest account of what happened, but you should be careful about some of the things you say. And if you can, listen to the other party when they speak to the police to make sure the facts aren’t misrepresented. (Below, more details on what not to say, what to tell your insurance company and when you might need a lawyer.)

Step 2: Assess the Damage

If the crash left your car in the middle of a busy road, your instinct will probably be to move it, but proceed with caution. You can legally move your vehicle, and if you do, you should snap a few pictures of the scene first— but only do these things if it’s safe to do so considering the traffic and circumstances of your collision. We asked Mechanic Matt, a certified ASE Master Technician for Metromile, how drivers can tell if their car is safe to move after a wreck:

  • Look for leaking fluids near the front of the vehicle and don’t move it if you see a lot.
  • If you smell gasoline, the car isn’t safe to be near — never mind drive.
  • If you have a flat, don’t move the vehicle. And if any part of the car’s body (like a plastic bumper) is touching the tires in any way, you could get a flat if you attempt to drive.

Matt adds that any odd noise or smell could mean the car’s mechanical or electrical systems are compromised and your best bet is to call a tow truck. If you do decide to drive, be cautious and pay attention to how everything is working: make sure the brakes feel normal, that it’s easy to steer and make sure no new smells or sounds appear as you drive. If you’re unsure whether you can or should move your vehicle, wait for the police to advise you.

Step 3: Exchange Information With the Other Party

Always exchange information. Even if you think you’ve gotten off lucky and your stop-short fender bump incident left no real damage (as far as you can tell), you still must exchange contact information and insurance information with the other party. Write down:

  • Names of all drivers involved in the accident
  • Address and phone number of the drivers involved
  • Year, make, model and license plates of the cars involved in the accident
  • Insurance policy numbers

If the other party offers cash in lieu of exchanging info and calling the police, don’t accept. Not only could you miss out on future auto insurance claims payouts, it’ll be your word against theirs, and you could be held liable later, even if the wreck wasn’t your fault.

Neil Richardson, licensed insurance agent at car insurance comparison company The Zebra, offers a word of caution when speaking with the other party: “Refrain from saying anything to the other party or anyone else that could implicate you of fault if there is even a question about who caused the accident,” he says. “The police report will be reviewed (in addition to pictures, driver statements, etc.) to determine fault, and if you apologized or made an offhand comment about not paying attention, for example, then you are opening yourself up to be deemed ‘at fault.’” Whether speaking with the other driver, the police officer taking the accident report, or a representative from either insurance company, sticking to the facts will generally result in the most positive outcome.

Step 4: Document the Damage

Photos of the scene and of any damaged vehicles can contribute to police reports and can help determine liability and expedite the claim for your payment. If you find damage later and haven’t documented it, you could be on the hook for repairs.

While smartphones can take great photos, Matt advises drivers to focus on quality over quantity. He says there’s been a trend lately of people sending hundreds of pictures, only a few of which actually show the damage. Some advice for documenting the scene:

  • Start with some photos from four to six feet from the vehicle and move in closer if you need to highlight something. For example, if your vehicle was hit in the driver’s front corner and your front bumper, hood and driver’s headlamp are damaged, take a photo showing the entire front bumper and the driver’s side of the vehicle, and then move in closer to show the damaged components. Repeat if you have multiple areas of damage.
  • If you can, take comparable photos of the damage to the other vehicle and of the other party’s license or ID card and license plate, too.
  • Always take photos of all four sides of the vehicle.

Step 5: Call Your Insurance Company

This one is simple: always call your insurer. Richardson recommends calling your insurer as soon as possible after a wreck — at the scene, if you can. This allows you to provide them with the most accurate and up-to-date information before you forget anything important, and will also provide peace of mind that your company has you covered. Your company’s claims representative knows that accidents are stressful — they’re there to help.

Information you’ll need to provide for your insurance company:

  • Names of all drivers involved in the accident
  • Address and phone number of the drivers involved
  • Insurance policy numbers of all drivers involved
  • Year, make, model and license plates of the cars involved in the accident
  • Photos of the damage to the vehicles
  • Brief description of what occurred at the accident scene
  • Police report, if possible
  • Contact information for any witnesses

With this information, your insurer will have an adjuster contact both parties and get their statements about what occurred. The adjuster will then review the police report, witness statements and photos. If the insurance company determines that their customer was at fault, they will start the process of getting the other party’s vehicle repaired, and if the other driver is found at fault, their insurance company will begin the repair process for you.

If fault is disputed, there will be a claim investigation during which your insurer will represent you, and both insurance companies will come to a determination – in some states, each driver can be found partially responsible. Even if you’re sure you aren’t at fault, it’s best to tell your insurer about the crash. For one thing, they’ll need to work with the other party’s insurance company directly to confirm fault and get repairs started. For another, if you file with your insurance company first, you can get your repairs taken care of faster, even if the other driver was at fault. Your insurer would then bill the other driver’s insurance company for repairs.

Telling your insurer about an incident isn’t the same as filing a claim. Sometimes it can be better not to file a claim after a wreck, for example if the wreck was your fault and you want your insurance to kick in for repairs to your vehicle, but this is something you should weigh carefully later, not at the scene of a crash. But many insurance companies actually have stipulations in the contract that customers must let them know about anything that might lead to a claim, and Richardson says violating this contract can lead to denial of your claim or cancellation of your policy altogether.

Ideally, practicing safe driving habits will help you minimize the cost of auto insurance. It can also help to keep your credit in good shape, because insurers in many states evaluate credit when determining a driver’s insurance premiums. You can see two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to get an idea of where you stand.

Complications: How to Know When You Need a Lawyer

The biggest factor in deciding whether or not to contact a lawyer following a crash is if there has been an injury, says New York attorney Zev Goldstein. “If someone was hurt, especially if they were hurt badly, both parties need to contact a lawyer in order to be sure that their interests are represented properly.” Other reasons to consider a lawyer after a crash:

  • There was a fatality and you were at fault;
  • You’re having trouble with your insurance company;
  • The incident took place in a construction zone;
  • The police report is inaccurate, or lists you as at fault when you weren’t;
  • You have questions or confusions about anything beyond the basics;
  • If the other party obtains counsel (let lawyers deal with lawyers).

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Image: George Doyle

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