What to do if you get into an accident

If you are involved in a collision, assess the situation, be careful of oncoming cars, and if anyone is injured, call for help immediately, professionals advise. If you are involved in a collision, assess the situation, be careful of oncoming cars, and if anyone is injured, call for help immediately, professionals advise. (JUSTIN L. FOWLER/COPLEY NEWS SERVICE)

With so many cars on the road, automobile accidents are an unfortunate fact of life. There are more than 6 million accidents each year, at tremendous emotional and financial cost.

"First of all, the driving schools don't like the word 'accident,' " says Sheila Varnado, marketing and business relations manager of the Driving School Association of the Americas (, an international association of driving school owners. "We say 'collision' instead. Because every accident is preventable, whether by having your brakes checked or looking where you are going, somewhere down the line, it was preventable, somehow."

The leading causes of accidents are driver errors: speeding, failing to yield right-of-way, running a stop sign or a red light, improper turning, and driving under the influence.

Every driver should know what to do if they're ever involved in a collision, Varnado says. One way to be prepared is to carry a booklet in the glove compartment that outlines the steps to take.

"Some insurance companies will provide you with a checklist to fill out when you're on the scene of a collision, to remind you what to do," Varnado says. These checklists are also available from and your local department of motor vehicles.

Here are the basic steps to take in event of a collision:

  • Stop the car and assess the situation. Don't leave the scene, which could expose you to hit-and-run charges.

  • Get safe. Once outside your vehicle, you're at risk of being struck by a car. Look carefully for oncoming cars, and move your car to the shoulder if possible. If not, leave your car and move to safety.

  • If you're injured, disoriented or can't move, stay in the car. Turn on the hazard lights.

  • Check for injuries; yourself first, then others. "Some states have a 'Good Samaritan law,' " Varnado says. These laws require a person who is in an accident or who comes upon an accident to report it. You can be fined if you don't.

    When it comes to providing medical assistance, don't overreach. "Anytime you're involved in a collision, only render aid within your ability," Varnado explains.

  • Call 911. If anyone is injured, you are required to call the police or highway patrol. Dial 911, or program the highway-patrol number into your cellphone (a good idea for those who travel often).

    Remember, if you don't have a cellphone with you on a freeway, you can use a call box, which is usually within a quarter mile to half mile away.

    If it is a noninjury collision, the rules vary from city to city about whether police must be contacted to make a report. Visit your city government website to review these laws.

  • Exchange information. "Get the full information of all drivers, passengers, and witnesses," Varnado says. "This includes driver's license numbers, vehicle registration and proof of insurance with policy number." Also write down the other driver's name, address, date of birth, and phone number. Get the other car's make, model and license plate number.

    While getting these facts, don't discuss the accident. "We ask students to limit their conversation to who was in the car, name, address, contact info, and exchange of insurance information. Don't talk about the details of the accident," Varnado says. "Don't give any statements, especially admitting any type of fault, except to the police."

    The reason is you don't want to make a statement out of emotion that later can be used the wrong way. Expressions of remorse, for example, can later be attributed as fault.

  • Take pictures using a disposable camera or cellphone for legal and insurance purposes. "If it does come down to a trial," Varnado says, "people can see how the intersection looked, the weather conditions, icy roads, exactly how much damage was done to the cars, the position of the vehicles, where the vehicles ended up, and the severity of the collision for example."

  • Inform your insurance company. Varnado recommends you contact your insurance company as soon as possible, no matter what. "The insurance would rather hear from you," she says.

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