Understanding & Avoiding Collisions
When a Traffic Collision Happens

What Drivers Must Do In Case of An Accident or Collision - Complete Guide

Updated Dec. 25, 2020

It is highly likely that at some point during your life as a driver, you will be involved in an accident or collision. If you are fortunate, it may just be that a collision occurs nearby but does not directly involve your vehicle. If not, it may be your car that has collided with another vehicle or object, or has come off the roadway altogether.

Whether you are directly involved or not, it is important not to panic when a traffic collision occurs. Remember that accidents often occur in quick succession at the same location, as uninvolved drivers become distracted by the initial incident and end up in a crash themselves. It is even more essential not to panic if you are directly involved. Keeping a clear head will be necessary to minimize the danger of the situation and avoid legal repercussions, by observing the correct post-collision practices.

Move over and stop

Following any collision, all drivers involved are legally required to move over and stop. If you drive off having collided with another road user, you could be charged with a hit-and-run as a criminal. Unless you or your vehicle are damaged to the degree that you cannot move it, your priority should be driving it onto the shoulder or as far toward the right-hand side of the road as possible. You must then activate your hazard lights, switch off the engine and exit the vehicle. Make yourself known to the other people involved in the incident and provide care to anybody who has been injured. If necessary, call 9-1-1 and ask for an ambulance next. Remember that preservation of human life must always take priority.

It may be that the collision has occurred at a place where it is not safe to stop, such as an expressway entrance ramp or a roundabout. If this happens, a new place to stop and share information must be agreed upon by all parties involved in the collision. If any person has sustained serious injuries or any of the vehicles are not safe to drive, stay where you are and contact the emergency services.

Protect other road users

The site of a traffic accident poses an immediate hazard to all other road users occupying the street nearby. There is a risk of another collision occurring if other drivers have not noticed your vehicle, an injured person or other debris from the collision in the roadway. Having ensured that all injured parties are taken care of, your goal should be to make the site of the collision as visible to other motorists as possible. The sooner they can see that a collision has occurred, the more time they will have to navigate safely around the crash site.

To warn other motorists about the incident:

  1. 1

    Turn on hazard lights.
    Switch your hazard lights on and ensure the other drivers involved do the same.

  2. 2

    Set up reflectors, cones or flares.
    If possible, set up reflectors, cones or flares on the road around the crash site. This should be at a minimum distance of 100 feet in ordinary traffic or 500 feet on a high-speed road.

  3. 3

    Beware of fires.
    DO NOT use flares if any of the vehicles involved are leaking gas. You should also avoid smoking nearby.

  4. 4

    Use hand signals.
    When you do not have access to cones, flares or reflectors, you can stand in a visible position prior to the crash site, to direct approaching motorists around it safely. Do so with extreme caution, particularly on high-speed roads.

Helping other people

Any person involved in a traffic accident is legally obligated to find out if any other person involved was injured and if necessary, assist them. Often, calling an ambulance and waiting with the injured person until a paramedic arrives is the only appropriate course of action. You should not attempt to provide medical assistance yourself unless you have been trained to do so.

When you speak to the emergency services responder on the phone, be prepared to describe the injured party’s condition and accurately explain the location of the incident. If you and your vehicle are fit to drive and the other person is suffering from very minor injuries, you may offer to drive them to the nearest emergency department or medical facility yourself.

Providing medical aid

If you have the necessary skills and it is safe to do so, you should provide medical assistance to any person who has been injured in the collision. Studies show that seriously injured people are far more likely to survive when they are provided with basic medical aid at the scene of an incident. However, in providing the assistance you should avoid moving the injured person unless not moving them would place them in immediate danger. Moving somebody before professional medical personnel arrives at the scene can sometimes make their injuries worse.

Circumstances under which it would be necessary to move an injured person include:

  • Their current position puts them at high risk of being hit by a vehicle.
  • They are in a vehicle that is on fire, smoking or leaking gas.
  • They are at risk of falling down a cliff edge (either outside or inside a vehicle)

If multiple people have been injured during a collision you will need to decide who to help first. Prioritize giving care to anybody who is not already walking and talking. If a person is completely unresponsive, turn your ear to their mouth to check whether they are breathing. A person who is qualified to do so should begin artificial respiration immediately if it appears the injured person is not breathing. When a person is incapable of breathing on their own, the oxygen provided by artificial respiration can keep them alive and prevent serious organ damage until professional help arrives. You may wish to share this responsibility with another non-injured person, to prevent yourself from getting tired.

Wrap or apply pressure to bleeding injuries, using bandages, clean strips of cloth or a pad made from clothing. Prioritize severe bleeding over minor injuries to prevent major blood loss. If you have first-aid knowledge, you may also attempt to treat anybody suffering from shock.

The “Good Samaritan” law

Some version of the Good Samaritan law exists in every state, though it may be named differently in your area. This law is designed to protect people who seek to help others at the scene of an accident or emergency. It ensures that you cannot be held responsible for any damages or injury that result from the care you provide to others during an emergency, if:

  • You were not expecting payment for the assistance.
  • You were not aware that your actions would result in damage or injury.
  • You are not responsible for the initial collision.

Calling the police

The laws regarding reporting traffic accidents and collisions to the police vary from state to state. It is important to check your driver’s handbook for this information to make sure you know what to do if you are involved in a crash. It will always be necessary to report the collision to the police at some point, as you will need information from them in order to make a claim on your insurance. If nobody is injured and the damage is minor, you should be able to exchange details with the other driver involved and report the incident later.

If anybody is injured or killed during the collision, you MUST call the police straight away from the site of the incident. You will be legally required to disclose certain information to the police officer who attended the scene, which may include:

  • Your name and address
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your license plate number
  • Your insurance company’s details (their name and address)

This information may also need to be provided for any passengers who were involved in the collision, as well as their position within the vehicle and details of any injuries they sustained.

Even if nobody is injured during the collision, you must call the police if one or more of the drivers involved appears to be intoxicated, do not have insurance, refuse to give insurance details or drive away from the scene of the crash.

Hit and run penalties

The penalties for a hit-and-run are severe. No matter how minor the incident, you must not leave the scene of a collision you were involved in without checking the well-being of other parties and exchanging information. If another person has been injured or killed in the collision, you could be looking at a license suspension and/or serious jail time.

In most states, a “hit-and-run” is defined as fleeing the scene of a collision with a pedestrian, another vehicle or a stationary object, without rendering assistance to injured parties, identifying yourself or passing over insurance details. You should use your driving manual to check relevant laws in your state, as in some areas, leaving the scene of a collision with an animal is also considered a hit-and-run. Usually, leaving the scene of a traffic collision to seek emergency assistance is not considered a hit-and-run, so long as you return to the scene immediately afterward.

Depending on the severity of the collision, hit-and-run offenses are either treated as felonies or misdemeanors. If another party was injured in the collision – be that a pedestrian or the occupant of another vehicle – the offense is likely to be considered a felony. In these situations, a hit-and-run conviction will almost certainly result in license revocation, prison time and a sizable fine ranging between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on your state. Misdemeanor hit-and-runs typically involve property damage only, though the penalties they incur are still severe. If you are convicted of this offense, you may be subject to a temporary license suspension and a fine of up to $5,000 depending on your state. When serious property damage has resulted from your actions, you may also face jail time.

Hitting a parked vehicle

If you collide with a parked, unoccupied vehicle, you must stop and try to find the owner. The same goes for any other private property, such as yard walls, fences, barriers and advertisements. If you are unsuccessful in finding the owner of the vehicle you have damaged, leave a note with your name, address and contact telephone number tucked securely and visibly under their windshield. When the damage you have caused may not be immediately obvious to the owner, you should also explain the nature of the incident on your note.

In addition to leaving your details, you must telephone the police to report the incident at the next available opportunity. Keep in mind that you are still legally responsible and must follow this same procedure if your parked car rolls and causes damage when you are not behind the wheel.

Collisions with animals

Even if you live in a state where leaving the scene of a collision with an animal is not considered a hit-and-run, you can be prosecuted for abandoning an injured animal following a collision. Where farm animals and domestic animals are concerned, you may be found guilty of property damage. Whether it is “technically” illegal or not, you should never leave an injured animal in the roadway to die or unable to fend for itself, as it is inhumane.

Most states have a set procedure for motorists to follow if they collide with an animal in the roadway. This information will be available in your driver’s handbook and on the DMV website. Generally, you will be required to call the police, the Humane Society or your local wildlife board to report the incident.

Reporting traffic accidents to the DMV

In most states, the DMV must be notified about any traffic collision you are involved in. This will either be your responsibility or the responsibility of the police department, depending on your state of residence. As there is a time-limit for reporting collisions to the DMV (typically 5 to 30 days), the police may require you to contact the agency and file an accident report on their behalf. This law usually only applies to collisions where a person has been injured, killed or where serious property damage has been caused. The cut-off point for what qualifies as “serious property damage” varies state by state, though it is usually around the $1,000 mark.

Keep in mind that all parties involved in a qualifying collision must report the incident to the DMV, regardless of who was at fault. Failure to do so could result in a fine or license suspension.

Recording information about a collision

Following a traffic collision, it is important to keep a cool head and record as much information about the incident as possible. This will be extremely helpful in negotiating legal issues and determining who was at fault later. Gathering certain basic information is essential, as it will be necessary when filing a report with the DMV, speaking to the police and dealing with your insurance agency. At a bare minimum, you should record the following details:

  1. The names and addresses of everybody directly involved in the collision (drivers, passengers, pedestrians, etc).
  2. What involvement these people had (i.e. the driver, backseat passenger, etc).
  3. The names and addresses of any witnesses who saw the collision take place.
  4. The license plate numbers of any vehicles involved.
  5. The badge number and name of the police officer who attended the scene.

In addition, you may find it useful to make a note of the date, time, exact location, weather conditions, driving conditions and any other factors that could have contributed to the incident. If you have a cell phone or camera handy, take a photo of the accident scene. Otherwise, drawing a quick sketch of how and where the collision occurred will suffice.

Immediately following any collision, you must also:

  • Accurately and objectively report the incident to the police. Try to avoid admitting fault or assigning blame to other parties.
  • Get yourself checked out by a medical professional, even if you feel fine. Not all injuries will be apparent straight away.
  • Get your car checked out by a reliable mechanic, even if the damage appears to be superficial.
  • Notify your insurance company about the incident. In most insurance contracts this is a legal requirement, even if minimal damage was caused.

Reporting a collision to your insurance company

If you read the fine print of your vehicle insurance contract, you will probably find that you are legally required to report ALL accidents and collisions to the company right away – even minor fender-benders where no harm or damage has been caused. Failure to do so could invalidate your insurance and result in a fine.

If the other driver was not insured and you need to make a claim for damages to your vehicle, keep in mind that insurance companies will only payout on an uninsured motorist policy if you have a police report detailing the incident.

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