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What to do if you have an accident

The worst possible thing has happened and you find yourself in an accident. Stay calm. You are not going to help yourself or anyone else if you panic. The first step should always be to assess whether you or anyone else in the vehicle with you is injured.

Calling an ambulance early is the key to reducing the long-term effects of any injury. The next step is to assess whether there’s immediate danger if you stay in the vehicle. Assuming there to be no danger, the next step is for you to leave the vehicle. Look around carefully to assess whether it’s safe to open your door. If there’s traffic trying to get past your side of the vehicle, do not open your door. Leave by the door on the other side.

Was another vehicle involved? If so, check whether anyone onboard needs medical attention. This will reduce the risk of people later exaggerating their injuries for the purposes of a claim. As and when the ambulance arrives, get the names of the paramedics so you can get evidence from them as to the state of the injured when removed from the scene. Now get busy with the camera in your cellphone or handheld computer. You need as complete a record as possible of the accident, the damage to the vehicles or property involved, and of any injuries. The law says you should exchange information with any other drivers involved. You must also make a police report if anyone is injured or property damaged. Finally, if the damaged vehicles are in the way, you should move them to a safe place until they can be removed from the scene. If you are lucky, you can drive your vehicle home. If not, call for a tow.

The accident was not your fault

If you live in a no-fault state, it does not matter which driver was to blame for the accident, you claim on your own insurance. If you have ignored your local law and do not have any insurance, you need to get advice from an attorney on what remedies you have (if any). If you live in a state with an at-fault system of auto insurance, you must notify your own insurer of the accident and the extent of injuries and damage, but your remedy is against the driver who was to blame.

Either way, the basics of what to do following an accident are the same. No matter where the accident takes place, the law requires you to exchange information with the other driver(s) involved. If anyone is injured, you are also required to notify the police. It’s a criminal offense to flee the scene of an accident or to refuse to identify yourself.

If possible before the vehicles are moved, take photographs of the scene and show the extent of the damage. Collect the names and addresses of everyone in all the vehicles and who saw the accident. If there’s going to be a dispute about how the accident happened and who was to blame, you need to be able to show good evidence in support of your story. If the other driver is prepared to admit blame, ask him to write it down or, if you can, catch it on video. Now it’s all about writing up the claim and submitting it to your own insurer. If this is a no-fault state or the other party has admitted liability, your own insurer will pay you or collect payment for you. If the other driver failed to stop in an at-fault state, you claim on your own cover for an uninsured driver.

The accident was your fault

If you live in a no-fault state, it’s irrelevant whether you were to blame. You simply make a report to your own insurance company, claiming for any loss and damage you have suffered. The other driver(s) involved make their own claims from their insurers and the matter is settled without any dispute.

If you live in an at-fault state, you must take great care to satisfy all the terms and conditions of your own insurance company. The point of buying the cover is to protect you from financial loss if you are at fault. So if the amount of cover you bought is enough to pay all the money claimed from you, you can relax. No matter how aggressive the other claimants may be toward you, your own insurer will deal with the matter. But if the amount of cover is not enough to pay all the claims, you now have personal liability. The action you take depends on whether you have savings and assets. If you are relatively poor, it’s not economic to sue you. It does not benefit the claimant to see you bankrupted. But if you have assets or have a well-paying job, it may well be economic to sue you either to seize your assets or garnish your pay. In such cases, you should seek the advice of an attorney who has experience in dealing with traffic accident and personal injuries claims. You are now fighting for your financial life and must take all the steps appropriate to protect your assets. If the claimants threaten you personally, your attorney will advise on the best course of action. Should you be trying to deal with the claims without legal advice, report the claimants to the police.

What if you crash into someone else’s property?

In both at-fault and no-fault states, crashing into property belonging to someone else makes you liable to the owner for all the damage you caused. For these purposes, it does not matter how the accident happened, the assumption is that you are responsible for the cost of the replacement or repairs.

So this may be someone in your neighborhood and you hit a fence or it may be the power company when you hit a utility pole. Almost all the US states make it an offense to fail to report an accident where you damage property. The duty is to file a report with the police and your local Department of Motor Vehicles. If you fail to make such a report, this breaches the so-called hit-and-run laws. This is a criminal misdemeanor with fines and possible jail time for more serious offenses, i.e. involving the destruction of valuable property.

So if you do damage another’s property, notify your insurer of a claim on your liability insurance and your collision insurance if your own vehicle is damaged. If you were uninsured or underinsured, you may need to get legal advice if the amount of damage you caused will result in a big claim, e.g., if the damage is going to cause other losses. For example, if you drive across a sidewalk and crash into the frontage of a store, not only will there be a claim for repairing the wall and window and replacing lost inventory, but also for disruption to the smooth running of the business. This element of consequential loss can often be far higher than the physical repair costs. In all these cases, it’s best to assume the worst. If you do not have insurance cover, get legal advice sooner rather than later.

A collision far from civilization

My wife and I were driving across country. We weren’t going anywhere in particular so just took off to see where we ended up. For the first three days this got us to some spectacular places. People were great, food was better...

On the fourth day, the car was less than happy and with no warning, the suspension failed and we suddenly found ourselves off the road and talking with a tree. When we checked the cellphones, there was no signal. Better still, we had no map to see how far to the next town.

We knew it was about two hours walk back the way we’d come so decided to wait for someone to come along. After about twenty minutes, a pickup came into view so I stepped out and waved my arms. This old guy looks at me and decides I’m not going to move so stops in front of me. Relieved still to be alive, I walked very slowly round to his window. I pointed to our car and asked for a lift to the next town. He just looked at me, saying nothing. So I explained we had no idea where we were and how far it was to the next town.

My wife called over from the side of the road. “If it’s not too far, we’ll walk. Just tell us how long it will take.” The old man stayed silent. Thinking him deaf, I gave up and walked to the side of the road.

“It’ll take you about forty-five minutes,” the old man said.

So he wasn’t deaf. “How come you only tell us now?”

“I couldn’t answer until I could see how fast you walk.”