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What to Do in a Car Accident: A Step-by-Step Guide

Woman wearing sunglasses in a car wondering what to do in a car accident.

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No matter how cool you are under pressure, it’s hard to think clearly about what to do in a car accident. Taking certain steps before, during, and immediately after an accident can keep you and your passengers as safe as possible.

Prepare Yourself Now

Don’t wait until the moment of impact to think about what to do when you get into a car accident – it’s best to be prepared. Keep vital documents in your glove box or center console that you can quickly access in an accident. These include:

  • Vehicle registration
  • Proof of insurance
  • Name and contact information of your insurance agent
  • Medical information, including insurance card or physician contact information
  • Non-injury crash checklist

Additionally, keep a standard emergency kit in your vehicle with instructions on how to use its contents. Your kit should include:

  • Emergency flares
  • Orange safety cones
  • Flashlights
  • A first aid kit
  • A pad and pen

What to Do When You Get in a Car Accident

Most important, try to remain calm. Breathe and tell yourself you can handle the situation. Knowing what to do in a car accident can be as simple as following these steps.

1. Check for Injuries

Check yourself and other passengers for injuries after the crash. Even for seemingly harmless symptoms, such as dizziness or slight disorientation, it is best to err on the side of caution and call 911. For serious injuries, call 911 immediately.

2. Get to Safety

No matter what you do in a car accident, be sure you’re not in immediate danger. If the crash happened in the middle of the road, get to a safe spot away from traffic, unless doing so would put you in serious jeopardy. For example, it may be safer to stay in the car in inclement weather or if someone’s injuries would be exacerbated by moving. If your car’s position is hazardous to other drivers, move to the road shoulder, if possible. If a minor accident occurs at night, try to move to a well-lit area.

3. Call the Appropriate Authorities

For injuries or serious property damage, the next step is to call 911. If medical attention is not necessary but a vehicle is damaged or a passenger has minor injuries, you may want to call the police. Police can create official documentation of the accident, which will be helpful in the insurance claims process. For minor bumps in which no party plans to file a claim with their insurance, calling the police may not be necessary. Keep in mind, though: Every state has rules for whether you are required to call the police to an accident scene. For example, in California, you must report an accident to the police immediately if you hit an injured animal and cannot find the owner; if you were involved in a hit-and-run; or if there are serious injuries or fatalities at the scene of the accident. Furthermore, police may not respond to the scene, depending on several factors, including if the accident was on private property. On the other hand, in the District of Columbia, you are not required to call the police to the scene of non-injury crash.

4. Wait for Help

Turn off your engine, put on your hazard lights, and use flares if you have them. After you are in a safe spot, use this time to get your bearings. Note that other parties may not be as calm and collected as you. If you fear the other party may become aggressive, give them as much space as possible or stay in your car (if it’s safe to do so). It’s often best to only accept help from officials or people you have contacted unless your life is in danger. Most Good Samaritans genuinely want to help, but scams such as illegitimate tow trucks are an unfortunate reality.

5. Gather Information from Parties, Police, and Witnesses

Make notes of your experience as soon as possible after the accident. The more information you can document, the better — and take photos if you can, as memories can fail after traumatic events. This is where your pad and pen or cell phone come in handy. Note down the following information:

  • Driver and passenger contact information
  • Insurance policy number
  • Driver’s license and license plate numbers
  • Vehicle make, model, and color
  • Location
  • Responding officers’ names and badge numbers
  • Witness names and contact information

Ask the responding officers where and when you can get a copy of the accident report, which you’ll likely need when you file a claim with your insurance company.

6. Notify Your Insurer

You may be wondering how long you have to report an accident to your insurance company. It’s best to start the process ASAP, since your insurance company may have to investigate the accident to provide coverage. Call your insurer that day or the next day or start the claims process online. Have all the information from step 5 in front of you to reference.

7. Remember What Not to Do

It can be hard to remember what to do in a car accident. There are many possible steps to take. There are three things you should generally not do at the scene of an accident:

  • Do NOT leave. Heard of a hit-and-run? You could be charged with a crime if you leave the scene before any requested responders arrive. If you are in an accident with a parked car, try to find the owner. Otherwise, leave a detailed note with your phone number so the owner can follow up. Take photos and write down as much information as you can.
  • Do NOT admit fault. Even apologizing to the other party can be construed as admitting fault for an accident, which can impact the way insurance covers you. Keep discussions to a minimum and never admit fault.
  • Do NOT blame anyone. Don’t escalate the situation by placing blame at the scene. Let the insurance companies or lawyers work it out.

Recovering from a Car Accident?

Now that you know what to do in a car accident, make the smart move afterwards by getting a free case evaluation from a knowledgeable expert.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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