You are in a hurry, so you put a bit of extra pressure on the gas pedal. Your phone is ringing somewhere to your right, so you glance that way. When you realize you are too close, it is already too late. You are lucky–neither you nor the other driver gets injured–but there you are, on the side of the road with two severely damaged vehicles to deal with. What are you going to do?
The person you ran into is probably thinking the same, as are thousands of others each and every day. There are more than 6 million crashes reported to the police every year, according to the National Automotive Sampling System’s General Estimates System. Last year, some 4.57 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and the crashes cost society $413.8 billion, according to preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council (NSC). 40,100 lives were lost, which marks the second consecutive year that figure stays above 40,000, if the NSC assessment holds.
After checking that no one has been injured, your first reaction may be to apologize for causing the accident, whether you indeed did so or not, but this may not be a good move. Let’s look at what you should do instead.
Preparation is the key to success
The first step is of course to try to avoid accidents in the first place. Make sure your vehicle is always well maintained and plan your route in advance. That can save you some unpleasant surprises along the way. If you are transporting cargo, make sure it is properly loaded and secured. Always wear your seatbelt and insist all your passengers do the same. Finally, remember the four D’s and don’t drive while drowsy, drunk, drugged or distracted.
It is a good idea to keep an emergency kit in your car or truck. It should include visibility aids, such as reflective triangles and a high-visibility vest, a fire extinguisher and emergency supplies, such as warm clothing, and food and water. Keep your emergency phone numbers updated and your insurance information in order, and, if an accident occurs, a camera phone and a notepad and pen will come in handy.
Prioritize safety and visibility
If a warning light indicates that something is wrong with your vehicle, try to pull over at a service station. That will give you a secure location to deal with the problem. If you cannot wait, find a place along the road that is flat, well-lit, away from curves and provides you with maximum separation from traffic.
Your first priority will be to protect yourself and secure the scene. You want to limit any further damage. In order to do so, it is important that other drivers see you. This is when you unpack the high-visibility vest, flashlight and reflective triangles from the emergency kit. If it is dark, leave your headlights on.
Placing reflective triangles sensibly is almost an art form–and should be done within ten minutes of pulling over. Put one within 10 feet of your vehicle, in the direction of approaching traffic, and another one some 100 feet away. If you are less than 500 feet away from a curve or crest of a hill, place another warning device there, to give oncoming traffic advance warning. Finally, if you are on an undivided road, place a fourth triangle 100 feet ahead of your vehicle, in the middle lane (if available), to alert traffic coming in the opposite direction.
Call for assistance based on what the situation requires. It could be a tow truck, the police or emergency medical services. Only administer first aid yourself if you are qualified. Don’t try to flag down other passersby. It is better to wait for professional help to arrive. Your employer may have guidelines for you to follow in the event of an accident. Make sure you familiarize yourself with them as soon as possible.
Documentation, cooperation and why silence is golden
When you have made sure that everybody is safe, your vehicle is clearly visible and you have called for help, you can start collecting information about the accident. This is when having a camera on your phone comes in handy. Take pictures of the final resting place of the vehicles involved and their license plates, as well as any damage. Assess the scene, and photograph skid marks, road conditions and roadway signs indicating, for example, construction work or speed limits. Try to generate as complete a picture of the situation as possible, but don’t photograph injured people.
Collect insurance information, but be careful when you discuss the event with other drivers. You are likely to be in shock and should not admit to fault or review your actions with the other driver(s), as what you say can be used against you in a court of law. Let the police do their job investigating the situation with a level head and objectivity.
When law enforcement arrives, give them all the information they require and request you get a copy of the police report. Your employer may have a policy of drug or alcohol testing following an accident, and it is important to comply with this.
Let’s go back to the scenario with which we started. Your triangles are placed, your phone calls are done and you have offered the other driver some water. While you take photos of the scene, what happened is all starting to sink in. You swear you will leave earlier in the future to avoid the risky rush, while the other driver may be silently promising he will never text at the wheel again. You can be quite certain there are others doing the exact same thing on the side of another road in a location not too far away. All things considered, you were lucky today.
Much of the information found in this article comes from Driver’s Alert’s online training course “Accidents and Breakdowns.”
About the Author
Eva Nyman grew up in Finland, but has lived in Belgium, France and Hungary. She holds a degree in journalism and communication from the University of Helsinki and has worked as a reporter for ten years. She feeds her fascination with history and current affairs with books and her love of nature with hikes. She’s passionate about traveling, particularly slow journeys, and her dream is to visit every corner of the world.