Alex was excited to finally get his license. He was looking forward to going to the movies and visiting friends without needing someone to take him.
A couple of weeks later, Alex was headed to his friend Matt’s house. Two blocks from Matt’s, Alex waited at a stop sign when he felt a sudden jolt. Someone had rear-ended his car. Alex started panicking — and his first thought was “What do I do now?”
Driving is probably the most dangerous thing most of us will ever do. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are more than 30,000 deaths and over 2 million injuries from motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. every year.
Although you do your best to drive responsibly and defensively, it’s still smart to know what to do just in case you end up in a collision. Crashes can be very scary, but here are some tips if one happens to you:
Take some deep breaths to get calm. After a crash, a person may feel a wide range of emotions — shock, guilt, fear, nervousness, or anger — all of which are normal. But take a few deep breaths or count to 10 to calm down. The calmer you are, the better prepared you will be to handle the situation. This is the time to take stock of the accident and try to make a judgment about whether it was a serious one.
Keep yourself and others safe. If you can’t get out of your car — or it’s not safe to try — keep your seatbelt fastened, turn on your hazard lights, then call 911 if possible and wait for help to arrive. If the collision seems to be minor, turn off your car and grab your emergency kit. If it’s safe to get out and move around your car, set up orange cones, warning triangles, or emergency flares around the crash site.
If there are no injuries and your vehicle is driveable, make a reasonable effort to move the vehicle to a safe spot that is not blocking traffic (like the shoulder of a highway or a parking lot). In some states it’s illegal to move your car from the scene of a crash, though. Ask your driver’s ed instructor what the law is in your state.
Check for Injuries and Report the Incident
Check on everyone involved in the crash to see if they have any injuries. This includes making sure you don’t have any serious injuries. Be extremely cautious — not all injuries can be seen. If you or anyone involved isn’t feeling 100% (like if you start trying to get photos or write down details on the crash and start feeling dizzy or out of it), call 911 or any other number your state uses to request emergency assistance on roadways. Be ready to give the dispatcher the following information:
- Who? The dispatcher will ask for your name and phone numbers in case the authorities need to get more information from you later.
- What? Tell the dispatcher as much as you can about the emergency — for instance, whether there is a fire, traffic hazard, medical emergency, etc.
- Where? Let the dispatcher know exactly where the emergency is taking place. Give the city, road name, road number, mile markings, direction of travel, traffic signs, and anything else you can think of to help them know how to find you.
Make sure you stay on the line until the dispatcher says it’s OK to hang up.
Sometimes, you can get the police to come to the crash scene even if there are no injuries, especially if you tell them you need someone to mediate — in other words, to help you figure out what happened and who’s at fault. But in certain areas, as long as both vehicles can be safely driven away, police officers won’t come to the scene unless someone is hurt. If the police do not come to the scene, make sure you file a vehicle incident report at a police station.
Take Down Driver Information
Ask to see the driver’s license of the other drivers involved in the crash so that you can take down their license numbers. Also get their name, address, phone number, insurance company, insurance policy number, and license plate number. If the other driver doesn’t own the vehicle involved, be sure to get the owner’s info as well.
Take Notes on the Crash
If the crash is minor and you feel that you can describe it, try to take pictures and put the details in writing. Detailed notes and photos of the scene may help the court and insurance agencies decide who is responsible. Get a good description of the vehicles involved — year, make, model, and color. Take photos of the scene — including the vehicles and any damage, the roads, any traffic signs, and the direction each vehicle was coming from.
Try to draw a diagram of the exact crash site and mark where each car was, what direction the car was coming from, and what lane it was in. Write down the date, time, and weather conditions. If there were any witnesses, try to get their names and contact info so that they can help clear up matters if one of the other drivers isn’t completely honest about what really happened.
You can only do these things if you think the collision was minor (for instance, if the airbag did not inflate). If the crash is major, you want to involve the police.
Even if you think a crash was your fault, it might not be. That’s why insurance companies say that you should not admit fault or accept blame at the scene.
While the crash itself might be upsetting, dealing with the aftermath can be too. In the hours or days following a collision, some people may still be shaken up. They may be beating themselves up over what happened — especially if they feel the crash was avoidable. Sometimes, people close to those who were involved (like families and best friends) can experience some emotional problems too. These feelings are all normal. Once some time passes, the car is repaired, and the insurance companies are dealt with, most car crashes become mere afterthoughts.
In some cases, though, these feelings can get stronger or last for longer periods of time, keeping a person from living a normal life. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after a devastating event that injured or threatened to injure someone. Signs of PTSD may show up immediately following the crash, or weeks or even months after.
Not everyone who experiences stress after a trauma has PTSD. But here are some symptoms to look out for:
- avoiding emotions or any reminders of the incident
- constant feelings of anxiousness, crankiness, or anger
- avoiding medical tests or procedures
- constantly reliving the incident in one’s mind
- nightmares or trouble sleeping
If you notice any of these symptoms after you’ve been in a car crash, try talking through the experience with friends or relatives you trust. Discuss what happened, and what you thought, felt, and did during the collision and in the days after. Try to get back into your everyday activities, even if they make you uneasy. If these things don’t help, ask your parent or guardian to help you check in with your doctor.
Other Road Problems
Plenty of people have minor incidents — like running over the mailbox while backing out of the driveway. Somewhere between hitting mailboxes and hitting other cars are common problems like blowouts and breakdowns.
Getting a flat tire while you’re driving can be jarring — literally. To prevent this, make sure your tires aren’t too old and check your tire pressure at least once a month.
If you do find yourself in a blowout situation, here are a few suggestions from AAA to get you through it safely:
- Don’t panic and stay off the brake. Sudden braking could cause a skid. Look ahead and hold the steering wheel with a firm grip. Slow down gradually by taking your foot off the accelerator. Try to steer the vehicle to the side of the road safely. Let the vehicle slow down before applying the brakes with gentle pressure. Bring the vehicle to rest on the side of the roadway, shoulder, or parking lot.
- Set up your breakdown site. Once safely off the road and out of the line of traffic, turn on your emergency flashers to alert other drivers of your situation. Set up your warning signs (cones, triangles, or flares) behind your vehicle so others realize your car is disabled. If you know how to change your tire and can do it safely without getting too close to traffic, do it, or call your auto club for help.
- Get help if you need it. Automobile clubs will come to help 24/7, 365 days a year — many people become members to get this kind of emergency assistance. Ask your parents if your family belongs to an automobile club and, if you do, get a membership card. Use a cell phone or highway emergency phone to call for help. While you’re waiting, raise the hood of your car and hang a white T-shirt or rag out the window or off the radio antenna so that police officers will know you need help. For safety reasons, don’t try to flag down other drivers. Only walk along a multi-lane highway if you can see a business or someone who can help you nearby.
- Don’t walk in or get near traffic.
- After it’s done. Take your vehicle to the shop so a mechanic can look it over for any damage.
If your vehicle breaks down, safely bring it to a stop and out of the line of traffic — as far off the roadway as possible. Set up your breakdown site out of traffic. A major difference between flat tires and breakdowns is that it’s less likely that you will be able to fix a car that has broken down. That’s why it’s wise to signal that you need help by properly displaying the white cloth and calling for roadside assistance or the police.
If you manage to get your car safely out of traffic, wait inside with the doors locked. If someone stops and offers to help you, just open the window slightly and say that you’ve already called for help. Again, only walk along a multi-lane highway if you can see help nearby, and stay as far away from traffic as possible.