What should I do if I'm involved in a traffic accident?

The most important thing you can do is to document the entire situation by taking careful notes soon after your accident. While this step is often overlooked, it can help make the entire claim process easier on you -- and increase your chances of receiving all the compensation to which you are entitled. Having notes to remind you of all the details of what happened, and what you went through, is far easier and far more accurate than relying on your memory.

Write things down as soon as you can: begin with what you were doing and where you were going, the people you were with, the time and the weather. Include every detail of what you saw, heard and felt. Be sure to add anything you remember hearing anyone -- a person involved in the accident or a witness -- say about the accident.

Finally, make daily notes of the effects of your injuries. You may suffer pain, discomfort, anxiety, loss of sleep or other problems which are not as visible or serious as another injury, but for which you should demand additional compensation. These notes can be very useful two or six or ten months later, when you put together all the important facts into a final demand for compensation.

Reporting to the Department of Motor Vehicles


Many states have laws requiring that people involved in a vehicle accident resulting in physical injury or a certain amount of property damage report that accident in writing to the state's department of motor vehicles. Check with your insurance agent or your local department of motor vehicles to find out the time limits for filing this report; you often have just a few days. Be sure to ask whether you'll need any specific form for the report.

If you must file a report, and the report asks for a statement about how the accident occurred, give only a very brief statement -- and admit no responsibility for the accident. Similarly, if the official form asks what your injuries are, list every injury and not just the most serious or obvious. An insurance company could later have access to the report, and if you have admitted some fault in it, or failed to mention an injury, you might run into some trouble explaining yourself.

What determines who is responsible for a traffic accident?


Figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is a matter of deciding who was careless. And for vehicle accidents, there is a set of official written rules telling people how they are supposed to drive and providing guidelines by which liability may be measured. These rules of the road are the traffic laws everyone must learn to pass the driver's license test. Complete rules are contained in each state's Vehicle Code, and they apply not only to automobiles but also to motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians.

Sometimes a violation of one of these traffic rules is obvious and was clearly the cause of an accident -- for example, when one driver runs a stop sign and crashes into another. In other situations, whether or not there was a violation will be less obvious -- a common example is a crash that occurs when drivers merge into a single lane of traffic. And at other times, there may have been a traffic violation that had no part in causing the accident, and therefore should not affect who is liable.

What if the cause of a traffic accident is not clear?


It is sometimes difficult to say that one particular act caused an accident. This is especially true if what you claim the other driver did is vague or seems minor. But if you can show that the other driver made several minor driving errors or committed several minor traffic violations, then you can argue that the combination of those actions caused the accident.