Field Guide to Car Accidents

When I was 17, I got into my first car accident. Or, I should say, I totaled my first car. I mean, I heard a loud noise, it was very confusing, and next thing I know, I’ve rear-ended this guy in front of me and the airbags deployed and there was GLASS and my sister in the passenger seat was crying and something smelled smoky and I was trying to find my shoe because I drive without shoes on and I for some reason, even though I’d just hit another car, I was convinced that a cop was going to clap me in irons and take me off to the slammer because I was driving without my shoes.

Have you ever been in a car accident? Then I know you feel me. I know I was the epitome of a teenage driving cliche (no, I wasn’t texting or on the phone or looking at the radio, but sh*t happens), but I think even as fully matured adults, car accidents can be one of the most alarming things we experience. It’s a scary thing, especially when it’s serious enough to cause major structural damage, let alone injury. But not all car accidents were created equal – there’s a difference between the fender-bender you might get into coming out of the grocery store parking lot, a high-speed freeway crash, and tapping someone’s bumper as you back out of a space. There are so many variables when it comes to the situations we can get into with our huge, hulking pieces of transportable metal. What if you just side-swipe a mirror off? Can you just hand over cash and avoid the insurance swap? What if you panic and pull a hit-and-run without leaving so much as a note?

It’s important to note than in all these situations, you should be sure to scan for oncoming traffic and be safe when getting out of your vehicle to respond to the accident. That’s common sense, but in the adrenaline-laced moments after impact, something we tend to forget.

Situation: You’ve rear-ended someone

Tactical Response: Depending on the scene (freeways are far different than surface streets), you should try and get photos of the damage before moving the cars. If that’s not possible, do it ASAP. I’ve even been advised that it’s best to keep a cheap disposable camera in your glovebox for emergencies like these, because that way you cannot be accused of altering the photos digitally. I’m not saying that everyone’s so awful that they’ll try and swindle you, but you can never be sure. Also, insurance companies can be sticky about paying for things. Having proper documentation of any crash can be crucial to the insurance process, but especially one where the cars are not irreparably damaged and someone’s going to have to pay for it to be fixed.

Situation: You’ve hit a bumper or side-swiped a mirror in a crowded parking lot.

Tactical Response: If you’re out and about, you can’t always wait lounging against the hood of the car you’ve wronged to explain the situation and exchange information. Common practice is to leave a note describing what happened, and including your contact information. The risky part of this is leaving the note, because you can’t always be sure it’ll be there when the owner returns. Try and slip it through a cracked window, or leave a few in various places to ensure they’ll be able to contact you if need be. Sometimes if the damage is small, they may not even bother, but you should always do everything in your power to take responsibility for it.

Situation: You’ve been involved in a major accident, and who’s at fault isn’t clear.

Tactical Response: When emergency response officials start getting involved, this is a big deal. It’s difficult to be alert and focused in this situation, since you or passengers may be injured. Your first priority isn’t going to be your car, but rather the people inside of it. If you can, it helps to remain calm and cooperative with all the parties involved. If you can’t tell whose fault it was, try and get information from witnesses of the scene who may have pulled over to help. Their statements can be useful to corroborate your story when it comes to ironing out the insurance details.

Situation: You’ve been hit, and the person who did it is acting shady.

Tactical Response: People have all sorts of reasons for being uncooperative when involved in a car accident. The shock sends all sorts of adrenaline through your body, and they may not behave in a rational way. It’s difficult to process the body’s response to trauma, even if it’s not a physically damaging accident. I mean, I’ve been told I’m an unusually calm and rational person in the face of emotional duress, but when I hit someone with my car I was bawling like a baby and could hardly form sentences, let alone write down phone numbers because my hands were shaking so badly. But there’s a difference between being rattled and being downright suspicious. Sometimes people are driving without insurance, they’re using a borrowed car, or they’re just prone to be very, very irritable and generally yell-y. If the other party refuses to give insurance information or contact numbers, don’t let them leave until they do. I’ve known people who have had to call the police to the scene even when there wasn’t any extensive damage, just because the person who hit them wouldn’t cooperate like a reasonable adult. Don’t hesitate to do this, because you shouldn’t be held liable for something that wasn’t your fault. Also, if someone’s being hostile to you because you hit them, it’s okay to get an officer involved to mediate.

Situation: You’ve had a few too many to drink.

Tactical Response: Hopefully, you hit something inanimate and at a low speed. Drunk driving is literally the worst thing you can do behind the wheel of a car. We all know this. But for some reason, it still happens. The people who do this are popularly portrayed as raving crazy alcoholics or irresponsible teenagers, but it happens in the average, general population, to people who maybe thought they were fine to drive or who just didn’t stop to think and count back how many drinks they’d had that night. Drunk driving doesn’t make you a monster, but it can have monstrous consequences. If caught in this situation, the best thing to do is own up to it and accept your consequences. Don’t be that asshole who tried to put up a fight when it’s obvious you’ve done something wrong.

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