Accidental Etiquette – Do you know what to do after a car crash?

By David Volk – AAA Magazine

You make sure your brakes are tuned, your tires properly inflated, and you drive defensively while being polite to other motorists, but still the unthinkable has occurred. You’ve just been in a car accident and you’re wondering what went wrong.

You’re not a bad person. Sometimes these things happen – despite your always slowing to let cars enter the highway, unfailingly tipping your barista and stopping to help little old ladies across the street. Heck, you even say “excuse me” when you bump into a chair in an empty room… and then apologize because no one’s there.

Since Miss Manners hasn’t written a guide on what to do after a car crash, you were on your own, until now. Admittedly, collisions aren’t the happiest circumstances, but it is possible to make the experience more pleasant with this handy guide to crash etiquette.

Manners for Motorists

Oddly enough, a well-mannered person shouldn’t say they’re sorry after an accident, regardless of who’s at fault, according to Deborah King, founder of Seattle’s Final Touch Finishing School.

“Polite people always want to apologize. That’s not a good thing from a legal standpoint,” King says. Instead, she suggests saying something innocuous such as: Neither one of us needed something like this today.”

Even before you chat with the other driver, there are plenty of opportunities to let your manners be your guide, however. Here’s a quick list:

  • Demonstrate your concern for others’ welfare.  Always check yourself and your passengers for injuries.” Washington State Patrol spokesman Freddy Williams says. King agrees. She did not say if it was okay to apologize to them, however.
  • Call 911. Make a dispatcher’s job easier by providing as much information as possible, including number of vehicles involved, injuries and whether the road is blocked.
  • Move to the side of the road. It’s never polite to block someone else’s path. After all, cars can’t yell “excuse me” as they squeeze by. If you can’t move, put on your hazard lights to warn other drivers.
  • Keep the information exchange simple. “Good manners mean that you have all of the necessary paperwork on you,” King says. It also means avoiding accusations and just trading names and insurance information while waiting for law enforcement.
  • Gather additional information. Although it may feel awkward, get names and contact information of all witnesses and take pictures to document the damages. That’s why, King says, “It’s always a good idea to have a camera in your car.”
  • Don’t overshare. There’s a fine line between providing information and oversharing. Law enforcement needs to see your license, registration and insurance card. It’s bad form to show your entire policy because it contains private information and might give the other driver ideas. Williams responded to an accident where one driver said she was unhurt… until she learned the other driver was fully insured.
  • Don’t fall for: “Let’s just keep this between us.” Don’t be a pushover, King says. You should always report an accident to law enforcement and your insurance company, regardless of what the other driver says. “You need to protect yourself and you have no idea what this person is going to do once they leave,” King says. The best way to extricate yourself is to be polite but firm and say, “I appreciate your situation, however it’s my personal policy to always report these problems, and it’s an unfortunate dilemma for us both.” William agrees. “If the driver says, ‘If I have another wreck my license will be suspended,’ what does that tell you about his character? I’ve fielded these phone calls from people who can’t find the other driver when it’s time to pay up,” Williams says. “That’s why it’s always best to call law enforcement. You’re only asking for heartache when you don’t.”

Editor’s note: If you are in a car crash involving serious or life-threatening injuries, all bets are off: 911 should be called immediately.