What to Do If You Witness a Car Accident

Snapshot

You are not required to stop if you witness a car accident, but if you can provide information about what happened, your help is important. To make it count, following the right steps is key.

Everyone at some point will witness a car accident. And that will be followed by the thought: “Should I stop to help?”

You are not required to stop if you witness an accident. In some cases, it may not even be a good idea. If road conditions are hazardous, or several cars have already pulled over, or you don’t think you can help, keep going.

You may want to stop, though, if you can help. There are some things almost anyone who is first on an accident scene can do, including comforting victims or making sure the scene is safe. Just as important, as a car accident witness, you may be able to provide information that will make a difference in the victims’ lives.

Let’s take a look at when a car accident witness should stop, what to do at the scene and what the responsibility of a witness is.

Steps to Take After Witnessing a Car Accident

If you witness a car accident, providing accurate information about what you saw will help the victims, police and insurance companies. There are several important things to keep in mind, though, to make sure your involvement will have a positive impact.

Use Caution and Ensure Your Safety

If you are driving when you witness a car accident, pull over to a safe spot off the road, at least 100 feet beyond the accident. This ensures room for emergency vehicles to maneuver and keeps you away from hazardous fumes, debris, spills and possible explosions.

It also keeps you safer from any chain-reaction accidents. If the road is icy or slick from rain, pull off the road as far as you possibly can.

Turn on your hazard lights and, in the case of a slick roadway, stay far away enough from your vehicle and any others at the scene so that if a car slides off the road and hits yours, you won’t be another casualty.

Once you leave your car, or if you are not in a car when you witness an accident, make sure the scene is safe before approaching. Keep an eye out for spilled gas and oil, broken glass, smoke coming from the vehicles and other hazards.

Call 911

If you are one of the first on the scene of a car accident, don’t assume someone has already called 911. Even if you can’t stop to help, call 911 if the accident has just occurred or no one has stopped.

Be prepared to give the 911 dispatcher specifics of where the accident is, not only the name of the road or highway, but which direction you are traveling and defining landmarks, like intersections, exits or mile markers. The 911 operator needs location information to get emergency responders to the scene. Be calm and concise. They will likely ask your name and other personal information.

If they want other specifics about the accident, they will ask. They are trained in what to ask callers, so let them take the lead. Don’t be upset if they rush you off the phone – they have to get emergency vehicles to the scene and answer other calls, and you’ll be able to tell the police the rest of your information.

Check on the Victims

If you are one of the first on an accident scene, check on the victims, if it’s safe to approach the vehicles. Do not move injured victims, even if they are in an uncomfortable position, unless the car is on fire or there’s some other immediate danger. If you’re able, turn off the car’s ignition and put it in park.

If a victim is out of the car and on their feet, ask how you can help. Offer your cellphone, a blanket from your car, or other help that seems appropriate. If they seem disoriented, gently guide them to a safe place and help them sit down, if possible.

If someone else has stopped, assess the scene and quickly confer on who will help victims and who will call 911, direct traffic, or take care of some other immediate need.

It’s important to stay calm and try to keep the victims calm until help arrives. If a victim is in distress, ask their name and reassure them, using their name. If someone refuses your help, leave them alone, but stay nearby.

If a victim is intoxicated or angry, don’t confront or engage them.

Avoid speculating on fault, arguing with those involved about what happened, or judging their driving behavior.

Make Note of Details

Write down, or make a voice memo on your phone, of information you may think is important. It’s easy to forget details during the trauma of a car accident, even a seemingly minor one.

If you witness a hit-and-run accident, immediately make a note of anything you observed about the car that left the scene, things like color, make, model, license plate number or state, and unique characteristics (like a kayak on top or a bumper sticker). If there’s time before the car leaves the scene, take a photo with your phone. It’s easy to forget details later.

Don’t Speculate About Fault

When asked by police or victims at the scene what you saw, stick to the facts. Don’t speculate about who is at fault or try to fill blanks with guesses or assumptions. Fault can be a complicated legal issue, and you don’t want to muddy the waters. It’s all right to say, “I don’t know.”

Provide specifics rather than general subjective information. It’s more helpful to say the car in the accident passed you while you were going 65, than to say the car was “speeding.” Instead of saying “The car was all over the road,” be specific: “The car crossed the center line several times while I was behind it.”

If someone who was with you saw something that you didn’t, they must be the one to tell. Don’t say you saw something that you didn’t.

Offer a Statement to Police and Provide Contact Information

Let police at the scene know you witnessed the car accident. They may be busy and not immediately ready to talk to you. Stay at the scene until they take a statement, or until they take your contact information and say it’s okay to leave. Answer questions truthfully. They won’t cite you for speeding if you say how fast you were going (they have to witness it). If you can’t answer a question, tell them you can’t. Embellishing information or making assumptions about what a driver was doing will make things worse for all involved.

If You Witness an Accident, Are You Required to Stay?

You are not required by law to stop if you witness a car accident, or to stay if you do stop. All 50 states have “Good Samaritan” laws that protect bystanders who help someone in distress from liability. The idea behind these laws is to encourage people to help. None of them require a witness to stop at a car accident.

Each state’s law is different, but in general someone who provides help to someone else in an emergency is protected from being sued if they act in good faith. Good faith includes not being “grossly negligent,” not intending harm to the person and not seeking compensation for helping.

Some states’ laws apply only to certain situations – like giving CPR or stopping bleeding – others are more general. Some states don’t include medical professionals in their law. Others’ only apply to medical professionals.

Four states – Louisiana, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont – have “failure to act” laws that require a bystander to help someone in distress in a way that’s appropriate, like calling 911. None of the four, however, require someone who witnesses a car accident to stop.

All states, of course, require you to stop if you’re actually involved in a car accident.

Good Samaritan laws don’t supersede other legal requirements, including consent. If someone refuses your help, you must leave them alone. Good Samaritan laws don’t protect you from liability if you do anything at the scene that impedes the emergency responders, distresses accident victims or causes an unsafe situation.

If you caused the accident, even if you help at the scene, Good Samaritan laws don’t protect you from a lawsuit.

While only you can decide whether to stop, it’s a good idea to if:

  • You are a medical professional who can provide aid until EMTs get there.
  • It just happened and no one else has stopped.
  • You witnessed enough of the accident to help provide details.
  • You saw something before the accident that may have contributed to it.

You may not want to stop if:

  • You didn’t see what happened.
  • Road conditions are dangerous.
  • There’s nowhere to pull over.
  • Several people already stopped.

Even if you don’t stop, if you saw the accident happen, or it happened just before you came upon it, call 911.

Car Accident Witness Responsibility

If you are a car accident witness and you stop, your responsibility may continue long after the scene is cleared.

Here are some responsibilities you may have as a car accident witness:

  • Give a statement to police: You are not required to talk to the police under any circumstance, including as a witness to a car accident. You’re also not required to stay at the scene; If you can’t stay, give police your contact information so they can contact you later.
  • Talking to insurance adjusters: You are not required to talk to insurance adjusters as a car accident witness. If you do, you can decide when and where to talk and how much personal information to provide. You are not required to sign a statement after you talk to an adjuster.
  • Talking to attorneys: It’s all right to talk to attorneys representing those involved in a car accident and answer questions about what you saw. It’s illegal for them, however, to tell you not to speak to an insurance adjuster, or to tell you what to say or what not to say.
  • Obeying a subpoena to give a deposition or appear in court: If you are subpoenaed, you are required by law to obey it. If you testify, either in court or in a deposition, you will be under oath and must tell the truth or you can be charged with perjury.
  • Sticking to the facts: A car accident witness is responsible for relating what they saw as accurately and objectively as possible.

While car accident witnesses are not required to stop at the scene, give police statements or talk to insurance adjusters, their cooperation can be instrumental in saving others a lot of expense and suffering. If you witness a car accident, think about how you would want a witness to act if you or a loved one was in a crash.

Being a car accident witness can be traumatizing and stressful. If there’s a lawsuit involved, that can add to the stress. If you are being contacted by insurance adjusters or lawyers, you may want to speak to a car accident attorney who can help you navigate your responsibilities as a witness.

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken has a three-decade career as a journalist at daily newspapers and publications that focus on business and consumer finance. She covered several beats during her newspaper career, including local and state news, features on prominent public officials and several years running a sports department. She is a subject expert on topics that include consumer debt, consumer credit, labor issues, financial abuse, rural development, and legal matters resulting from accidents in the workplace and on the roads. She is adept at presenting complicated topics in an easy-to-read format that helps readers understand the topic's impact on their lives … and their pocketbooks!

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Sources:

  1. Leefeldt, E. Danise, A. (2020, October 21) The Tricky Business of Determining Fault After A Car Accident. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/car-insurance/determining-fault-after-accident/
  2. Chandler, D. Danise, A. 2021, June 4) What To Do After A Car Accident. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/car-insurance/what-to-do-after-accident/