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Driving is routine. Most days on the road are like any other day. Perhaps you are commuting to work or driving to the grocery store and without even realizing for a moment – a loud crack and pop, you are jolted in your seat – and your vehicle comes to a stop. You just had a car accident.

In the seconds that immediately follow, you are understandably shaken. You are likely to find yourself in an uncomfortable situation and faced with nervousness. That’s fine (and expected).

As soon as you can do this safely, you should start documenting the accident. You will need this information in order to make a car insurance claim (or when someone is making a liability insurance claim against you).

Here it is important to remain calm, focused and methodical. With nothing more than a smartphone’s camera app, you can document the damage, which not only speeds up claims processing, but also helps to tell your side of the story.

What to do immediately after a car accident

Before you whip out your smartphone and start taking photos, there are a few steps you need to take immediately after a car accident.

safety first

  • Check for injuries. If you or your passengers are injured, call 911. If you are seriously injured, try not to move.
  • Go to a safe place. If your car is safe to drive and you cause a traffic hazard, put your car on the curb. Park and turn off your car. Switch on your hazard warning lights. Use cones and torches if available.

Cry for help

  • Call an ambulance when other people appear to be injured, such as the driver of the other vehicle, pedestrians or cyclists.
  • Call the police. Even if the accident appears minor, a police accident report will help you report the damage. In some states, you must call the police to the scene of the accident.
  • Call a tow truck if your car is not safe to drive. If you have roadside assistance insurance, call your provider.

Exchange information

After making sure you and your passengers are safe and calling for help, you can share contact and insurance information with the other driver. Here is the information you want to collect:

  • Full name and contact details
  • Driver’s license and license plate
  • Insurance information, including the insurance number and expiration date
  • Make, model and color of the vehicle
  • Scene of the accident
  • Names of everyone else involved, including passengers on the other vehicle
  • Witness contact information (if applicable)

If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable with the other driver, you can wait for the police to help you facilitate the exchange of information.

It’s also a good idea to avoid discussing who was to blame. Your insurance expert will determine the error by reviewing the facts of the accident and other information such as vehicle damage, police reports, and testimony.

How to photograph an accident scene

Once you are safe and have exchanged information, it is time to get your smartphone up and running. It can be helpful to think of your photos as the “story” of the accident.

First and foremost, make sure you are safe when taking photos. Watch out for oncoming traffic and only take photos in a safe place. Lighting can affect your photos, so you should shoot with and without the flash.

Here are some more tips to help you keep track of the scene of the accident.

  • Take pictures from multiple angles. You want to capture all sides of the cars involved in the accident. Make sure your photos capture all four corners of each car. Take photos of the damage and any leaking fluids.
  • Give the picture a sense of scale. For example, when photographing a dent or scratch on your fender, it can be helpful to use something like a coin or a key to get a sense of its size.
  • Take pictures from more than a distance. If possible (and safe), position yourself at least 10 feet away from your car, other cars, and / or other objects you may have collided with, such as a street sign. Gradually move towards the collision point and take more photos as you get closer.
  • Take photos of the area. Take photos of the street. If the accident happened at an intersection, it is a good idea to take note of any road signs or traffic lights. Take photos if there are still traces of slip or furrows on the sidewalk or dirt.
  • Take photos of damage in the interior of the car. These can include deployed airbags and broken glass.
  • Take pictures of your injuries. If you are able, take photos of scratches, cuts, or bruises. This can be useful if you need to file a claim for damages.
  • Snap photos of other items that will help tell the story. For example, if there was an object on the road that could have contributed to the accident, such as a pothole, road construction or debris that caused a driver to evade.

After taking photos of the scene of the accident, take photos of other items that may come in handy. Here are a few suggestions:

  • License plates. Get pictures of the license plates of every car involved in the accident. If there are witnesses, it is a good idea to take a picture of their license plate, which can be useful to the police or your insurance company if the witness leaves the scene prematurely.
  • Insurance documents. When exchanging insurance information, it is a good idea to take a photo of the other driver’s insurance card. Make sure you record the company and policy number.
  • Police report. When the police react to the crime scene and write an initial accident report, take a picture of it. While your insurance company may require a certified copy of the report to be filed with your state’s vehicle registration office (it may take weeks to arrive), a photo of the report can speed up the claims process.

After you have documented the accident

An insurance claim begins next. You can call your insurance company while you are at the scene of the accident or wait to get home. Your claims officer will ask you questions about the accident and guide you through the claims process.

If you have accident insurance, apply for repairs to your car insurance company. You are responsible for paying your deductible. If the other driver is at fault, you can get the other driver’s liability insurance for property damage and personal injury (except in the no-fault states).

Frequently asked questions about documenting auto accident damage

What if I don’t want to get too close to the other driver because of COVID-19?

If you are concerned about COVID-19, you can verbally exchange information from a safe distance with other drivers and other people at the crime scene. Then you document the damage with your smartphone and keep the safe distance.

In fact, you can keep a safe distance throughout the claims process. Many auto insurance companies have introduced technology that allows you to make virtual auto insurance claims.

If it was a minor accident, should I still document the damage?

Even if you’ve had a seemingly minor accident, like another car knocking on your bumper, it’s worth taking photos of the damage and sharing information.

So you have documents in case you discover further damage later or the other party tries to take out your motor vehicle liability insurance.

If I have a car accident, will my insurance rates go up?

Not all car accidents increase your rates. For example, if the other driver was at fault or your car was hit while parking legally, you shouldn’t see a rate increase at the time of the renewal.

But if you caused the accident or the police gave you a traffic warning, it is likely that your insurance rates will increase.