Collision decisions

First published in Chatelaine's March 2003 issue.© Rogers

Your head is throbbing. Your heart is racing. Your car is a crumpled mess and an angry stranger is cursing you. Not a situation conducive to clear thinking, but in the moments following a car accident, you need to keep your wits about you to avoid making a bad scenario worse.

Even the most minor mishap can leave you shaken and slightly stunned. If so, take a few deep breaths and try to calm yourself. Next, shut off your engine (to avoid a fire in case there’s a fuel leak), apply the parking brake and put on your four-way flashers. Then do a quick physical. Can you move your arms, hands, legs, feet and head without pain? Are you bleeding? If you’re hurt, call 911. If you don’t have a cellphone, ask a passerby to call for you.

If you’re OK, check on any other passengers. Watch the traffic flow be-fore leaving your car and be alert for hazards such as downed power lines, fuel spills and sharp debris. If another person is badly hurt, don’t try to move him or her unless there’s an immediate danger such as a fire. You could cause more harm than good. Call 911 and follow the operator’s instructions.

In a minor collision where there are no injuries and both cars are driveable, the vehicles should be moved to the shoulder of the road, a side street or parking lot. “People often think they need to leave vehicles on the scene but a minor crash can sometimes create more serious collisions,” notes Eve Patterson, spokes-person for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Avoid pulling over on a blind curve or past the crest of a hill.

Drivers should call police to the scene if anyone is injured in a collision, if there’s damage to private or public property or if a driver suspects a criminal offence (for example, impaired driving, driving under suspension, hit and run).

Even if none of these applies, in most parts of Canada, you’re still required to notify police when the damage exceeds $1,000. This could mean a visit to a police station or collision reporting centre. Check with your insurer or call the non-emergency police number in your blue pages if you’re not sure how to proceed.

Should your vehicle be undriveable, a tow-truck driver is likely to arrive within minutes, even if you don’t call for help. But while many brave tow-truck operators risk their lives daily to help others, a few shady ones prey on shaken motorists. Some operators get hefty kickbacks by referring motorists to paralegals or to second-rate body shops. Others charge astronomical hookup, towing and storage fees. Never authorize repairs on the scene and don’t agree to a tow unless you know all the charges. According to Patterson, if you’re getting a lot of pressure, you can have the car towed home until you talk to your insurer.

Before you leave the scene, get as much information as possible. Even if the crash seems clear-cut, try to get the names and numbers of independent witnesses. Draw a diagram of the scene and consider carrying a cheap disposable camera with you to document any damage.

Co-operate with police, but don’t admit fault. For serious offences, you may wish to call a lawyer from the scene of the accident. “As far as the other driver is concerned, obtain crash-related personal details and insurance information, but don’t discuss who is at fault,” advises Patterson.

To avoid being rattled by post-collision confusion, tear out this column and put it in your glovebox. It may save you some money and tears.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.