Crash Course

| December 12, 2008

Nobody wants to think about having an accident, but preparation and knowing your legal rights can help you keep cool when you’re tested in a crisis.

One of the tensest situations is the aftermath of a crash. Even a minor accident can leave you in a state of mental shock and confusion. This can lead to panic and to critical errors. Planning how you will handle such a situation will help you make the right decisions and protect your livelihood as much as possible.

The first response after an accident is to secure the scene to prevent further accidents. This includes the use of triangles and four-way hazard lights, say fleet safety experts.

“Pull off the road to prevent another accident, and put triangles out to warn traffic,” says Mike Lense, safety director of National Carriers. “Put your four-ways on. Check on everyone at the scene and, if there are injuries, call 911.”

Then, Lense says, “If you are trained, explain that you know what you are doing, and then go ahead and treat the injured.”

John Biblis, vice president of safety at McClendon Trucking, gives drivers five steps for accident scene conduct: “Get the police involved, document, document, document, and get the company involved.” He adds, “If the other party does not want the police involved, that’s a red flag.”

Why is involving the police and company so important? Fleet experts agree that law enforcement will protect you if other parties try to cover up their driving errors. Also, the company will often send its own accident investigator or an independent claims adjuster to the scene, which can help protect you if you were not at fault or contributed only minimally to the crash.

“The driver should cooperate with the investigating officer,” says attorney Michael Langford of Scopelitis, Garvin, Light and Hanford, an Indianapolis law firm that specializes in transportation. “You might even want to be prepared to step into his car for a lengthy review of what happened. It’s the right thing to do.”

Langford cautions, however, not to say too much. “Make sure you are not overly committal. If you are a leased operator, you should talk to an attorney at your trucking company as soon as possible.”

The legal and insurance teams at Dart Transit also advise drivers to avoid any admission or assignment of responsibility, as that’s the job of the post-crash investigation. Dart also advises drivers not to quarrel with other parties and not to discuss the incident with anyone other than police, government authorities or investigators authorized by the fleet.

In fact, “No law says you have to make a statement to police,” Lense says. Opinions differ on how far you can take this; some believe a driver can get into big trouble by refusing to say anything at all. “If you are lacking in cooperation, you could be arrested,” Langford says.

“You should be as truthful and accurate as you can,” says accident reconstructionist Leo Strupczewski. “If you realize you’ve done something wrong, don’t embellish in an attempt to cover anything up. There’s a lot of truth in what you’ve seen on the crime-solving programs on television. There are a lot of ways to prove or disprove somebody’s statements.”

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