What to Do After a Car Accident in California

What you do after a car accident in California can determine whether you get your medical bills and car repairs paid. It can also keep you from violating California law and having your driver's license suspended.

Even if you were at fault for a California car accident, the steps you take afterwards can greatly affect your rights.

Our California persona injury lawyers recommend the following 15 steps if you are in a car accident in California:

young man and woman looking upset in front of their cars that have just collided

1. Remain at the scene if someone else was injured

If someone was injured or killed, remain at the accident scene until the police come unless you need immediate medical assistance.

Leaving the scene of an accident involving injury could get you charged with a California hit and run. Penalties can include a fine of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail (more if the injury is serious or someone dies).1

If the only harm appears to be property damage, you may legally leave the accident scene after identifying yourself to the parties involved. Failure to identify yourself is a California misdemeanor hit and run. Penalties can include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail.2.

2. Seek medical attention if needed

If you were injured and need immediate medical assistance, do not wait for the police.

Call 911 or ask someone else to call for you. If someone else is taking you to the Emergency Room, make sure you leave your contact information with the other driver(s) first if you are able.

3. Move to a safe area

If it is safe to do so, move your car to the shoulder or somewhere else safe. Cars that are blocking traffic can result in further injuries to you or other people.

But leave the cars where they are if moving them would be dangerous.

You should also leave the cars where they are and wait for law enforcement if someone was killed or seriously injured, unless the cars pose a significant hazard.

4. Record information about the other vehicle

Once you have moved the cars (if appropriate) and/or sought medical attention for those injured, write down or photograph:

  • The license plate number of every other vehicle involved in the accident,
  • The year, make, model and color of the other vehicle(s), and
  • If possible, the other vehicle(s)' Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

You will need this information in order to report the accident as legally required to the California DMV.

The VIN is usually listed on a driver's insurance card and registration. But it is a good idea to confirm it physically, especially if the driver is uninsured.

Do not, however, attempt to get the VIN number from the other driver's vehicle if the driver won't cooperate. Touching the other person's vehicle without consent is a bad idea.

You can find the VIN on a car:

  • On the driver's side dashboard (where it meets the windshield), and
  • Inside the driver's side door (where the door latches when it is closed).
VIN locations on cars in N. America
Location of the VIN on a N. American car

On a motorcycle, the VIN usually appears on the left side of the steering head.

VIN number on left side of N. American motorcycle
Location of a VIN on a N. American motorcycle

5. Exchange contact info with other drivers and witnesses

Ask to see the other driver's license, insurance card and registration.

If you can, take a photo of these documents. Otherwise, write down the numbers.

You should also, if possible, get contact information from everyone else who was involved in, or who witnessed, the accident.

If a law enforcement officer came to the scene, get the officer's name and write it down as well.

Be sure to provide your info to the other driver, regardless of who was at fault.

6. DO NOT ADMIT FAULT!

It is extremely important not to admit to any wrongdoing even if you think the accident was your fault.

You may be wrong. Or the other driver may be partially to blame under California's “shared fault / comparative negligence” law.

Even apologizing can be misconstrued and keep you from getting the compensatory damages you need from your or the other driver's insurance company.

Do ask, however, whether the other driver is injured or needs medical assistance.

If the other driver pressures you to accept blame for the accident politely ask him or her to call your insurance company.

7. Do not say you are not hurt

Even if you think you were not injured, do not tell that to the other driver.

Soft-tissue injuries are not always immediately apparent. Saying you are not hurt gives the other driver's insurance company an excuse to deny your claim or offer you less than it is worth.

That does not mean that you should lie. A lie can come back to undermine your credibility.

You can simply say you don't know and will be seeking medical attention if necessary.

woman in lab coat holding up and looking at x-ray of patient's spine
Whiplash and soft-tissue injuries are not always apparent right after a car accident

8. Leave your contact info if the other vehicle or property is unoccupied

If you hit an unoccupied vehicle or other property, California law requires you to do one of two things:

  • Locate the owner and present him or her with your driver's license and registration, or
  • Leave a written note with your name and address in a conspicuous place on the vehicle or property and promptly notify either:
    • The police department of the city wherein the collision occurred or,
    • If the collision occurred in unincorporated territory, the local headquarters of the Department of the California Highway Patrol.3

By law, a note must include the circumstances. However, it should say as little as possible -- for instance that your vehicle collided with the owner's property.

Make sure you note the address whether the collision happened so that you can report it.

9. Take photos of the accident scene

If you are able to do so safely, photos of the accident scene and the vehicles involved can help your lawyer or adjuster determine what happened.

It can also prevent someone from claiming that you are responsible for any damage the vehicle or property later sustains.

If it is not safe to take photos of the accident scene, or if you had to leave to seek medical help, return as soon as you are able if there is a safe place to take photos.

Even afterwards, photos can help your California injury lawyer or your insurance adjuster get an idea of what happened.

close up of someone taking photos of a bad car wreck on his phone
Photos of an accident can help you prove your damages

10. Make a record of your version of the accident right away

As soon as is practical, write down everything you can think of about the accident, no matter how unimportant it may seem.

Details will fade along with the shock of the accident, so the sooner you record your impressions the better.

Things to write down or record include (but are not limited to):

  • The time and date of the accident, 
  • The cross streets and direction of travel of each vehicle,
  • Your best estimate of each driver's speed, 
  • The color of any traffic lights that were visible, and
  • Any adverse road conditions (such as potholes or bad weather).

11. Document your injuries

Take, or have someone else take, photographs of any visible injuries with your phone or camera.

If you sought medical attention, ask a nurse or other health professional to take photos of your injuries as well.

As soon as you can, also write down or record your own impressions of what hurts or is damaged.

The more evidence of your injuries that is documented, the better your chance of getting the recovery you deserve.

Young bearded man only cell phone after car accident
Most California auto insurers require policy holders to report an accident promptly

12. Report the accident to the California DMV

California law requires you to notify the California Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days of an accident if:

  • Anyone was killed,
  • Anyone was injured (even if the injury was minor), or
  • The accident resulted in more than $1,000 of damage.4

If you are not certain, report the accident, especially if you will be putting the claim through your insurance.

Accidents must be reported to the DMV on California DMV Form SR1.

Failure to report an accident to the DMV can result in suspension of your driver's license for up to one year.5

13. Notify your insurance company

Many people do not report an accident for fear their rates will go up. California is one of only two states that legally prohibit auto insurers from raising rates if an accident is not the policy holder's fault.6

Furthermore, most auto insurance policies require drivers to report an accident promptly.

And even if the accident was your fault, it is usually best to report it. The other party may report it (even if the driver says he/she won't), putting you at risk of a suspended driver's license as well as cancelled car insurance.

Early reporting also gives your insurer  a better chance to defend your claim.

14. When you can safely not report an accident

The one time it makes sense not to report an accident is if no other driver was involved and your car sustained only minor damage which you can live with or are willing to pay out-of-pocket to repair.

For instance, let's say you damaged your car by backing into or scraping a wall and

In such a case you may choose to leave your car "as is" or pay for the repairs out of pocket.

15. Consider retaining a California personal injury lawyer

An experienced California accident attorney can help protect your rights and determine whether you have a right to compensation.

A lawyer may also be able to help you find a doctor who will accept a medical lien in California if you cannot afford to pay for treatment.

Finally, a good California injury lawyer knows all the insurance companies' tricks. Your lawyer can save you the headache of dealing with your own and the other person(s)' adjuster(s) so that you get the best settlement possible.

Injured in a car accident in California? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you or someone you know was in a car, truck or motorcycle accident, or if you were hurt in a “pedestrian knock-down,” we invite you contact us for a free consultation.

Call (855) JUSTICE to discuss your medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering with an experienced lawyer.

You can also call us if you were injured in a car accident in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Legal references:

  1. California Vehicle Code 20001 VC.
  2. California Vehicle Code 20002 VC.
  3. Same.
  4. California Vehicle Code 16000.
  5. Same.
  6. California Code of Regulations 2632.13. The other state is Oklahoma.

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