Should you talk to police after a car accident?
August 7, 2010 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Should you talk to police after a car accident?

Let's say you're on the road and have a collision with another car. You pull over, exchange information, and call the police.

I've read that I shouldn't talk to the police, but the guides I've read specifically about car accidents recommend telling the police what happened (example 1, example 2). I haven't seen anything along the lines of "don't tell the police what happened; call your lawyer first".

What gives? And if I am indeed not supposed to talk to the police, what should I do when they show up?
posted by lunchbox to Law & Government (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can talk to them, but don't admit guilt. It would be difficult not to talk to them.
posted by lee at 5:37 PM on August 7, 2010

I have been told by my insurance company that without a police report there is no official account of the event. So yes, you should give them your information and an account of the accident, you so not have to incriminate yourself. If asked You can say " I was driving east, he was driving north, and we collided"
posted by Gungho at 5:50 PM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Give an honest account of what happened. Even if it was your fault. It'll look worse if the other driver gives his side of the story and then you just stand there refusing to say anything.
posted by whiskeyspider at 6:17 PM on August 7, 2010

The answer so far make intuitive sense to me.

However, I'm still curious. In this video, which I've seen acclaimed in many places, law professor James Duane says (at 25 seconds in): "I will never talk to any police officer under any circumstances". Can anyone speak to this viewpoint?
posted by lunchbox at 6:47 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Also see the part at 8:40.)
posted by lunchbox at 6:58 PM on August 7, 2010

lunchbox: "In this video, which I've seen acclaimed in many places, law professor James Duane says (at 25 seconds in): "I will never talk to any police officer under any circumstances". Can anyone speak to this viewpoint?"

I think it's meant to apply more to criminal investigations you're not involved in where the police are trying to determine a suspect. If the police are going around the neighborhood seeking information on a murder, it would be best not to unintentionally implicate yourself. But I doubt he'd recommend a robbed convenience store owner or the father of a ransomed child to clam up. Or, for that matter, two people involved in a fender-bender.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:21 PM on August 7, 2010

As Rhaomi points out, the video you link to (as well as your link to Miranda rights) focuses on criminal investigations, in which case, yes, you don't have to say a word to the police at all if you don't want to. This applies to situations when you are NOT a suspect as well as when you ARE a suspect. They can still arrest you and try to interrogate you, but you can remain silent until hell freezes over. The lawyer makes his "I'll never talk to the cops" proclamation in the context of a lecture on criminal law.

Car accidents are typically not criminal investigations. If you are not under suspicion of committing a crime (i.e., drunk driving), then it is perfectly okay to talk to the police officer taking the report.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:29 PM on August 7, 2010

I guess I should also point out that it is my understanding that, in some jurisdictions, if you are suspected of drunk driving and refuse to submit to blood or breath analysis, they will take that as an admission of guilt and haul you off to the slammer.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:32 PM on August 7, 2010

If you don't have a warrant out for your arrest, why wouldn't you talk to the police? In terms of liability, that's determined by insurance companies and not by the police. The police report has little to do with that aspect of accidents and their aftermath.
posted by mollweide at 7:32 PM on August 7, 2010

I called the police after a small accident many years ago. They were polite but basically said that as long as everybody is intact and cooperating, just get the insurance information and let the insurance companies work it out.
posted by rouftop at 10:54 PM on August 7, 2010

IANAL, but it seems like this question doesn't have a simple answer in the USA.

After an accident, you potentially have to worry about criminal charges, civil lawsuits, and traffic tickets.

A criminal conviction is the worst-case potential result of talking to the police. Just because it's "only a car accident" doesn't mean you won't be looked at as a criminal suspect. Most people naively assume that immediately telling the police "their side of the story" will make them look innocent, but Professor Duane's video does a fine job of demolishing that belief. "Anything you say can and will be used against you" to determine whether there's a case to be made for DUI, reckless endangerment, vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, or who knows what other criminal charge. If your goal is avoiding a criminal conviction, Professor Duane's advice to say nothing still seems eminently applicable.

The next worst potential result of talking to the police is that you'll tell them something that will result in a civil judgment which exceeds your insurance limits and thus bankrupts you. Cops don't really care about collecting evidence for a civil lawsuit, but everything you tell them could still be used as evidence if you get sued, or if you decide to sue someone. And the bar for determining guilt in a civil trial is a lot lower than for criminal trials. I'd imagine that the standard insurance company advice to "be truthful with the police, tell them the facts, but do not admit guilt" is specifically designed to -- on average -- provide the best possible economic outcome at trial; my cynical reading of that advice is: "preserve the sympathy of the police and eventual jury by appearing cooperative, and state for the record any relevant facts that don't make you look guilty."

Finally, the least of your worries is avoiding a traffic ticket, but it's also probably the one thing your statements at the scene can most immediately affect. You can talk yourself into a ticket by saying too much, or by obstinately saying nothing (if you "fail the attitude test", the officer could choose to ticket you for some vague catch-all infraction). And your statement -- or lack thereof -- could help influence whether the other guy gets ticketed, which could help prevent or rebut a subsequent lawsuit against you.

So, what you tell the police, if anything, seems like it is heavily dependent on the circumstances. However, the worst-case scenario is a criminal conviction, and the way to minimize that risk is always to remain silent. If you somehow feel comfortable making the on-the-spot snap legal judgment that criminal charges against you are unlikely, then the standard insurance company legal advice to "be truthful, but don't admit guilt" would seem to be reasonable one-size-fits-all advice

[And to repeat: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This is idle speculation by some random Internet dude; don't rely on it in any way.]
posted by Dimpy at 11:06 PM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

It may depend on where you live. In BC, Canada, we have provincially-owned "no fault" insurance through ICBC. I'm not a driver but in my experience, I've never known anyone to call the police unless there was serious injury/a safety issue/suspected alcohol or drug abuse. I was a passenger in a rear-ending accident in front of the police station and a cop saw it happen, asked if we were okay and then ran off to chase some kids on bicycles for not wearing helmets (meanwhile I was totally out of it and had a mild-moderate concussion).

It also probably depends on whether or not you were at fault (it would make sense not to admit fault and talk to a lawyer before making a statement). In a province or state where fault is ascribed, I would probably call the police to make a report (at least if I were the 'victim') and not accept an offer from the guilty party to pay for damages as they may give false info. or refuse to pay and then you have to sue them and prove your case in small claims court, which can be a nightmare (at least, from my experience watching Judge Judy) :-)

Obviously, IANAL IANAmerican
posted by 1000monkeys at 11:44 PM on August 7, 2010

I don't practice civil law, but I can definitively state that 1000monkeys is incorrect when he describes BC as a "no fault" province. Quebec is a "no fault" province - BC is most assuredly a "fault" province. Also, in BC, there is currently a law requiring you to answer police questions in certain accident circumstances. Other jurisdictions may have similar provisions, thus, without knowing where the accident takes place, there is no real way to answer the question, since that would impact on the "should" part of the analysis.
posted by birdsquared at 12:02 AM on August 8, 2010

If it seems like there's going to be any kind of hassle with the other person, talk to the cops.
The last accident i was in, the other driver (the only person in that car) scraped some trim off her car by hitting my bumper. She ended up trying to stick me for two new doors, a new windshield, and huge medical bills for herself and three passengers. I had to go find witnesses from a bar and a restaurant that we argued in front of because there was no police report and it was my word against her and her "passengers".
I don't like cops, and I generally don't trust them, but they do serve a purpose and you may as well take advantage of that occasionally. Just think about what you'll say, and don't say anything more than you need to. In the case of an accident report, you can say you're not sure what happened (still shaken up, trying to sort out the timeline, etc) but make sure the damage and the people involved are documented.
posted by gally99 at 12:26 AM on August 8, 2010

I don't practice civil law, but I can definitively state that 1000monkeys is incorrect when he describes BC as a "no fault" province.

BC is a "no fault" province, which does NOT mean that there is no fault assigned to the driver, but that one goes through their own insurer to make a claim rather than the insurer of the other car. That would also provide coverage in case you were hit by an uninsured motorist, for example.

As I stated earlier, the police may be called in certain circumstances but they are not automatically called whenever there is an accident and police reports are not made for normal, light "fender benders" unless there is a suspicion of impaired driving, etc. There may be laws requiring certain questions be answered, I don't know about those and I'm not a lawyer, but I would imagine that you could refuse to answer the questions before speaking to a lawyer; of course, you would probably be taken in to the station for failure to comply (such as denying a sobriety test) but to my (limited) knowledge, you still have the right not to incriminate yourself.
posted by 1000monkeys at 1:01 AM on August 8, 2010

I almost forgot, the "no fault" information in BC is covered in section 7 of the Motor Vehicle Act, I believe.
posted by 1000monkeys at 1:02 AM on August 8, 2010

The common wisdom is that if you're in an accident, and it's not your fault, and you don't talk to the police, then the other, at-fault party may very well do so. And tell a big fat ol' string of lies to the...fact that you are the one at fault. And since you didn't contact the cops, it looks like you've got something to hide, and are de facto at fault. But I think a lot of it depends on circumstances, the nature of the accident, the character of the other people, the cops, etc.
posted by zardoz at 1:25 AM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check the law in your jurisdiction. In Maryland USA:

"The Move It Program is an effort of the State of Maryland to educate the motoring public on what to do when they are involved in a vehicle collision. A specific objective is to raise the public awareness of Maryland's law, Transportation Code, Section 20-103, which states in part that "…the driver of each vehicle involved in an accident that results only in damage to an attended vehicle or other attended property immediately shall stop the vehicle as close as possible to the scene of the accident, without obstructing traffic more than necessary." Thus, if there are no injuries and the vehicles are still drivable, simply move the vehicles off the travel lanes, exchange information for insurance claims, and move on. Call the police if there is an injury, a vehicle cannot be moved off the travel lane, a driver appears to be intoxicated, a driver does not have a license, a driver tries to leave the scene without providing the proper information, or public property has been damaged."
posted by massysett at 5:23 AM on August 8, 2010

From experience: Talk to the police. My husband's daughter was in a collision. It was her fault. She was driving with her mother. Her mother* told her to exchange information and get out of there, apparently out of fear that the police would somehow make everything worse. Everybody was fine, she insists.

My husband pays his daughter's car insurance. Within a month, we were hit with a medical claim from the other party for "soft tissue injury". Due to privacy issues, we aren't allowed to have any information about the nature of the injury or the medical claims. More than a year and a half after the incident, the medical claim is still open and affecting our insurance rates, not to mention the looming specter of additional legal liability.

Had the police been there, they would have taken statements and made observations about both parties' injuries. With no police involvement, we have no way to contest the insurance claims or understand what we're in for.

Get the police involved in order to have an unbiased observer and legally viable evidence.

* I could have strangled the mother for her ridiculous "police are bad!!!111" fears. She has saddled us with potentially years of liability and we have no recourse whatsoever.
posted by woot at 5:47 AM on August 8, 2010

Accidents are the one time I'll talk with the police. This is mainly because of the idiot insurance companies, who will do anything to get out of paying a claim.

The last somewhat serious accident I was it was my fault. Because the police were very busy (it was a mess, snowy and icy), the police who came didn't take a report and told us to go file one the next day.

When I went to do that, I admitted fault. The officer looked at me, and continued to get grumpier and grumpier, as it became obvious that the other person had given me fake contact information (except for a valid phone number, oddly). He took everything I had, agreed I'd been an idiot and threw me out.

My vehicle was drivable, so I got it fixed under the table. Later, when I pulled my driving record, I found that the accident wasn't on it.

Apparently, since I was honest and the other driver gave a false address, the cop never filed the accident report.

posted by QIbHom at 7:04 AM on August 8, 2010

The one thing I always heard that you never say after an accident - no matter if you hurt another person - is "I'm sorry." Because you're admitting guilt. Other than that, you kinda do need to give your account of the accident.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:53 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

As people are saying, the point of having a police officer there is to be an unbiased witness to the scene of the accident. If you or the other party manages to bias the police officer through something (true or false) that is said or done, then the police officer no longer fills that role, yet wields a lot of power - hence people's reluctance to involve the police.

The next question, then, is "what else can serve as a reliable witness?" I encourage you to use your cell phone, take lots of photos, store contact information for the other driver and any possible witnesses, etc. If you're going overboard in documentation, you can even record an oral statement (fancy words for "diary entry", pretty much) from yourself, or in theory from a witness if they'll humor you. Then if anything goes wrong later (claims of excess damage/injury, claims they were unable to see the stop sign, etc) you'll have defense in the form of photos. Take photos of their car, your car, the street showing where you collided, any skid marks, the view of the intersection showing the parked car they leapt out from behind, etc.
posted by aimedwander at 7:11 AM on August 9, 2010

In Texas, if nobody is injured and both cars are drivable, the police won't even come and take a report, especially if it's a holiday or rush hour. But you can try, at least. Which has led me to try and resolve accident issues without them present, with varying degrees of fuckery and success. Others are right upthread about taking photos and even video with your phone, if you can...

Any time I haven't called the police and the other person said, oh yeah, there's really no damage, it's no big deal, can I have your contact info? That person ended up suing me for personal injury and additional repairs that weren't even related to the fender-bender in question. This has happened 3 times, including once where the people actually rear-ended ME. (They won 7 grand in injury claims and my insurance was canceled.)

The two times I got into accidents with people who didn't speak English and clearly had no insurance because they were driving illegally and it was my fault, I immediately paid those people cash for the bumper scratches or whatever because I was afraid the people might get detained or deported and knew it was just a dent, no cop was coming, but one might drive by and see us...

The two times I've been in an accident where my car was not drivable and the accident was THEIR fault and there was no insurance/valid license/ability to speak English going on, I called the police so I'd have a record and I could file an uninsured motorist claim with my own company. Sometimes they show, sometimes they just send a tow truck if you don't need an ambulance and fax you the police report later.

I'm hopeful a lawyer or cop will come in and back me up on this, but based on my personal experience, the only time you shouldn't call the police after an accident and/or speak to them is if you're breaking the law, i.e., 1. if you're drunk or have been drinking and could fail a sobriety test, 2. you are driving with a suspended license, no insurance, and/or are on drugs/have drugs on your person/in the vehicle or 3. you are driving a stolen vehicle. If you suspect the other party is breaking the law, DEFINITELY call the police.

The worst thing possible that can happen if the police DON'T come is every single person in the other vehicle sues you and wins a large medical settlement, possibly more than your insurance covers, and you then become uninsurable. (Assuming nobody was killed in the accident, that is.)

I've been in more than 20 accidents and spoken to the police and insurance claim officers about once a year, average, since I got my license. Unfortunately, I haven't driven in every state, so YMMV.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:23 AM on August 9, 2010

I've been in more than 20 accidents and spoken to the police and insurance claim officers about once a year, average, since I got my license. Unfortunately, I haven't driven in every state, so YMMV.

20 accidents! Please if you haven't already, please give up your license and take public transportation. Holy cow 20+? Really!
posted by Gungho at 4:36 AM on August 14, 2010

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