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Traffic Collisions

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What to Do When You Are Involved in a Traffic Collision

Sooner or later you may become involved in a traffic collision.  You will ask yourself: “What do I do now?”  It is important for you to remain calm and not vent your anger at the other motorist. Keep in mind they will be no less upset with the situation.

The first most important thing to do is to determine if there are any injuries. Check yourself and your passengers, then if it is safe to exit your vehicle, check with the other party involved for any injuries to the driver or passengers.  If there are any injuries to any person, do not move them unless it is necessary for their immediate safety (e.g. fire, rollover, etc.).  Many times people are injured as they exit or attempt to return to their vehicles.



If there are no injuries and the vehicles can be safely moved off the roadway under their own power, it is important to do so immediately.  Keep your passengers inside the vehicle until you have moved to the side of the roadway or off it altogether.  If the vehicle or vehicles cannot be moved, put on the emergency flashers if they still work, and when it is safe, move yourself and your passengers to a position of safety off the roadway.  Do not assume that other drivers will have your safety in mind.  It is not uncommon for secondary collisions to occur because someone just has to look at the damaged vehicles and is not paying attention to their driving.  It is essential that you be aware of oncoming traffic conditions while exiting the roadway.  If you have chosen to exit your vehicle, presuming it is disabled, and you are off the roadway, stay there until the police arrive and do not attempt to walk back to your vehicle.

Call 9-1-1 when it is safe to do so, and advise the dispatcher of your location either by intersection or street address.  If you use a pay phone, your call will go directly to Costa Mesa Police Dispatch.  If you are using a cellular phone, your call will go directly to California Highway Patrol Dispatch.  Tell the CHP dispatcher what city you are calling from and for what purpose, and they will forward your call to Costa Mesa Police Dispatch.
When you speak with the dispatcher, be prepared to provide the following information:

  • You are reporting a traffic collision
  • The location of the traffic collision, nearest intersection, or address
  • Are there any injuries and how many
  • Are you a witness or were you one of the parties involved
  • Description and direction of travel of any vehicles leaving the scene (hit and run)
  • Stay on the line until the dispatcher says it's OK to hang up

If you know how or are certified to administer first aid, remain at the scene and wait for the paramedics and/or police to arrive.  When officers respond to the scene of any traffic collision, their first priority is the preservation of life and the safety of all persons involved.

Once the scene has stabilized, there are a number of options that come into play.  If there is any injury or death as a result of the collision, the State of California requires a collision report to be filed with the police department.  The police report will document the facts of the incident, such as the parties involved, injuries, witnesses, the collision location, and the extent of damage.  If the officer can establish the proximate cause or primary collision factor of the collision based on the evidence and statements, this will be included, and the driver found at fault may receive a traffic citation either at the scene or by mail.  The citation will reflect the vehicle code statute that was violated.  The collision report will be forwarded to the Department of Motor Vehicles and will appear on your driving record, regardless of fault.  This may or may not affect your insurance premiums.  

It is very helpful to have an independent witness who actually saw what took place.  It is important to approach anyone in the immediate area to inquire if they saw what happened.  If there are any witnesses, take a polite approach and ask them if they will stay until the police arrive.  Sometimes a witness cannot stay for whatever reason; once again be polite and ask them if they could leave their name and a contact phone number for you to give to the police.

When police arrive, you will be asked to provide either a verbal or written statement of your personal account of how the collision occurred.  It is important to be as accurate and detailed as possible.  Be prepared to tell the officer your direction of travel, what lane you were in, and your approximate speed.  If the collision occurred in an intersection controlled by traffic signals, what was the color of the light for your direction of travel?  It is a good idea for your own records, to write down the date, time, and location of the collision along with a name and phone number of anyone who may have been a witness.  If you have a camera available, it is a good idea to take pictures of both vehicles showing the location and extent of damage sustained.

It is recommended that you acquire a police report if the other driver is unlicensed or uninsured.  Sometimes drivers are reluctant to provide information because you are both unacquainted.  The law does require that you identify yourself to the other driver or leave written notification of your identity.  If someone is reluctant to share the information, don’t make an issue of it--just wait for the police to arrive.  If the driver fails to provide their information and chooses to drive away, don’t jeopardize your safety with confrontation or attempting to follow them.  Write down the license plate of the vehicle along with a description of the vehicle and the driver.  Record their last known direction of travel from the collision scene.  Immediately call 9-1-1 and advise the dispatcher of the situation and provide them with the information on the vehicle, driver, and direction of travel.

If both drivers agree not to file a police report, they are free to exchange information providing both parties are properly licensed, insured, and either own the vehicle involved in the collision or can provide information on the vehicle owner.  You may find it necessary to report the accident to your insurance company, or you may agree between each other on an out-of-pocket cash settlement for repairs so as not to involve insurance companies.  If the damage is over $750 to any one vehicle, you are required to submit an SR-1 Form with the Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 working days.  You can find this form at your local DMV office or the Auto Club of Southern California (AAA).

In either case, you are encouraged and required by law to the exchange of information.  The following information is what you are required to provide:

  • Your full name as shown on your driver license
  • Your driver license number and state of issuance
  • Your current residence or business address
  • Your current residence and business phone numbers
  • Name of insurance company, policy number, and expiration date
  • Make, model, and license plate of your vehicle
  • Witness and/or passenger names and phone numbers

Typically if the collision occurred on private property, a report will not be taken.  This becomes a civil matter between the involved parties and their respective insurance companies.  There are, of course exceptions to the rule; if there are any injuries sustained as a result of the collision, a report will be taken.  If any one of the involved parties is unlicensed, you are encouraged to contact the police, and if there is any criminal traffic violation such as drunk driving or hit and run, you should report this immediately.

Traffic Safety Tips
When police investigate traffic collisions, more often than not they find the direct result of the collision is a driver not paying attention to their driving and the traffic around them.  Many times drivers have the inability or lack of preparation to judge stopping distances in an emergency situation.

For the average driver, it takes approximately 1.5 seconds for them to perceive and react to a situation.  This means your brain has made a threat assessment and has told you to put your foot on the brake.  This does not take into account the time to depress the brake pedal.  At 40 miles per hour, you have already traveled a distance of over 88 feet before your brakes have been activated.  By the time you activate your brakes, you will have traveled another 44 feet, and providing your brake system is in top condition, you will travel another 105 feet before your vehicle comes to a complete stop.  Think about it: to stop your vehicle, with all the factors in your favor, you will travel over three-quarters of the distance of a football field.  More often than not, in an emergency situation, little if any factors are in your favor.

This distance will increase given factors like wet or slippery roadway surfaces.  It will also increase when drivers divert their attention talking with passengers, dealing with unruly children, applying makeup, talking on a cell phone, reading a map, switching radio stations, or slowing down to look at a traffic collision scene.

You cannot drive safely enough in Southern California!  Southern California has one of the highest concentrations of motor vehicles per square mile in the nation.  Here are some tips to help with your driving experience:

  • Give yourself sufficient time for your travel; enjoy your drive
  • Slow down, wherever you are going; it will still be there when you get there
  • Keep a safe distance between you and the vehicles around you
  • Expect the unexpected, keep alert, concentrate, and drive defensively

Remember vehicles can be a deadly weapon in the hands of an inexperienced, inattentive, impaired, or impatient driver.