I’m fortunate to have only been in a few small fender-benders, all in parking lots or on streets where it was easy to pull over. I’ve often wondered what people are supposed to do when their crash happens in the middle of a busy roadway. Do you move out of traffic? Do you stay put so the police can see where the cars wound up, and therefore determine fault more easily?

My instinct, especially as a mother and safety advocate, is that I should try to get my car out of traffic, but is that the right choice?

I decided to stop wondering and called up Officer Chris Goodwin with the California Highway Patrol to get his advice.

“Our number-one priority is safety,” Officer Goodwin said. “Documentation is second.” Many accidents start off as minor property damage but turn fatal when other cars strike the vehicle or people stopped in a roadway.

Here are Officer Goodwin’s tips.

  • If you can move your car out of traffic, do it. If you’re on a busy city street, turn onto a side street or into a nearby parking lot. If you’re on a freeway, pull to the shoulder. If you’re near an exit, you can get off the freeway entirely to find a safe place to park. As soon as you do, call 911 to let them know you were in a crash and exited the freeway for safety. This will let police know where to go and will also document that you’re not trying to commit a hit-and-run.
  • If you’re in the middle of a freeway or busy street and can’t move your car, put on your flashers, keep your seatbelt on, and call 911. Do not step out into traffic! Goodwin said it’s not uncommon for people to start exchanging information right in the middle of freeway lanes. Don’t be one of those people!
  • If your car is disabled in the lane closest to the shoulder or sidewalk, exit carefully and stand where it’s safe (i.e., out of traffic lanes), preferably behind a guardrail if you’re on a freeway.
  • While you’re waiting for police to arrive, get out your license, registration, and insurance information. (And before you get in the crash, make sure you have your most current information in the car.) Goodwin said people often don’t have those ready, and it causes delays.
  • Use that camera! Almost everyone has cameras on their cell phones these days. If you do, put it to good use. While the police are taking statements, photograph all of the cars involved on all sides, even if a side doesn’t have damage. Better yet, take video and narrate as you’re doing it. Take photos or video of all the people involved, too. Goodwin said that insurance fraud is rampant, and documenting damage and the people involved will help keep other parties from claiming subsequent damage or claiming that additional people were involved. When you get home, upload the video to your computer, and burn one disk for yourself and one for your insurance company.

As for determining fault, the police can do that even after cars have been moved. They’ll look at statements from witnesses and the parties involved, and will examine crush damage, debris, and skid marks. “That’s what we do for a living,” Goodwin said. “We’ll dig and dig until we figure it out.”