The rules of the road are meant to keep drivers from running into each other, but there are also legal rules that apply after a traffic accident, no matter whether it is of the fender-bender variety or a freeway pile-up.
You should understand these rules because if you do not comply with them--and it's easy to forget during the emotional trauma of an accident, even a minor one--you may have your license suspended or have inadvertently committed a crime.
One Northern California woman discovered this lesson the hard way. She received a notice from the DMV that her license was about to be suspended.
Required by Law
She reported her minor traffic accident to her insurance company. But she didn't know she was required by law to report it to the DMV.
State law requires a written report of any accident where the damage to a car is $500 or more or where someone is injured or killed. (There is a standard form called the Report of Traffic Accident or SR-1 form you should use. Get it from the DMV, the Highway Patrol, the police or your insurance company.)
Often your insurance company will file the report for you, but because of a bureaucratic foul-up, this woman's insurance company did not report the accident to the DMV, while the other driver did report it. So the first the woman heard about the law was the notice telling her that her driver's license was about to be suspended for failing to comply with it. She quickly filed a report and verified insurance coverage to the DMV, so her license was not suspended, but her experience points out the importance of understanding what is legally expected of drivers after an accident.
The best source for all the rules and regulations governing traffic accidents is the state Vehicle Code. But the four-volume text won't fit in your glove compartment. Fortunately, the state bar association has prepared a pamphlet summarizing many of these rules and it will fit. It's called "What Should I Do if I Have an Auto Accident?"
Also in Spanish
The state bar is also preparing a Spanish-language version of the pamphlet that will be available soon. Single copies of the glove-compartment guide in English are now available free of charge by sending a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102. (Multiple copies in sets of 100 are also available for a fee.)
The guide includes a record-keeping form with a street diagram and spaces to put other information you obtain from witnesses and other drivers involved.
Here are some of the other traffic-accident rules you should keep in mind at the scene of an accident.
You are required by law to stop whenever you are involved in an accident, whether you hit a pedestrian, another car or a brick wall. If you fail to stop, you can be charged with a criminal offense as a "hit and run" driver even if the accident was not your fault or the damage was small.
Leaving a note on the windshield of an unattended parked car you sideswiped is more than common courtesy. It is mandated by law. In fact, California law requires that before you leave the scene of the accident, if the car is unattended and you can't find the owner, you must leave your name, address and an explanation of the accident. If you don't do this, you've just committed a misdemeanor punishable by six months in the slammer or a $500 fine.
If you are driving someone else's car, you are also required to leave the owner's name and address.
The driver of the other car in an accident must show you his driver's license upon request if he has it. If he has left his license at home, be sure you get his name, address, registration number of the vehicle or the name of the car's owner. You might also get his place of employment and the name of his insurance company and agent. You have the same obligation to him.
Don't tell the other driver that you think the accident was your fault. You may not know all the facts and may not be able to think clearly about what happened. As TV's Kojak says: "Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law."
Draw a Diagram
Soon after any accident, especially a serious one, make notes or draw a diagram of what happened. A lawsuit may result from the accident, and insurance investigators or lawyers may ask you to make notes later. The sooner you do it, the more likely it is that your recollection will still be fresh.
Auto accidents can be serious legal business. You may be sued. Or you may sue the other driver, a negligent pedestrian, a car owner or manufacturer, or the last repairman who worked on your brakes.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.