What to do When You’re a Witness

Q: Could you give some advice on what to do if you witness a crash and what law enforcement might need from a witness at the scene?

A: I’ll start by covering what you are legally required to do if you witness a crash: nothing. The law does not require a witness to a crash to take any action to get involved, or even stop at the scene.

However, if you consider yourself a good citizen and contributor to society you probably read that previous sentence and thought it would be a real jerk-move to watch someone get in a crash and then not even check to see if they were okay. While the law doesn’t require a witness to do anything at the scene of a crash, it certainly doesn’t prevent involvement either, and there are several important things a witness to a car crash can do.

  • Call for help – The highest priority at a crash is getting help for the people that need it. If you’re the first one to stop, check to see if anyone needs medical assistance. If the crash looks serious, don’t waste any time; call 911 right away.
  • Render aid – To the extent that you are capable, you can offer basic first aid to anyone injured in the crash. I know this can be scary or overwhelming; I’m not asking you to do anything you don’t have the experience or confidence to do. It might be as simple as offering a bandage from the first aid kit you keep in your trunk or reassuring the victim that an aid car is on the way. For some people, the biggest fear of helping a stranger is making a mistake and getting sued. Washington has what is commonly called a “good Samaritan law.” A citizen who renders emergency care is protected by law from liability. (See sidebar for details.)
  • If you stop at a crash scene, remember your own safety. Park safely off the roadway and far enough from the incident to allow parking for emergency vehicles. Be aware of traffic; if the crash is blocking the roadway it’s possible that an inattentive driver may add one more vehicle to the collision. You’d think that wouldn’t happen, but it really does.Document the crash – Photographs of a crash can assist law enforcement in the investigation. If you’re at the scene and feel comfortable doing so, snap some photos of the crash. If the fire department arrives first and has to move the vehicles to provide aid, having a few photos available to the investigating officer will help to recreate the scene.
  • Provide a statement – If you witnessed the actual crash, let the responding officer know that you’re willing to provide a statement. The trauma of being in a crash can make it difficult for those involved to remember the event clearly; your statement can help to fill in the details. And believe it or not, sometimes people who are involved in a crash aren’t exactly honest about their actions leading up to the collision. The statement of an impartial witness helps to protect victims of crashes.

Stopping at a crash you’ve witnessed can help in a lot of ways; the injured get prompt emergency care, investigators have a more comprehensive picture of the events, and the victim may rely on your statement for a legal resolution. To those of you who have stopped at a crash to make sure people were okay and see if they can help, thank you.


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