What to do if you witness an accident

  • Article by: WILLIAM HAGEMAN , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2012 - 2:07 PM

Experts warn not to jump out and stop oncoming traffic or use your vehicle as a roadblock.

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One of the first things you should do if you witness an accident is call 911.

Photo: Patrick Kane, Associated Press file

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You've just witnessed an accident. There's no one else around. What do you do?

Your first inclination might be to jump out and stop any oncoming traffic. That could end up being your last inclination.

"That is extremely dangerous, and there are so many variables that it would be difficult at best," said Jack Peet, manager of AAA Traffic Safety. "As a law enforcement officer for 27 years, stopping oncoming traffic even made me uneasy. Drivers tend to focus on the incident and don't even see the person in the roadway attempting to flag them down."

"We do not encourage people to stand in or near traffic, as they may be the next victim of a separate collision and would only exacerbate the situation," said officer Benjamin Chaney of the California Highway Patrol.

Using your vehicle as a roadblock -- you, my friend, have seen too many action films -- is equally foolhardy. Here is advice from the experts:

What to do first: Pull off the road, out of the way, turn off the engine, turn on your flashers, extinguish smoking materials, grab any road flares in your car, and exit your vehicle.

"Be sure to stop far enough away from the scene to allow emergency personnel to spot the crash and get close enough to treat those who might be injured," said Peet.

Don't get too close to the scene of a crash until you are confident it is safe to do so. Look for hazards such as smoke, fire, downed power lines or the smell of gasoline.

Call 911 for emergency services. Give the dispatcher pertinent information such as location, number of vehicles involved, known injuries and details of the injuries.

Only if it's safe: AAA says that if you can do so safely, place warning flares or reflective triangles several hundred feet in back and in front of the crash site to warn approaching drivers. If you believe it is safe to approach the victims, try to keep them calm, let them know that help is on the way, but never try to move them.

Remain on-site: "Once police arrive on the scene, follow their instructions, answer all of their questions and do not leave unless they inform you that it is all right to do so," Peet says.

The most important thing to remember: safety. Chaney said every crash is unique, and managing a traffic scene can be difficult because of ever-changing factors.

Tools needed: Cellphone, reflector triangles or road flares, preferably safety models with LED.

About flares: Safety concerns and new technology have made it more difficult to find incendiary road flares these days. Peet says he isn't even sure where incendiary flares are sold anymore, but some auto supply stores do carry them. They're also available online, but come with a hazmat shipping fee that can get expensive.

"They're not really something we promote," Peet said. "You really have to be careful with those. There are obvious burn and fire hazards."

Instead, AAA recommends reflectors or reflector triangles. Another alternative is the LED flare. Many online sites, including Amazon, carry these safer models.

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