Anytime a vehicle is involved in a collision with another vehicle, bicyclist, or pedestrian that leads to injuries or property damage, law enforcement should be contacted. The police will respond to assess, document, and clear the scene of the accident. One critical function of these responders is the completion of an accident report. The report is typically filed and available within a day or two after the incident for little or no cost.
Accident Alert Exception
There are rare instances where police will not respond to an accident scene, such as amid an Accident Alert. These alerts are typically declared when severe weather strikes or there is some type of another widespread emergency. Generally, when an alert is in effect, the police will not respond unless:
- The vehicles involved are obstructing traffic flow.
- There are injuries or fatalities.
- A motorist is believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- A motorist flees the accident scene (hit-and-run).
- A driver does not have a valid driver's license.
- On-duty municipal personnel is involved or there is damage to public property.
In situations where the above conditions do not exist, law enforcement will not report to the scene; drivers should exchange critical information among themselves, such as the following: contact information; driver's license number; vehicle registration; and auto insurance.
A report should then be formally filed with law enforcement in that jurisdiction in a timely manner.
Potential Content of a Police Report
A police accident report may include some of the following details:
- The date, time and location of the accident;
- The contact information for the parties involved and potential witnesses;
- Information such as license plate numbers of vehicles involved;
- A description of any injuries incurred;
- The conditions of the scene (i.e. day/night, rain);
- Any accounts of the incident from drivers or witnesses;
- Photos or video footage of the scene; and/or
- Results of any field sobriety testing and/or breath tests, blood tests, etc.
Will the Report Indicate Fault?
The police report should be available in the days following the accident for you to access. If you notice any significant errors and have an attorney, you should make them aware of it promptly. The police report of an auto accident may or may not contain information stating who was at fault. Either way, the insurer(s) involved is going to review it closely.
With help from an attorney, you may be able to overcome a police report stating that you were at fault. Although insurance adjusters are strongly influenced by the police report's assignment of fault, police officers can make mistakes just like anyone else. Knowing this, it is critical to gather as much evidence as you can by taking photographs at the scene and speaking with witnesses.
Remember also that you are under no obligation to issue a statement regarding the accident at the scene. It is actually best not to say anything until you have consulted with an attorney, recovered from the shock caused by the accident, and sought proper medical treatment.
Admissibility of Police Report & Potential Officer Testimony
In courts, although police reports have a strong influence on insurance companies, they are typically not admissible evidence in accident injury cases.
On the other hand, police officers usually are considered fairly credible witnesses, as they receive training specific to accident investigation. If it is determined that an officer from the accident scene has the proper education and experience, he or she may be considered for testimony where they may express an opinion--often as an un-retained expert.
Summarizing the Importance of the Police Report
The police report typically provides a good summary of what occurred in an accident situation. Insurance company claims adjusters do place significant emphasis on police reports when considering fault. For this reason, a report showing another driver at fault may allow your attorney considerable leverage in negotiating with the insurance company for a reasonable settlement. The report is one potential supporting document in your claim, along with photographs, medical reports, and other key evidence. Although the record may not be used in a trial, the testimony of the witnesses contained in the report and the officers that were on the scene likely will be.
In the next part of this series, we will discuss another piece of key evidence: photographs.