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Johannesburg - South Africa’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world, with around 15 000 people losing their lives each year and many more hurt. Yet even accidents involving minimal or no injuries can have harrowing consequences for those involved.

Yet what’s often not considered is that everything you say and do after the actual crash can have legal consequences further down the line.

DSC Attorneys partner Kirstie Haslam warns motorists to watch their words at the scene of an accident.

“With emotions and adrenaline running high, people often say things after an accident that they come to regret. Stay calm, and say less rather than more. Even an offhand or innocent remark may be recorded in police statements and insurance claims, and used against you under cross-examination.”

What should you avoid saying, then?

“First, don’t admit you were to blame and definitely don't offer any payment that could be construed as a bribe. Most insurers prohibit statements of admission, offer, promise, payment or indemnity.”

And you really must avoid promises, Haslam stresses:

Saying things like “I will pay for the damages” or “I'm sure my insurance will take care of it” could certainly be seen as an admission of fault, and even statements such as “I didn’t see you” or “I was on the phone" could be used against you in court. These could be seen as admissions against interest, as could “I don’t need medical help. I’m fine.”

Similarly, don’t agree to settle anything without the help of an attorney.

Haslam said that the personal injury claims arising from a car accident depends on the extent to which each driver is found to be at fault for causing the accident.

Hence, a driver who's found to be exclusively negligent may be held fully liable for the so-called material damages resulting from an accident (these damages are separate from those arising as a result of bodily injury, which are recoverable only from the Road Accident Fund). Alternatively, each driver involved could be held partially liable - one motorist 70 percent and the other 30 percent, for instance.

What you should do at the scene of an accident?

In addition to watching your words, there are numerous other steps that should be followed in the aftermath of an accident. Much of it  may seem like common knowledge, but given how disorientated one can become after a crash, it’s worth brushing up on this knowledge from time to time.

Stop and stay at the scene

Stop your vehicle and pull over safely. Failure to stop at the scene of an accident can lead to prosecution, which could result in a fine, a prison sentence or both. You also want to stay at the scene to avoid only one-sided accounts for the accident being taken.

As soon as you've stopped, attend to possible medical emergencies. Assess any injury to people, help as best you can to get them to safety and call for emergency assistance. If you don’t know first aid, avoid potentially making matters worse by trying to be the hero.

Report the accident

Legally, you're required to call the police if anyone has been hurt or killed, if an offence has been committed or if a state vehicle or property has been damaged. In these situations, you need to stay on site until a police officer has dismissed you.

If an accident is minor and both parties involved decide to move on with matters with their respective insurance parties, you may leave without a police officer's permission. However, you must report the incident at your nearest police station – within 24 hours if anyone was injured.

Keep in mind that you're not under obligation to give a police officer a verbal statement, either at the scene or at the station. Depending on the situation, it might also be preferable to have an experienced attorney draw up the necessary statement, after proper consultation.

Get details of the other parties and of witnesses

Exchange details with any other parties involved, as well as witnesses (names, addresses, contact numbers, vehicle registration numbers). If you’re too injured to do so, you may ask a traffic or police officer to do so on your behalf. It's also a good idea to take down the officer’s name, and record the relevant accident report number.

Record details of the accident straight away

As soon as possible, make notes of factors like traffic flow and weather at the time of the accident. Take photographs if you can. It can also help to sketch the scene, showing the positions of all vehicles immediately after the accident in relation to a clear fixed point, such as a traffic light, pole or other permanent fixture. Later, measurements can be taken in relation to the fixed point if it's necessary to reconstruct the accident.

Don’t take anything intoxicating “to calm down”

The police at the scene or station may want you to undergo a medical examination, so unless a medical doctor has said you must take some kind of narcotic or intoxicant, don’t do so.

Get a copy of the police report

A police report is one of the most critical pieces of evidence for determining liability in the event of a car accident. Always ask the police for a full copy of the report that's filed.

The legal advice in this article was provided by DSC Attorneys, a Cape Town based firm that specialises in personal injury and road accident claims. You can find out more about them by visiting www.dsclaw.co.za.

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