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Each year thousands of South African road users fall victim to road traffic accidents. The consequences of these accidents vary greatly – if you are lucky you may walk away unscathed and only face the cost of repairs to your motor vehicle and other damaged assets – those less fortunate could face serious injuries accompanied by spiralling medical bills or even death.

“Road traffic accidents can have major financial consequences for individual road users and it is therefore essential that you know your rights and responsibilities should you be involved in one,” says Karin Verster, senior manager at Acuideas. She adds that your failure to follow the letter of the law could compromise subsequent claims for compensation against your insurer and / or the Road Accident Fund (RAF).

It helps to consider your post-accident response in two stages. The first stage is immediately following an accident when your adrenalin is sky high and everything is coming at you at light speed; the second is a few hours later, when you’ve had a chance to recover from the shock and reflect on the incident.

Stage 1 – Immediately following an accident

There are countless websites that publish a step-by-step guide to follow immediately after an accident. First and foremost is the legal requirement that you stop at the accident scene if you have caused injury or damage to vehicles, people or property. “You need to remain calm – switch off your engine and turn on your hazard lights – then complete a quick assessment of the accident scene, taking in the extent of damage to the involved vehicles and determining whether any driver, passenger, pedestrian or other person has been injured,” says Verster. “If there are any injuries or if the accident is badly obstructing the flow of traffic then you must alert the emergency services on 10111 or by dialling one of the mobile networks’ emergency numbers”.

Assuming none of the occupants are injured and the damage to the vehicles is not too extensive, you may attempt to move the vehicles out of the main flow of traffic; but only after taking photos of the accident scene and any damages. You should also ensure that all occupants and injured parties are not at risk by positioning them safely and warning oncoming motorists of the hazard. Once the accident scene is safe you can gather the necessary information from the other persons involved in the accident. “Insurers advise their policyholders never to admit guilt following an accident – so don’t get into a debate with the other driver/s – just calmly gather the necessary information from them and any other injured parties or witness to the event,” says Verster.

You should record the make, model, colour and registration number of the vehicles involved. Also obtain the full name, identity number, address, insurance details and telephone or cell number of other driver/s as well as contact details of any witnesses. If an employee is driving a motor vehicle on behalf of an employer, then the details of the employer must also be recorded. It helps to make a note of the time of the accident, the road conditions and visibility, the exact location and number of passengers and whether they appeared hurt, as this information will be needed when you fill out an accident report (AR) at the police station. You should also note down the police or traffic officers who attend the scene.

“A common dispute that arises at claims stage revolves around towing costs – so be sure that the company that you give permission to tow your vehicle is registered with your insurer,” says Verster. She suggests keeping a ‘hard copy’ list of insurance and emergency contacts with you (in your vehicle) so that the numbers are close at hand in an emergency.

Stage 2 – A few hours after the accident

Once the accident scene has been cleared you need to report the incident. The law requires that the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident ‘in which any person was killed or injured or suffered damage in respect of any property, including a vehicle, or animal’ must report the accident to the SAPS within 24 hours. “Although there are some exceptions to this 24-hour rule it makes sense to report the incident as soon as possible as you will require a record of the accident for your insurer and for any subsequent potential claims against the RAF for personal injuries suffered as a result of the accident,” says Verster. Pedestrians or passenger that were injured in a motor vehicle accident should also report their involvement in the accident to the SAPS as soon as it is convenient to do so.

The SAPS will ask for your driver’s license and identity number before requesting that you complete an official AR in which you should indicate all the details surrounding the accident. The SAPS will register the AR and furnish you with a reference number. The AR reference number is required by your insurer when you lodge a claim for damages to your or other driver’s vehicles – or other property – following an accident. Although this number is typically referred to by insurers as a case number it should not be confused with the criminal case number which is assigned by the SAPS only if they intend investigating the accident as a criminal matter. This happens if a person was killed (culpable homicide) or seriously injured following an accident among other reasons.

“The above paragraphs explain what you need to do after a road traffic accident,” concludes Verster. “Once the dust settles the victims of accidents can focus on finalising their claims – for damage to vehicles they can seek compensation from their own insurers; by claiming against other party’s insurance or by civil claim – for personal injuries they should determine whether they have a potential valid claim against the RAF as well as determining the available cover provided by their medical aid and other insurance policies”.