If you’ve been in a car accident where anyone was injured -- whether a driver, passenger, or pedestrian -- or there was significant damage to one or more vehicles, chances are that an officer from a local law enforcement agency came to the scene.
If that happens, it means that the police have conducted at least a cursory investigation of the accident, and that a report has been generated in connection with that investigation. That report can come in very handy if any insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit is filed over the accident. Read on to learn more.
Car Accidents and Police Reports
If law enforcement responds to the scene of your accident (and when we say “law enforcement” we’re including local police, county sheriffs, state police, and highway patrol officers), the officers involved in the investigation will write up some sort of report detailing the accident. This is commonly called a “police report.”
If an insurance company gets involved after a car accident -- a claim has been made by you or the other driver, for example -- you can bet that the adjuster will get his or her hands on the police report. You and/or your attorney can also obtain a copy of the police report by contacting the law enforcement agency that came to the scene and following their protocol.
Usually, these reports are a matter of public record and are available for a small fee (to cover copying, preparation, and mailing). But some police reports might not be available to the public -- for example, when a criminal prosecution is involved, or when the reports are confidential in nature for some reason. In that case, the report can usually be obtained through discovery or subpoena (which is the court-backed process for obtaining information once a lawsuit has been filed).
Contents of a Police Report
After a car accident, a police report generated over the incident typically contains the following information:
date, time and location of the accident
details of the accident, including a diagram of the accident scene (showing the intersection, lanes, position of the vehicles, location of skid marks and debris, etc.)
names of all parties and witnesses who were involved in and who observed the accident, including the owners and drivers of vehicles, and any passengers
names and addresses of all injured parties (and possibly a summary of their injuries), whether they received medical attention, and whether they were transported to a local hospital
description of weather, lighting and road conditions
description of property damage sustained, and
description of the vehicles involved in the accident.
Note that the report won’t necessarily include the responding officer’s opinions or conclusions about how the accident actually happened, whose action (or inaction) may have been the primary cause of the accident, or whether any driving laws were violated in connection with the accident. Sometimes this kind of information is included in the report, but it’s not universal law enforcement policy.
What if you disagree with something contained in the report? If you think there are factual inaccuracies, like the date of the accident or the time of day that it occurred, or incorrect identifying information related to the parties or vehicles involved, you may be able to get the report changed or amended. But if you dispute the officer’s findings, or have an issue with a statement from a witness or other driver, you probably can’t get that information altered. The best you can probably do is ask the law enforcement agency if you can give your own statement, and have it added to the report. There’s no guarantee that the agency will comply with your request, however.
If The Police Don’t Come to The Scene
In larger cities and other areas, even when you call your local law enforcement agency and let them know a car accident occurred, they may not send an officer to the scene unless someone was injured or there was significant vehicle damage.
This is when it becomes that much more important that you conduct your own on-scene investigation and preserve as much evidence as possible of the accident and how it happened. Learn more about What to Do After an Automobile Accident.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Police department staff told me I couldn’t get a copy of an accident report. What should I do?
- How much weight does the accident report carry in court cases?
- My accident occurred in a shopping mall parking lot, and I think the private security guard wrote up a report. How do I get a copy?
If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in the published results of Martindale-Nolo's 2016 Car Accident Survey. Your confidential participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.