Car accidents happen every hour of every day in the United States. Many of them are fatal. According to the National Safety Council, over 40,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2020. In Maryland alone, we see more than our share of car accidents—both fatal and non-fatal.
As any first responder will tell you, one of the best ways to prevent loss of life at the scene of a car accident is to ensure that medical responders are quick to arrive on-scene in order to deliver emergency care to anyone who’s injured. A few minutes or even seconds often means the difference between someone living and someone dying.
Given this information, it’s important to know what to do if you witness a car accident. In a serious collision, a driver or vehicle occupant who is injured may not be able to contact emergency personnel themselves. They may be unconscious, unable to move, or otherwise impaired. In these types of situations, it’s often up to a bystander to react quickly and call 911. Doing the right thing if you witness an emergency can save a life.
The Legality of Being a Good Samaritan in Maryland
Everyone has heard the phrase “be a good Samaritan” before. The phrase is commonly used for a good reason, and basically implies that as human beings, we have an inner voice that compels us to be kind and helpful to one another, especially in emergency situations. In a situation where an incident like a car accident occurs, it’s often our first instinct to rush out and help those in need. This is a good instinct—one that uniquely defines us and helps shape a better world.
Unfortunately, that instinct comes with a few pitfalls. Since most of us are not trained to be first responders or medical personnel, it’s possible that even with good intentions, a mistake can be made when a bystander or witness is helping others who have been injured in an accident. Cases have been brought to court regarding situations where someone accidentally harms someone else when helping at the scene of an accident. As a result, all U.S. states have laws referred to as Good Samaritan statutes that protect the public to varying degrees when offering aid.
In Maryland, the Good Samaritan Act offers legal immunity to volunteer first responders and bystanders as long as gross negligence doesn’t occur, the assistance or aid offered is provided in a reasonably prudent manner, the aid is offered without fee or compensation, and the individual relinquishes care when someone who is licensed to provide care takes over.
This means, in most situations, that a witness in Maryland can help someone in need if good intentions are in place and care is offered reasonably. They still, however, should take special care to avoid further injuring someone who is injured. In most situations, this usually means refraining from providing medical care completely and instead offering other forms of support.
Steps To Take if You Witness a Car Accident
Below is a list of steps you should take if you happen to witness a car accident. It’s important to note that if you notice an accident yet see that emergency personnel are already there, you should not feel the need to pull over or get too close to the scene of the accident. The steps below should generally only be considered if you’re the first person to notice the accident or one of the first people to do so.
Prioritize Your Own Safety
If you witness an accident yet put yourself in danger to rush to help others, you could make the situation even worse. Always prioritize your own safety, even when helping others. If you need to pull out of traffic on a busy street, only do so if it is safe. If you do pull over, put on your hazard lights so other drivers have an easier time seeing you. Only exit your vehicle if it’s safe. If you feel it may be unsafe to leave your car, simply calling 911 can ensure help arrives quickly.
Calling 911 as soon as possible after witnessing a car accident is the best thing anyone can possibly do. Even if you’re unsure of the severity of the accident or if anyone is injured, it’s recommended to call anyway. Make sure you’re safe to make the call when you do and be prepared to stay on the line with dispatchers to describe the scene.
If it’s safe to approach the scene of the accident and speak to those involved, do so. Ask if anyone is injured or if they need assistance. Tell them help is on the way if you’ve already called 911. If no one has called yet, do so now.
If someone is injured, you shouldn’t attempt to move them as this can make their injuries worse. As mentioned above, you’ll most likely want to refrain from attempting to provide medical care completely unless it’s absolutely crucial that you do so. Instead, you can offer other forms of support such as offering to help them call family members or setting up emergency road flares if you’re near traffic.
Stay On the Scene and Be Prepared To Offer a Statement
Once emergency personnel arrive, you should stay on the scene if you’re comfortable doing so. You may be asked by the police to issue a statement of what you saw happen and provide your contact information. If so, you may be asked to stay until they’re ready to take your statement. When issuing a statement, simply be honest about what you witnessed and tell them all the details you remember. Don’t try to speculate about who was at fault for the accident.
It may also be helpful to stay with those who have been injured to offer support and be there for them. You may want to offer your contact information to the victim of the car accident. They may wish to contact you at a later date with any questions or to ask if you’re comfortable giving a witness testimony if one is needed for insurance purposes or to file a car accident injury claim. If a driver left the scene of the accident early, such as in a hit-and-run accident, your testimony could be a major asset to helping resolve the case.