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ask joanne

I'm getting back into driving after a few years without a car. I'm cautious, but one of the things I'm worried about is the behaviour of traffic around me. I want to be clear on what to do in the event of an accident, especially if the other party is confrontational. – Nora in Niagara Falls, Ont.

No matter how many driving years are under your belt, even a minor fender bender can be unnerving.

Shock and surprise may take over, while calm and common sense go out the window.

It's certainly a good idea to think about what to do in the event of an accident.

Any medical emergency clearly takes precedence. You should also call the police if there is significant property damage, or if you suspect the other party of impaired driving or another criminal offense.

Ensuring you're not in the path of oncoming traffic may seem an obvious step, but logic doesn't always prevail when you're unsettled. If you can't immediately exit the vehicle, turn on the hazard lights.

In the absence of a medical emergency or substantial property damage, the key tasks are exchanging contact, licence and insurance information with the other driver, and recording the incident details.

"Something people don't think about is calling their insurance company right away. Most, if not all, have a 24/7 response by phone. The adjusters and claims people can really help calm you, and secondly give good advice on what to do at the scene of the accident," says Natalie Dupuis, Senior Product Manager, Auto at RBC Insurance, where clients are provided with a glovebox checklist of what to do after an accident.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a dash camera. If you're unable to take photographs, sketch out the scene, noting the position and direction of the vehicles. Also remember to obtain contact information from witnesses.

Avoid the temptation to accept an on-the-spot payment offer from the other party.

"It may seem like a quick and easy way to justice but it's hard to know how much the damages really are. By reporting it to your insurance provider, they'll be able to assess the damages properly and get your car repaired. I think there's a myth about being worried about calling your insurance company and reporting the accident. In most provinces, the way the protection is set up on your automobile policy, if you're not at fault you don't even have to pay your deductible and your insurance won't go up," says Dupuis.

Tow trucks are often quick to arrive at the scene, particularly in urban centres.

Again, it's best to speak to your insurance provider before authorizing anyone to take away your vehicle. The insurer can either agree to a repair facility of your choice or suggest one, which often comes with a guarantee for the work being done.

The only document you'd be required to sign at the scene is a police report.

Avoid pointing fingers or discussing fault with the other driver. As we've all witnessed, even a tiny paint scratch can bring out the worst in some motorists.

"When a traumatic incident occurs, we feel threatened and our adrenalin-based fight-or-flight response is heightened. When you're dealing with someone else's reaction, one thing to do is to make sure you stay calm, because we influence someone else's response with our own," says Kelly Karius, author of This is Out of Control! A Practical Guide to Managing Life's Conflicts.

"Also be careful with platitudes; if you tell someone to "stay calm" or "don't worry", it can cause them to react badly. It escalates their response because it dismisses the emotion they're feeling.

In order to calm someone down, you have to acknowledge their emotion," says Karius. "Maybe they just purchased a new car before the accident, and that's increasing their reaction. Just saying something like "Hey, this must be bad for you" can be very effective at bringing that person's response down."

In extreme situations, the advice is to keep yourself safe. "Most situations, however, are a bit of an argument or an escalated conversation, but they're not technically unsafe. Most of the time it's about controlling your own response, and approaching the other party with a lowered response. You can help control your reactions with deep breathing, and practise this in everyday living," says Karius.

Remember to keep the number for your insurance company readily available when you're travelling in the car.

If you prepare and think about the steps to take in the event of an accident, you'll be much more effective at communicating, staying calm and influencing others around you to do the same.

globedrive@globeandmail.com