Try to remain calm and locate the pavement

If you drive a car in California, you’ve probably got auto insurance, and along with your policy, you’ve undoubtedly received a little card and a sheet of rather simplistic instructions about what to do if you’re somehow involved in an accident.

They usually tell you to remain calm, move your car – or what’s left of it – out of traffic, genially greet the other driver and cordially exchange insurance information without admitting fault.

Great advice, but it’s always good to remember that your insurance company may be based in someplace like Iowa where people generally remain calm and cordial even as they’re being whisked away by a tornado or robbed by fleeing felon from Michigan.

That’s just the way folks are out there…

On the other hand, this is California and California is not Iowa or Ohio or Indiana or one of those places where everyone grins, drinks copious quantities of buttermilk and puts on a tie before driving to the quilting bee.

There’s nothing basically wrong with being cordial after an automobile collision in California, but you have to consider that other motorists here in the golden state might misinterpret your friendly grin and outstretched hand.

(“What’s wrong with that guy, anyway? Why’s he smiling like that? Aieeeeee! Serial killer! Run, everybody, run! Serial killer!”)

Additionally, if you’re going to move your car out of traffic to the shoulder of the roadway as recommended, make sure your auto isn’t permanently attached to some other vehicle. The driver may not be quite ready to move his car and your action, although well-intentioned, could result in bad feelings.

Even if you aren’t locked bumper-to-bumper with one or more other vehicles, you still need to check on a few critical factors before you move that car off the road.

The first and foremost question to ask yourself (particularly here in S’lano County) is whether your car is upside down or not.

Stick your hand out the driver’s side window and reach toward the roof of your car. If you immediately encounter pavement, the answer is most likely yes, the car is upside down.

(And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anytime that you reach up and encounter pavement and the car is right side up, you could have even bigger problems…)

Finally, remember that the other driver may not be carrying the same convenient insurance pamphlet that you do, or may not have read the part about the need to calmly exchange names and insurance information at the scene of the crash.

If he or she doesn’t look particularly genial and accommodating, chances are that he or she isn’t in that good of a mood.

A red face, bulging jaws, clenched fists and a tendency to repeatedly beat his forehead on the steering wheel or dashboard are clear indicators that the other driver is not quite ready for some refined insurance chitchat.

When you’re dealing with this kind of motorist, it’s probably better if your car is upside down – it’ll make it harder for him to get his hands on you…

Originally published November 5, 2000