What to do if you come across the scene of an accident

By DPA | 5 September 2017

BERLIN: "Stop." This is the most important thing for drivers to do when they arrive at an unsecured scene of an accident, says Stefan Osche of the German Red Cross (DRC).

Quite often, a driver is legally obliged to do so, although this only applies in reasonable situations, and not when a driver will be putting their own life in danger.

"It is always reasonable, however, to inform rescue services and police," says lawyer Jens Doetsch from the DAV, a German association of traffic lawyers. By not offering any help at all, drivers in some jurisdictions can face fines, penalty points on their licence, a driving ban or even up to one year in jail.

People who suddenly find themselves in the role of first responder should always follow three initial steps: secure the site of the accident; get an overview of the scene; and call emergency assistance. Only then should they start to offer first aid.

Doing things in this order is necessary to protect both others and themselves, says Doetsch. However, self-protection should always take priority, says Osche, adding that "one should never put oneself in danger."

When securing the scene of an accident, start by putting on a warning vest and setting up a warning triangle. Anyone who is not providing immediate assistance should stay safely behind a guardrail or off the road.

If several people are around, tasks can be delegated. "Tell people specifically what they are meant to do, since many are quite uncertain in such situations," says Osche. For example, ask one person to set up the warning triangle and then stand and indicate the accident site to other drivers.

Then you can start to get an overview of what's happened. Are there injured people? How many? How badly? "It is quite difficult for a lay person to assess whether a rescue service is needed," says Osche. When in doubt, it's always better to alert rescue services if something seems wrong.

It is also important to be able to name the location of the accident. Where exactly are you? And in which direction of travel? Between which exits or major roads?

"The more you know about where you are, the faster help can arrive," says Osche. Emergency apps for smartphones can be quite helpful, while Google Maps can also provide coordinates.

Once this has all been taken care of, first aid comes next. Drivers are advised to take first aid refresher courses every two to three years. These usually take around nine hours shouldn't cost more than US$40.

Those offering first aid shouldn't be afraid of making a mistake at the scene of the accident. "The only mistake they can make is to do nothing," says Osche. "Just help as best you can."

If professional help is already available at the scene of an accident and you are not needed as a witness, there is no need to stick around. If rescue services have not yet arrived, you might be able to help other first responders. In the absence of any instructions or indications, however, simply drive past without slowing down.

Time and again, rubbernecks hamper rescue work at emergency sites. "Over the last few years, this has become a problem, especially due to the spread of smartphones with cameras," says Silvia Darmstaedter from the German Fire Brigade Association.

A brief glance or a "look!" to other passengers is understandable and can also be an expression of compassion. But anyone who takes a picture, films the scene or even stops can seriously impede rescue operations.

You should always aim to keep your eyes on the road. "The driver should never be distracted such that it changes their driving style." In the worst-case scenario, a distracted driver can lead to follow-up accidents, such as rear-end collisions.

To keep things going, drivers should always put themselves in the injured person's situation and ask themselves: Would I want to be photographed?