If you witness a car accident, you will likely be asked to give a statement or to answer questions about what you observed. While it sounds like a simple task, getting it accurate may be harder than you think. According to Elizabeth F. Loftus, researcher and memory expert from the University of California, Irvine, recalling memories of the event is not like playing back a video. She relates it to more like putting a puzzle together as you work to make all the pieces fit together. That's one of the reasons many people add or leave out important details when retelling an event. You may not be able to avoid common errors altogether, but there are some things you can do to improve your chances of making an accurate report if you are called upon as witness to a car accident.
Report only what you actually heard or saw.
When you observe an accident, images and sounds can appear lightning fast. It is human nature to try to make sense out of what you see and hear, but guard against assuming or inadvertently filling in the blanks with what you think must have happened. The truth is, if you hear the screeching of brakes, you probably won't be able to tell which vehicle it came from. Avoid assigning sounds to the vehicle or person who you think it came from. Likewise, report the details of what you saw, but avoid interpreting it. For example, you may have seen the person in one of the vehicles put his hand to his ear, but unless you actually saw an object and its details, you can't know if it was a cellphone.
Don't discuss the details with other witnesses.
Although it may be tempting to discuss what you heard or saw with others at the scene, this can pave the way for false memories of the event. If another witness mentions seeing flying glass, your brain may add that to your memory of the event. Even though you really didn't see shattered glass, your brain may try to tell you that you did. This is referred to as source confusion, as your brain no longer "remembers" whether the source is what you actually witnessed or what you heard someone else say about what happened. Being aware of this phenomenon and avoiding talking to other witnesses makes it more likely that your account of the event will be accurate.
Jot down the details, if possible.
Writing down the details of what happened will help you focus and will help avoid accidentally adding details that your brain is telling you must have happened. Note what you saw and what you heard at the time of the accident. This is a good time to write down other events occurring at the time of the accident, such as elements of the weather, like the orientation of the sun and the presence of precipitation. Other important factors may include a deer dashing across the road or the location of objects or people that may have obstructed the vision of one or more of the drivers. Add any details that you think could have reasonably contributed to the accident. A written record of what your saw or heard will be helpful if you are called as a witness in court at a later date.
Avoid being swayed by the police officer or insurance rep's language.
Whether the person questioning you means to or not, he may influence your answers by how he words the questions. Be on the lookout for words and phrases, such as "crashed", "fast", "shattered" and any words that seem to describe the actions of either driver. Think carefully and respond to the intent of the question and not to the emotionally-charged words being used.
Knowing how to improve the accuracy of your eye witness report if you observe a car accident helps the authorities to understand the details of the event and may spare accident victims from unjust charges. For more information on providing an accurate witness statement, consider talking with a lawyer from a firm like Law Offices of Burton J. Hass.