Car accidents are rarely fatal, but when they are, it’s a good idea to know what happens at the scene and how to respond. Many steps of protocol are carried out by emergency medical services, firemen, and policemen that arrive on the scene.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens Immediately After a Car Accident When Someone Dies?
- What Happens After the Accident Scene?
Here’s an overview of what you might experience, whether you happen to be a bystander, experience the accident yourself, or arrive on the scene to aid a loved one or friend, you should be prepared for what you might experience. Here is what you’ll encounter when a car accident results in death at the scene.
What Happens Immediately After a Car Accident When Someone Dies?
For anything involving emergency medical services including fire, police, and medical personnel, there are strict protocols that must be followed. Though by no means exhaustive, this list will give you insight into steps taken at the scene of an accident.
EMTs and paramedics arrive
For any significant car crash where injuries are involved, 911 is often called. Along with the fire department and police, an ambulance will arrive with EMTs and paramedics. These medical professionals are equipped to perform lifesaving measures, administer medication, and transport accident victims to a hospital.
They have a strict protocol to follow when arriving on the scene to determine who needs help and in case of an accident victim’s death. They’ve been trained to handle scenes like this so you can be sure that medical professionals attending to your friend or loved one can handle any type of injury or circumstance they face.
Once on-scene, EMTs and paramedics perform triage to determine who is the most critically injured and who requires immediate help. During this process, they also determine if any of the accident victims are deceased. If a deceased person is present, the emergency medical staff will cover the body with a white sheet and will then treat others in the area.
People often wonder why dead bodies are covered with a sheet. This is done for several reasons.
- Covering a dead body helps to preserve the dignity of the deceased.
- It preserves the accident scene for the coroner.
- It provides an extra measure of privacy and gives medical staff time to identify the person and alert family members about the accident. The last thing medics want is for a bystander to snap a picture of a deceased person, post it to social media, and have the deceased’s family find out about the accident before the authorities were able to alert them.
The coroner arrives
When paramedics or another emergency medical personnel have determined that a death has occurred at the scene, they call the coroner.
Due to the method of inquiry and investigation that the coroner must carry out, emergency medical professionals will not remove or otherwise move the body until the coroner gives permission to do so. Once the coroner arrives on-scene, they begin a scene assessment. They try to piece together what caused the person’s death, determine how the accident occurred, interview eyewitnesses, take pictures of the scene, and otherwise document everything involved with the person’s death.
The coroner is the one person who must determine what caused the person’s death, if the death was directly related to the accident, and how the accident occurred. These are critical elements and the answers can mean the difference between a driver at fault, pressed with criminal charges, or changed with a wrongful death lawsuit.
Even if a driver is “at fault” he or she may not be chargeable with criminal activity. For example, if an “at fault” driver crashed because of a mechanical failure, the car is “at fault” because they caused the crash, but it was through no ill intent or criminal means.
If, however, the person was at fault and driving over the legal alcohol limit, they may be charged with vehicular manslaughter and be liable for a wrongful death lawsuit. The coroner is the person who gets to the bottom of each of these factors when determining how the accident occurred and whether it was the cause of someone’s death.
The coroner also determines whether the accident was the cause of death. If, for example, the deceased person had a heart attack prior to the accident, then the heart attack could have caused the accident, not the other way around.
Family members notified
If possible, the coroner will identify the deceased person and ensure their nearest relative is notified such as a wife or child. Sometimes family members will be asked to the scene or the morgue to positively identify the accident victim.
A police report is filed
A police report will be filed as soon as the police arrive on the scene. This occurs simultaneously when the coroner carries out his duties. Police take down eyewitness statements of anyone who saw the crash in addition to statements from anyone in the crash who is able to give one.
The initial police report forms the first of many paper trails that may be used to determine who is “at fault” and whether the driver may be held liable for the person’s death.
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Victim transported to the morgue
Once the coroner is finished at the scene, the dead body is transported to the morgue under the coroner’s care. At the morgue, further investigation may be needed to determine the cause of death.
If it looks like the accident didn’t cause the person’s death, a full autopsy may be needed. An autopsy will help determine if the person died because of a non-accident-related incident such as a blood clot, aneurysm, or heart attack, or if the accident caused bleeding in the brain, hemorrhaging, or another cause of death that wasn’t immediately recognizable at the scene.
Family members prepare for the funeral
Once the person’s cause of death is determined, the body is then released to the family to begin preparations for burial. At this point, family members may coordinate with a mortuary or funeral home to transport the body.
What Happens After the Accident Scene?
After the accident scene, the family has time to prepare for a loved one’s funeral and memorial services. Depending on the cause of the accident, families may choose to take the opportunity to highlight the importance of items like road safety or other related causes.
Memorial and funeral
Unless there is cause for a delay, family members can begin planning their loved one’s memorial and funeral as soon as the coroner is finished examining the body and determining the cause of death.
During this time, notices will be sent out alerting friends and family to the time and location of both events. Most memorials, wakes, and funerals will be held within a week or two. If you are a close friend or relative, do all you can to arrange time off of work so you can attend.
It can be difficult to know what to say when someone dies unexpectedly. Most of the time, your presence, more than your words, provides comfort to someone who is going through a traumatic experience. Your friend or loved one might ask questions about what happens when you die, but don’t feel like you need to provide all the answers. Sometimes it just helps to have someone to talk to.
Some families opt to set up a roadside memorial to remember their loved ones. For accident victims whose death was caused by a faulty guardrail, a drunk driver, or a dangerous stretch of highway, memorials might be set up to both remember the victim and draw attention to changes needed on the roadway or in society.
Most public highways permit a roadside memorial display so long as it is small enough that traffic is not impeded. These memorials can be placed off the side of the road near the area where the person passed away.
Some families find comfort in donating to charity in their loved one’s name for causes that were important to their loved one or directly related to the cause of death. The family might also ask for donations to the charity in lieu of flowers on memorial or funeral invitation cards. Charity donations are one way to bring meaning to a loved one’s tragic and unexpected death.
If the cause of their loved one’s death was something that could have been avoided, some families carry out awareness campaigns.
Awareness campaigns bring public attention to the cause of a loved ones’ death, highlight how the death could have been avoided, and champion for change to prevent future deaths resulting from the same issue. These types of campaigns are particularly popular when fighting against drunk driving, driving while high, and driving without a license.
Around one person every 50 minutes dies as the result of a driver who is intoxicated. Drunk driving awareness campaigns aim to reduce the number of intoxicated drivers on the road. For every person that decides not to drive after drinking, one family might be spared the untimely and unnecessary loss of a spouse, sibling, or friend.
Navigating Unexpected Death
A car accident that results in an unexpected death is tragic and traumatic for all involved. If you’re the loved one of an accident victim, it’s vital to keep family and friends around you. Remember that you’re never alone as you navigate your way through this difficult time.
- “Management of the Deceased.” Chemical Hazards Emergency Medical Management, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020. https//www.chemm.nlm.nih.gov/deceased.htm.
- “Drunk Driving.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2020. https//www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-driving.
- Clark, Stephen, and Meeks, Rachel. “EMS Crash Sight Responsibility.” StatPearls, NCBI, 10 September 2020. https//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537069/.
- Levin, Gabriel. “What Happens When Someone Dies Due to a Car Accident?” Auto Accidents, The Levin Law Firm, 24 January 2020. https//www.levininjuryfirm.com/car-accident-death/