Driving a car is considered a legal privilege, not a right. As part of that privilege, state laws impose both limitations and duties on drivers whenever they get behind the wheel. One of these duties is the duty to stop and help when you've been involved in a car crash or accident.
Being involved in a car accident or collision doesn't always mean that someone acted illegally or committed a crime. However, any accident can result in criminal charges if a driver chooses not to stop, identify, or provide help. It's not the accident that creates the crime, it's the driver's actions afterward that do.
When a driver gets into an accident and fails to stop and provide their information, it's often referred to as "hit and run." Hit and run—or "failure to stop and render aid"—is a criminal offense and can lead to penalties such as jail time, fines, and the loss of driving privileges.
While each state's "stop-and-render-aid" law differs slightly (in name and obligations), almost all states impose a legal duty on drivers involved in collisions to:
The purpose of these laws is to ensure that those who are injured in car collisions receive needed medical attention for injuries and appropriate financial compensation for property damage.
Here are some of the common responsibilities that states impose on drivers involved in vehicle accidents.
State hit-and-run laws sometimes require drivers to stop and assist after being in an "accident." Despite the use of the term "accident," these laws apply whenever a driver is involved in any type of crash, collision, accident, intentional act, or any event involving a vehicle that results in damage or injury. The legal duty to stop applies regardless of who's at fault. Drivers have a duty to stop even if it is only a minor accident—the extent of the damage or severity of injuries is not relevant.
Drivers generally can't excuse their failure to stop by saying that they weren't aware they hit something. If a reasonable driver in the same circumstances would have been aware of the accident, that's enough to trigger the requirement to stop.
State laws require that drivers involved in accidents provide their identification to one another. Drivers have a duty to provide personal identification, as well as information about their automobile insurance. However, drivers are not required to talk about the circumstances surrounding the accident, either to one another or to the police.
If the other car is unoccupied, the driver must either try to find the owner of the unoccupied car or leave the required identification information in a conspicuous place so the vehicle's owner can find it. Leaving a note under the windshield wiper with a name, phone number, and driver's license number would normally suffice. The person should also contact law enforcement. (Usually, there's a local non-emergency number.)
State laws commonly require drivers involved in crashes to stop and help whenever possible. These laws impose a duty for drivers to render reasonable or necessary assistance. What counts as "reasonable" assistance differs from case to case, and depends on the circumstances surrounding the accident. Rendering aid might include:
However, drivers are not required to risk their own safety or perform actions that might expose the driver to unreasonable risk.
Hit-and-run charges can be very serious. States punish the offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the situation surrounding the accident. The difference usually depends on whether anyone involved in the collision died or suffered an injury. If no one was hurt, the crime is usually charged as a misdemeanor.
Prison or jail time is possible with hit-and-run convictions, especially in those that result in serious injury or death. A misdemeanor conviction can result in up to a year in jail, while a person convicted of a felony hit and run could face a prison sentence of 5 or 10 years or, sometimes, longer.
A conviction will usually also come with an order to pay fines and restitution. Restitution payments are designed to repay the other driver for damage and are counted separately from any fines.
Criminal consequences are just one of several possible repercussions of a hit and run.
Driving privileges. Driving a car is considered a legal privilege, not a legal right. Accordingly, states can limit or take away a driver's license. Unlike the criminal punishment, driving privileges are taken away by the state government agency that regulates motor vehicles and drivers, not by a criminal court judge.
Insurance premiums. Though the courts do not choose how much a driver pays for car insurance, a driver's insurance premiums typically go higher if the driver is convicted of a hit and run. An insurance company may also decline to provide coverage.
Civil lawsuit. The injured person or owner of the damaged property may bring a lawsuit against the motorist not only for negligently causing the collision in the first place but also for any injuries or damage that worsened because the driver did not provide assistance. This type of case could also result in punitive damages, which is meant to punish the driver rather than compensate the victim.
A conviction for failure to stop and render aid is a potentially serious charge, one that requires the advice of an experienced criminal law attorney to evaluate your options properly. A conviction for a hit and run can have an impact on your life, your insurance premiums, and your ability to drive a car.