If you've been involved in a car accident, the traffic laws in most states require you to take a number of steps immediately afterward, including stopping your vehicle as soon as it's safe to do so, and exchanging information with other people involved in the accident. The specific post-accident protocol you'll need to follow -- and the potential criminal penalties for failure to follow those steps -- vary slightly from state by state. This article looks at your legal obligations at the scene of an accident, and the kinds of penalties you may face if you leave the scene of a car accident.
(For a step-by-step guide to protecting yourself and your legal rights at the scene of an accident, check out The 8 Things You Should Do at the Scene of Your Accident.)
The applicable rules to follow after a car accident can usually be found in your state's Vehicle Code or Transportation Code, or in a similarly-named section of your state's laws. In some states, this information might be included in the set of laws that govern crimes (i.e. the "Penal Code"), since leaving the scene of an accident is usually characterized as a misdemeanor or felony (the crime is commonly known as "hit and run").
While it's important to check the specifics of the law in your state, drivers are usually required to follow some variation of these general steps if they've been in a car accident:
State laws vary on how they classify leaving the scene of an accident as a crime (called "hit and run" in some states), and in setting appropriate punishment. But in all states, the crime is classified as a misdemeanor or felony, usually based on the seriousness of the underlying accident.
The specific crime charged will fall somewhere on the crime classification spectrum used in the state -- from the least serious (low-level misdemeanor) to the most serious (high-level felony). So a driver who leaves the scene of a single-car accident where only minor property damage resulted might be charged with a Level 3 misdemeanor in State A (the least serious misdemeanor in that state), while a driver who flees the scene of a fatal crash may be charged with a Level 2 felony in the same state. The range of possible punishments typically flows from there.
Using California as an example, a driver who leaves the scene of an accident can be punished by imprisonment in county jail or state prison for up to one year, and may be fined $1,000 to $10,000 (the driver may be both imprisoned and fined for the same offense).
In Texas, if a driver leaves the scene of an accident involving death or serious injury, the offense is classified as a third degree felony and is punishable by up to five years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a fine of up to $5,000 (or both).
While specific punishment ranges are usually set out as penalties for leaving the scene of a car accident under the laws in a given state, a judge has a fair amount of leeway in setting the actual punishment under those parameters. Other penalties like restitution orders, community service, and probation may also be part of an offender's sentence.
Criminal penalties like fines and jail time are the most serious consequences of leaving the scene of an accident or "hit and run," but for the fleeing driver, the problems probably won't stop there. Driver's license revocation or suspension is likely (for a set period such as 90 or 180 days), and costly car insurance hikes will certainly plague any driver who leaves the scene of an accident. And if the fleeing driver caused the accident, you can usually add a personal injury lawsuit to the laundry list of penalties, especially if injuries to other people (drivers, passengers, or pedestrians) or extensive property damage resulted from the crash.