Derbyshire Constabulary said a young woman on a moped was in collision with a car on the northbound carriageway, just after the Watchorn exit, shortly after 9pm on Sunday.
A further two cars then collided with the moped when it was in the carriageway.
A stretch of the northbound carriageway and one lane southbound was closed overnight while debris was cleared.
Highways England said the road was reopen at about 2.30am.
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In a post shared more than 1,200 times on Facebook, Declan Benjamin McFadden, who had been travelling on the A38, said one man, known as 'John', risked his own life by standing in front of the woman and was flashing two torches so other vehicles would avoid her. At the same time, a Canadian man was said to have been talking to her to keep her awake. He added that they had done a 'brilliant job'.
Posting on our Facebook page, a family member wrote: "My niece was the moped rider. Thank you so much to the great efforts from these heroes Katy has just got out of surgery she’s had a 7 hour operation to fix her thigh she has a huge list of injuries this is just the start of her recovery."
Witnesses or anyone with information should call police on 101 quoting reference 832 of April 22.