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Take a hint from the Russians: It’s time to protect yourself with a dash cam

Most Americans are familiar with dashboard cameras nowadays because of the zany videos captured by Russian drivers of insane accidents and exploding comets. Who doesn’t love that stuff? But dashboard cameras really got their start on the jam-packed streets of Asian cities, where drivers contend with swarms of suicidal scooter pilots and tough traffic liability laws. As a matter of self-protection, drivers began recording the view through their windshields to document any accidents.

Now the practice is trickling into the mainstream here in the States. For a professional driver, an at-fault accident can mean a loss of income as well as liability, so truckers, taxi drivers, and many others have turned to video cameras to establish the facts of traffic incidents. Ordinary drivers in America are just now beginning to see the benefit – soon to become a necessity – of dashboard cameras.

Protecting yourself

It used to be that, in America, we’d only see in-car cameras in racing, both to provide thrilling footage for fans and to document and analyze crash situations. Motorcyclists began using helmet cameras for the same reasons. Dash cameras are also popular with police forces, to provide a clear record of traffic stops. It’s only natural then that there’d be a rise in regular consumer use. Heck, we review quite a few dashcams right here for you.

Dashboard cameras got their start on the jam-packed streets of Asian cities, where drivers contend with swarms of suicidal scooter pilots  

Most dashboard cameras simply record the view through the car’s windshield. They have a fixed amount of digital storage and when the storage is full, they recycle the data by overwriting the oldest files. These cameras hold several hours of footage, with the exact time window generally depending on the video quality of the camera and the amount of memory installed. Thus, if a front-end crash occurs, the camera’s got it covered.

More advanced dash cameras include features like GPS tagging to show the exact location, date, and time of each recording, as well as the vehicle’s speed. Advanced cameras also include speed-based driving modes that record differently when the car is moving and when it is stopped, as well as Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity options for video uploads.

Regardless of features, the core function of a dashboard camera is to provide an impartial record of what the driver could see in the moments leading up to an accident. A dash camera can prove that you had a green light, or that the other driver blew through a stop sign before hitting you. Being able to show impartial evidence helps avoid “your word against the other driver” situations after an accident.

The legal benefits of dash cams

Paul Veillon is an attorney with Galileo Law in Seattle, Washington. With a practice in personal injury and diminished automobile value in traffic cases, Veillon is an expert on traffic law and in working with insurance companies.

“Insurance companies have been engaged in ‘fault shaving’ to a greater extent than ever,” Veillon tells Digital Trends.  “Even in clear liability claims, they assert that their driver is only 90% at-fault, at least for the purposes of the property damage claim, to save 10% on collision repair, rental, or total loss charges; knowing that 10% of a claimant’s property damage isn’t enough to justify a lawsuit.  Dash cams can help prevent frivolous liability defenses when another driver turns left in front of the owner or pulls from a stop sign or a private parking lot.”

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Insurance companies use a variety of ploys to deflect liability from their clients so as to save a few bucks on fixing your car. Many of those ploys can be refuted with dash cam footage.

“When the insurance company claims the dash cam owner was going too fast or had time to react, the video footage can dispute it,” Veillon says.  “The utility in red-light/green-light disputes is obvious, as is the utility in unsafe lane change collisions where the central question is the lane in which the impact occurred.  For chain reaction rear-end collisions, where the rear driver hits a middle driver and forces the middle driver into a lead vehicle, insurance companies often claim that the middle driver hit the lead vehicle first and is, therefore, 50% responsible for the collision.  A dash cam can demonstrate the sequence of impacts.”

Beyond simply documenting the mechanics of a crash, a dash camera can also help prove the severity of a crash. Some models of dash cameras include accelerometers that measure the force of any impact.

“Insurance companies often claim that a collision was just a ‘bump’ so no one could suffer injury, but a dash cam can provide some insight into the severity of the impact that damage to the rear bumper might not necessarily provide,” Veillon tells Digital Trends.  “Finally, I have seen one circumstance where a driver rear-ended a commercial limo, normally a clear liability case, but video footage from a convenience store clearly supported the rear driver’s story that the limo made an illegal lane change, cut him off, then slammed on its brakes. The rear driver avoided fault for the collision and now has a dash cam installed on his Tesla.”

Where’s the downside?

The truth is, there isn’t much downside to any dashboard camera. Some states and jurisdictions have laws against making audio recordings without the knowledge of the person being recorded, but only some dash cams include in-car audio, and these can be switched off. There have been cases where motorcyclists with helmet cameras were prosecuted for recording the police during a stop, but this is an area of law that is evolving very quickly. Check your local laws to be certain but in general, dashboard cameras are recording public activity and that’s completely legal.

Of course, the impartial proof of dash cam footage cuts both ways. If you’re the one at fault in an accident, the camera’s going to record that fact, too.

If you have a dash cam and it records an accident, don’t delete the footage.

“Dash cams would document an at-fault rear-end collision, but chances are if the dash cam owner rear-ended someone, they’d be found to be at fault regardless.  The same holds true for failing to yield to oncoming traffic making a left turn; the dash cam would show the oncoming vehicle that the owner didn’t see, but again, failing to yield to oncoming traffic when making a left turn is going to be the owners fault whether the incident is captured on a dash cam or not.”

There’s one important warning to consider: if you have a dash cam and it records an accident, don’t delete the footage. Dash cam footage is evidence that may be subpoenaed by a court in civil or criminal cases.

“If a vehicle owner does install a dash cam, and the camera captures an incident, the owner should not destroy the data,” Veillon warns.  “If it captures an incident involving other drivers, the owner should turn the footage over to the authorities.  If it captures an incident involving the owner, then if the owner destroys the data the other party may claim ‘spoliation of evidence,’ which in the context of a civil claim permits a jury to infer that there was something on the footage the owner didn’t want them to see. That can turn a clear liability claim into a much harder claim to prosecute.”

Dash cam laws

Apart from the ones mentioned, there isn’t a whole lot more to keep in mind when installing a dash camera. Just like other dash-mounted appliances such as GPS navigation units and entertainment systems, the camera shouldn’t occlude too much of your windshield.

Related: BlackVue DR650GW-2CH dash cam review

In most jurisdictions, you can obscure a five-inch square area on the driver’s side of the car, and up to a seven-inch square on the passenger side. The good news is that most dash cameras are substantially smaller than that, and offer a wide-angle view that covers a cone including the entire windshield view.

Automakers are taking notice

Some recently released cars offer built-in cameras and full driving data recorders. Most notably, the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the 2016 Camaro with the 1LE performance package offer Chevy’s Performance Data Recorder (PDR) system. The Chevy system uses a 720p HD camera installed in the rearview mirror housing. There’s also a microphone to record in-car audio, plus full telemetry that records GPS data as well as engine speed, throttle position, current gear, brake force, steering wheel angle, and more. All of this is recorded and can be saved and uploaded.

Cadillac’s new CT6 also includes the ability to capture the real-time feed from both its forward and rearward-looking cameras, and to save all such recordings to an SD card.  With the rapid adoption of 360-degree surround cameras across the industry, it’s just a matter of time until more manufacturers get on board.