Why You Should Get a Dash Cam (Or Not) September 08 2018

My friend was livid at the injustice of the situation. His Bimmer had been sideswiped by an uninsured driver. It was the other driver's fault, but he wouldn't admit fault, and the cops that arrived on the scene couldn't make a determination of who was at fault. My friend was stuck with the repair bill. I had casually thought about getting a dash cam before, but this was the first time I seriously considered getting one. So before buying one, I did some research. Can footage be self-incriminating if you are at fault in an accident? Are there any legal ramifications of getting a dash cam? What features are important? I ended up getting a dash cam and am glad that I made this purchase. I've recorded an accident and several close calls within the first couple of months. This is a summary of the research that I did leading up buying a dash cam, and my experience of owning one.

Toyota Camry pulling out slowly across fast moving traffic on a rainy day.

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, and nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. Laws constantly change and are different from state to state, so there is no way that this article can be accurate for every reader's situation. This is a starting point of things to consider, but do your own research for your state or country.

The double-edged sword. One of the things that I was concerned about when getting a dash cam was the possibility of the dash cam incriminating myself if I was the cause of the accident. Could I just erase, hide or destroy the recording if I didn't want the footage to be seen? Destroying evidence is a serious offense that can get you into much more serious legal trouble than being at fault in an accident. In Texas, if you are convicted of destroying evidence, it is a third degree felony. So, it's not a great idea to delete or destroy footage, and your dash cam can incriminate you if you are at fault. This makes owning a dash cam sound like a terrible double-edged sword. However, in the event of an accident, would you really be the type of person to lie about who is at fault? I'm not that kind of a guy, so the potentially incriminating footage from a dash cam isn't an issue for me. However, if you are a dirty scumbag, you might want to weigh the risks.

Another way to look at this double-edged sword is to consider what are the odds of the footage defending or incriminating you? I'd like to think that the odds of someone else being at fault is greater than the odds of me being at fault. However, if you're an incompetent, distracted or aggressive driver, you might consider forgoing a dash cam, as excessive negligence or douchebaggery may open you up to criminal or civil prosecution.

Mazda hatchback nearly clips my front fender.

Illegal recordings. Most states have wiretapping laws that protect privacy and limit what can be recorded. Some states, such as Texas mandate that if a conversation is being recorded, the person making the recording has to be a party to the conversation. Other states mandate that all parties to the conversation must know that they are being recorded. Where this comes into play is if someone else, such as a valet, mechanic, or friend is driving your car and their conversations are recorded. If you have footage that busts a valet for damaging your car, the footage may be inadmissible in court if it was improperly recorded and there could be wiretapping charges brought against you. One solution to all this is to pick a dashcam that has the option to mute the microphone, and to be mindful enough to make sure it is muted at the right times.

Also, if you get pulled over, there are rules governing whether you can record the police while they are on duty. In Texas you can record officers on duty, but some states try to limit recordings to video with no audio. Sometimes it matters whether you are a party to the conversation or a third-party observer. The laws vary from state to state, and it is good to know your state's laws so you can assert your rights but also not overstep the law. Sometimes police will erroneously tell you that you cannot record them. Whether or not you should resist an unlawful command, and to what degree you should resist is a very complex subject with no good answer, so we won't get into that. The main point is you cannot rely on the police to tell you the law because they don't get 100% of the laws right 100% of the time, nor are they required by law to tell you the truth (in the US at least).

Vehicle code. Texas has a law that prohibits operation of a vehicle that has an object or material placed on or attached to any window that obstructs or reduces the operator's clear view. This is mainly aimed at stickers and ads, but it may be possible to get pulled over for having a dash cam. However, a couple of Austin police officers I interviewed said they have never had to cite anyone for a dash cam, and that it isn't a problem for them unless the camera is unreasonably large. They employ their professional judgment, but your mileage may vary depending on your jurisdiction and the officer. There are certain cameras that mount to the rear view mirror or the dash that would be in full compliance with the law. If the camera is small enough to hide behind the rear view mirror, or only obscure your view of the hood, it may help your case. Maybe. Check your state to see if you have any similar laws.

What to look for

Resolution - A resolution of at least 1080 is the minimum in my opinion. At 1080P, a license plate is readable up to about 2 car lengths away. Most dash cams have fisheye lenses, so all objects will appear farther away when reviewing the footage. This makes it hard to read license plates unless you're right behind the car at a stop light. Below is 1080p footage, and it's hard to make out the license plates even though the cars are already pretty close.

License plates in traffic.

All photos in this article were shot in 1080P. What's the farthest plate you can read?

Adhesive vs Suction Cup - I have a dash cam with a suction cup mount, but it does come loose from time to time. I would wager that an adhesive mount would be more reliable than a suction cup mount. However, if you plan on using your dash cam in multiple vehicles, a suction cup mount is probably the way to go. I also take my dash cam down after I park to reduce the risk of someone breaking my window to get my dash cam. Depending on the design of the adhesive mount, removing the dash cam frequently may or may not be difficult or problematic. Just pay attention to how it attaches if you plan on mounting and dismounting it frequently.

Loop recording - Loop recording will write over old footage if the memory card becomes full. Most dash cams will have this feature, and I think this is better than the camera ceasing to record once the memory card is full. Typically, the overwhelming majority of what you are going to record is uninteresting and okay to record over. Most people will just let the footage loop and only download footage when something noteworthy happens.

Field of view - 150 to 180 degrees of view is typically sufficient. A wide field of view is good for seeing cross-traffic at intersections and anyone cutting you off. Shown below is footage from my camera with a 170 degree view. This gives you an idea of how much of the cross-traffic you can see. The benefit to a narrower field of view is that you get more detail of that smaller area and can read license plates farther away.

Field of view in an intersection.

Memory - How much memory you need depends mainly on the resolution of your camera, and how much you drive. It's good to have enough memory to record at least a day and a half worth of driving. You're likely to be using loop recording, where old footage gets written over eventually with new footage. If you have a recordable incident at the beginning of your commute, you'll want to be able to continue recording for the rest of your day until you can get home to download the footage. An extra half-day of memory provides some margin.

G-sensing and file protection - Some cameras have an accelerometer that can detect an accident or high-G event and write-protect that footage from being written over by loop recording. I could envision a scenario where after a crash, if left unattended, the camera could keep running and eventually write over the footage of the crash. Another useful function is a manual file protection. Some cameras have a function where you can press a button after capturing something noteworthy to write-protect that footage. This is a useful function.

Thermal ruggedness - If you think you will leave your camera in the car, make sure your dash cam can withstand the temperature extremes of your region. In Texas, it can get to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and inside the car could easily be 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The same goes for cold temperature extremes.

Toyota FJ making an egregious unprotected left turn.

Hardwired or plugged in - It is certainly tidier to provide a dedicated wire to your dash cam than plugging into a cigarette lighter. The wire can be tucked along the edges of the windshield for an almost invisible appearance. This takes any wires out of your field of view. However, if you plan on moving the camera between different cars, or removing the camera when you park, this may not be the right setup for you, unless you run wires in all your vehicles.

Front-only or front and rear - I only have a forward-facing dash cam, but there are some dash cams that have both a forward-facing and rearward-facing camera. Other systems have 2 separate cameras. Two cameras increases your odds of capturing the footage necessary to prove your innocence, though I would surmise that a forward-facing camera will have you covered for the overwhelming majority of incidents. If you can tolerate the additional cost, wiring, mounting/dismounting and file maintenance of a second camera, then I recommend a rear facing camera as well.

Size - Your dash cam will likely block some of your view, so it's nice to have a smaller dash cam. There are 2 common places to mount a dash cam. Up high behind the rear view mirror, and down low. Depending on your car and seating position, the low mount sometimes only blocks your view of the hood so that you still have a completely clear view of the road. If you plan to take your dash cam with you after you park, a smaller size allows you to fit it in your pocket or purse easier.

Nightvision - Image quality at night is important, but not all cameras produce good video in low light. Before buying, see if you can view a sample video or still image from the camera operating in low light. Excessive graininess is a bad, as well as underexposure. Shutter speeds also typically have to get longer in low light, so blur from motion gets worse. You can't even see the license plate in the footage below. Also, any dirt on your windshield will show up more at night. You can see all the light splotches where there are water spots. The footage below is of usable quality to me, but there certainly is room for improvement.

Nighttime camera footage.

Extra costs - There are some additional costs associated with owning a dash cam. Memory cards are usually not included, so you'll have to factor in the cost of a high-speed memory card. You may also want to buy some video editing software to trim down your video clips for more convenient viewing and storage. That 20-minute clip probably only has 5 seconds of notable footage, so it makes sense to trim all the extraneous footage. Make sure the software you buy recognizes the video format that your dash cam uses. If you end up storing a lot of footage, you may need to buy additional hard drive space. Uncompressed high-resolution video takes up a lot of space. For my dash cam, 30 minutes of video takes up about 1 gigabyte. Lastly, there may be additional accessories and mounts that you will need if you want to use your dash cam in multiple cars.

What it's like having a dash cam - This is what a typical trip with a dash cam looks like. I'll grab my keys and dash cam before heading out the door, so the camera is one more thing I have to remember to bring. I'll get in the car, plug in the camera, mount the suction cup and aim the camera. This takes a moment to do, so if you're always running late, this could get annoying for you. Then, I drive around as I normally do. Perhaps I drive slightly more politely and conservatively, knowing that everything is being recorded, but I'm normally pretty polite anyways.

Since owning a dash cam, I suddenly see idiots and near misses everywhere.  I've even recorded a minor accident.

Truck runs red light and causes accident.

The driver of the truck was actually very apologetic and owned up to his mistake.

Once I arrive at my destination, it takes a few moments to unplug and detach the dash cam. I'll sometimes stash it in the glovebox, but sometimes I'll stick it in my pocket, so I have to carry it around sometimes.

About once a week, I'll plug my dash cam into my computer and extract any noteworthy footage. There are quite a few false positives from the G-sensor, so about 40% of the files end up being write-protected. I don't know what happens on loop recording mode when the memory is filled up and all the files are write-protected, so I play it safe and delete the unimportant write-protected files weekly.

I'm pretty happy that I got a dash cam. There have been a few instances where there was a near miss, and the footage would have been instrumental in proving the other driver's fault. There are also moments where I can review an incident to see if I made a mistake or to see if I could have done things better. I also think it is cheap insurance in the event that you get in an accident that is not your fault, or if you are targeted for insurance fraud. Also, I haven't been pulled over by the police since having this camera, but being able to recording a traffic stop is an added benefit.

There's a lot of talk these days about requiring police to wear body cameras, as it increases transparency, influences officer behavior in a positive way and provides legal protection to the innocent (whether that is the officer or citizen). I think that any driver using a dash cam will gain the same benefits. Imagine a world where the scumbags of the road are held responsible for their actions, and the innocent are protected. There are many features to consider when buying a dash cam, but the most important thing is to buy one.