Dashboard cameras, known for dramatic police videos and shots of meteors streaking across the sky, have gone mainstream as more people document their experiences on the road.
Now there are three times as many online searches for terms like dash cam as there are for autonomous driving, according to new data from Google.
It’s “a huge consumer-led trend,” Google’s 2018 Automotive Trends Report noted.
“Consumers feel supported on the road with a second set of eyes. They want protection, as well as proof, in case of an incident,” the report said.
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A dash cam is a small video camera mounted on a car’s dashboard or windshield to record what’s happened in front of the vehicle, and sometimes, what’s also happened behind it.
More people are using dash cams to show who was at fault in a traffic crash, and for time-lapse videos of storms and road trips.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth 10 thousand,” said Steve Koenig, senior director of research for the Consumer Technology Association.
U.S. wholesale shipments of dash cams are expected to hit 285,000 this year, up 20% from 2017, according to the CTA, which follows market trends.
The cameras range in price from under $100 to more than $400, with some models capable of capturing multiple views around a vehicle.
Some record audio inside a car and have a motion sensor that triggers the camera in the event of a hit-and-run parking lot incident.
A dash cam can document the moments leading up to a traffic accident, second by second, time-stamped with information such as vehicle speed.
“It takes all the guesswork out of it,” said attorney Jason Abraham with the law firm Hupy & Abraham.
Meteors and collision avoidance
YouTube has scores of dash cam videos documenting dangerous driving, dramatic rescues and lighter moments such as buffalo crossing the road.
In 2013, Russian dash cams captured a 10-ton meteor streaking across the sky before crashing to Earth. The cameras are common in Russia, where they’re used as cheap video protection against insurance fraud, angry drivers and charges by corrupt police.
Advances in technology have resulted in dash cams that are smaller and less obtrusive in a vehicle. Some capture a very wide viewing angle, produce high-definition videos and have pretty good night vision.
A wide field of view, about 150 degrees, is helpful. But if it’s too extreme, like a fisheye lens, you start to lose details, said Tim Stevens, editor-in-chief of Roadshow, the automotive segment for CNET, a consumer technology website.
“I think that’s pretty important,” Stevens said, along with high-resolution.
Dash cams record in a continuous loop, meaning that after a while, they’re going to record over the previous documented scenes unless they’re saved by the user. The larger the storage capacity, the more hours can be preserved.
Some dash cams have a collision-avoidance sensor that trips an audible alarm if you’re too close to the vehicle ahead of you in traffic.
And some have a sensor that trips an alarm if you drift outside of your lane.
Stevens said neither of those features worked very well in the dash cams he’s tested.
“If anything, they just get to be annoying because they’re beeping all the time, and you just want to turn them off,” he said.
Things to look for in a dash cam include video resolution of at least 1080p, low-light capability for when it’s dark outside and ample storage — at least 32 gigabytes, according to Consumer Reports magazine.
And make sure it comes with long loop times — five-minute files are best — so you don’t record over essential footage.
Choose one that’s easy to use, so you’re not having to think about it all the time, said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.
“Some of the very simple ones are just fine. You don’t need all the bells and whistles,” Fisher said.
Most dash cams are mounted to the windshield, but keep in mind it could be illegal in states that prohibit or restrict electronic devices on the windshield.
Make sure that gadgets like a dash cam, a GPS or a cellphone don’t obstruct your view of traffic and pedestrians, said Wisconsin State Patrol Sergeant David Harvey.
Place the camera close to the rearview mirror, said Jason Schuster, a vehicle equipment installer at Best Buy in Greenfield.
“Most of the cameras are pretty small now, so when you put it behind the mirror, you don’t see it,” Schuster said.
Some dash cams warn the driver of red-light cameras and speed cameras, and some are built into GPS units that provide turn-by-turn navigation. There are cameras that capture still photos, too, and have voice control.
A dash cam can be mounted on a car’s back window to capture what happens behind the vehicle, such as someone following too closely or a rear-end collision.
But don’t forget that your video footage could be used against you in court if you’re at fault in an accident.
“There is generally no legal obligation to save your dash cam footage. However, destroying it could lead to legal complications in the case of a criminal investigation or civil action,” Consumer Reports says.
Calming someone down ‘pretty quick’
Some Uber drivers use dash cams to record what’s happening inside their vehicle, such as an angry drunk who’s acting up.
“That camera can calm someone down pretty quick, once they realize they’re being recorded,” said Koenig, with Consumer Technology Association.
Truck drivers, and parents who want to keep tabs on their teenagers’ driving habits, also have embraced the technology.
“So much of what we see on the road now is drivers who don’t communicate well. They don’t use turn signals, and they don’t have an appreciation for what’s happening around them,” said Robert Behnke, chairman of the truck driving school at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.
“Those are some of the things we are witnessing with dash cams,” Behnke said.