So, you’re thinking of getting a dash cam for your car. Good call. Having evidence of what you and others do on the road is invaluable, as the legal and insurance system can be very unfair. Insurance companies are businesses, not good Samaritans. They don’t pay out when they don’t have to.
While they’ll generally make some effort to avoid you being blamed for a multi-vehicle accident, their own bottom line is all they’re interested in. It’s often cheaper for them just to settle with the other party, even if this means you have to pay a large excess and higher premiums in the future.
Other drivers are a mixed bag and range from conscientious citizens to outright scam artists. Most people fall somewhere in the middle and bend the truth when it suits them. When thousands of dollars and possibly legal consequences are involved, most of them will lie like a rug and happily attend church the next Sunday.
What about the police, the people who are supposed to keep people safe, honest and accountable?
Don’t get your hopes up: many cops lie under oath. Their reasons may range from boosting their performance statistics to punishing someone they “know” is guilty, but it’s a fact that there are rarely any consequences for dishonest police officers.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, politicians like to use biased traffic enforcement measures as a source of city revenue (or just to line their own pockets). Public safety is the excuse they use, of course, even when it’s clear these measures do more harm than good.
Fortunately, these bad-faith actors are in the minority. Still, it’s worth remembering that having the truth on your side doesn’t help much unless you can prove it. This, of course, are what dash cams are all about.
They’re not all equally useful, though, and figuring out how the various options stack up against one another can get complicated.
Hopefully, after reading through the following, you’ll be in a much better position to understand what all those specs really mean, not just as abstract concepts but in terms of how they may help you get justice in a court of law.
How Much Should I Spend?
With dash cams as with cookies, paying more pretty generally means getting more. There has to be a practical limit to your budget, of course, but a bargain dash cam may end up being useless in practice. You don’t want to end up not recording the things that matter, or not clearly enough to prove your point.
One approach to determine a reasonable amount to spend on prevention is to figure out how likely you are to need it. There are 273.6 million registered vehicles in the U.S and there were 6,734,000 crashes in 2018, giving you a roughly 2½% chance of anything from getting into a fender bender to your car being totaled. The risk as it applies to you may be much greater, though, depending on factors like location as well as how many miles per year you drive.
We also need to consider how serious the consequences might be. Of those nearly seven million accidents annually, 1,894,000 result in injuries requiring medical attention (including 33,654 deaths). Medical bills, whether for you or someone else, can ruin you, while nobody wants to be held responsible for causing another person’s end through negligence.
In other words, paying a little more for the extra functionality you need is probably worth it.
Realistically, though, a dash cam is not going to show you the mysteries of the universe. For the most part, the footage it records is going to be pretty mundane, and ideally only half a minute or so of it is ever going to matter. Specialized, high-end dashcams like the Blackvue DR900S with live streaming and cloud storage are not necessary or even desirable for most users, so why pay for them?
How Many Pixels Is Enough?
Let’s start with one of the more obvious aspects of a dash cam: how clear, all things being equal, is its footage? The easiest way to measure this is in terms of resolution, meaning how many individual dots comprise the image.
To keep things simple, this is denoted by the number of pixels on each vertical side. Common standards are:
- 720p, or high-definition TV resolution,
- 1080p, full high definition,
- 1440p, quad high definition
- 2160p, 4K or ultra-high definition
As you can probably guess, more pixels means a more distinct image. Here’s how it works out in practice:
As you can see, one benefit of having a high-resolution dash cam is the ability to make out license plates. Recognizing faces is also important, as is confirming how many people are in a car (sometimes, people will claim injury damages for passengers who weren’t even present at the time of the accident. In the insurance industry, this is sometimes called the “phantom victim” scam or “jump-ins”).
Bear in mind that some other factors also influence the clarity of the video you take, including lighting conditions and the digital encoding scheme used to translate the output of your camera’s image sensor into a file your computer can play.
When selecting a dash cam, it’s a good idea to get the highest resolution you can find as long as it also has all the other features you’re looking for. The cost of advanced electronic components continue to plummet year after year, so this doesn’t necessarily cause the price to spike: you can actually get a 4K UHD dash cam from Rove for about a hundred dollars.
Dash Cams that can See in the Dark
Considering what electronic gizmos are capable of today, there really isn’t any excuse for buying any dash cam that doesn’t give you clear images at night. What may surprise you is that a lack of illumination by itself isn’t much of a problem: the camera will automatically increase its exposure time and give the CMOS or CCD sensor more light to work with.
The trouble arises when some parts of the picture are very dark and others brightly lit. Some cheaper cameras will try to make either one or the other visible, which results in everything in the middle getting washed out:
A camera equipped with some form of WDR (Wide Dynamic Range) technology doesn’t have this problem and will produce an image more like the bottom one. The specifics don’t really matter: some use a special sensor, others combine under- and over-exposed frames to achieve roughly the same result. The best policy is probably to read some trusted reviews: some degradation at night is normal, but if people are complaining about a camera’s low-light performance, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
Peripheral Vision (Field of View)
Most dash cams specify their viewing angles as a diagonal from one corner to the opposite. Some also mislead you by giving the figure for the lens rather than the area that’s actually visible, so 140° may mean a horizontal field of view of less than 120° at a standard 16:9 aspect ratio.
Here are two scenarios in which a wider viewing angle may save your bacon in court.
In this case, the dash cam footage will show that Mr Blue came to a full stop, but as for Mr Red: was he speeding like a maniac or “just didn’t see the guy”? A camera like the Apeman C860, which records almost a full arc in front of the vehicle, would have left Mr Blue feeling much happier.
Sometimes, inadequate dash cam or CCTV footage may do more harm than good. A narrow field of view would only have shown Mr Green swerving into Mr Blue’s path, even though Mr Red is actually at fault. Mr Red in this case represents what is known as a “phantom driver”: someone who causes an accident without getting a scratch on their own car.
The name is fitting: these drivers are often there one minute and gone the next, and may never even realize that they are to blame. Thanks to a dash cam with a wide field of view, neither Mr Green nor Mr Blue will be out of pocket in this instance.
In short, selecting a wider field of view can matter a great deal, perhaps not in every accident but certainly in “edge cases” – the kind of stuff that happens every day but isn’t the first thing we tend to think about.
Rear Cameras? Should you Look Back if You’re Going Forward?
People are often tempted to save a little money by choosing a dash cam that records only a frontal view. This also means you don’t have to spend 30 minutes or so routing a cable to a rear camera.
This seems pretty short-sighted once you know the statistics: about 30% of all crashes are rear-endings, while tailgating contributes to over one-third of all motor accidents. Responsibility with this kind of thing is very difficult to prove with only a front-facing camera, which can easily lead to culpability being assigned 50/50 rather than where it belongs.
Rear cameras can help keep you safe in other ways as well. If they’re designed to be mounted externally (like the Toguard CE60 we reviewed), they’ll give you a much clearer view when backing up. This is especially true with larger vehicles like trucks or vans, where the bodywork blocks much of the scene behind. On the other hand, if you own a car without a rear window or don’t want to mess around with the wiring, a windscreen-mounted camera that also records to the rear may be a good idea.
If Memory Serves
Although this seems kind of silly, microSD cards of different capacities actually work slightly differently. A device capable of handling 32 GB of storage just fine may not work at all with a 64 GB card.
Still, more storage isn’t always a benefit in practical terms. Depending on your dash cam’s resolution and how many cameras it records, 32 GB should give you at least 4 hours of recordings. These are normally segmented into video clips of a few minutes long.
Finding the particular portion of footage you’re interested in is usually the more difficult part. In general, a dash cam will continually overwrite its oldest files rather than filling up the card. This can be prevented by “locking” that clip and marking it as important: either when the camera detects a bump or hard braking, or the user presses a button on the dash cam (or, in the case of some cameras, on the steering wheel itself).
99% of the time, these clips will be the only ones you’ll be interested in. Alternatively, if you know that something interesting happened at 3:23 p.m. today, you’ll look up and save that footage as soon as you get home. A large memory card therefore won’t be of much use as long as you regularly delete all the locked recordings you don’t need and free up the space these occupy. However, if you get a traffic citation in the mail a week after the fact, a small memory card will not allow you to review what happened.
A more important issue is actually getting the right kind of microSD card. Particularly at high resolutions, pumping all those ones and zeros places a great deal of strain on electronics, and dash cams are often expected to work even in oven-like parked cars. Paying a few dollars more for a high-quality card rated for video recording and high temperatures avoids a whole bunch of potential problems.
Using an inferior SD card doesn’t just mean that some of your recordings may become corrupted. Digital errors can result in wildly unexpected consequences, including screen glitches or the whole camera just freezing.
GPS, or Knowing Where You Were
Being able to prove exactly where an incident occurred is often of more importance than you’d think. If you’ve ever been to traffic court, you may have noticed that testifying officers generally don’t say things like “at the intersection of Sloopy and Doopy roads” without adding “in Domblewomble county”. They are trained to do this: if they don’t, offenders may get out of a speeding ticket or even a reckless driving charge.
If details like road signs on the video clip don’t make it clear where some event occurred, you could find that its value as evidence is greatly diminished. As a real example you hopefully won’t encounter, some small towns have borders that deliberately include a tiny portion of a nearby highway.
The sole purpose of this is to set misleading speed traps and thereby get passing motorists to boost the town’s coffers (if you don’t believe this, read here). The local cops also aren’t too particular about where their stretch of road begins and ends, so being able to link your footage to a specific location may get you out of these unfair fines.
In addition, a GPS-enabled dash cam updates the correct time automatically, which is a great help when trying to find footage of some particular incident. Most also have a speed readout you can choose to display on the image itself. It is possible to calculate a vehicle’s speed based on how fast stationary objects pass by on the video, but also kind of cumbersome and open to interpretation. On the other hand, fast drivers may prefer not to use this functionality in case they want to use dash cam evidence taken while they were speeding.
Discreet or Deterrent?
The best accident is always the one you don’t get into, and letting people know that they’re on camera can curb their impulse to drive aggressively (which is at the root of many accidents). Really, having a bad attitude is just as dangerous as driving drunk, and you don’t need to look far for examples:
On the other hand, there are also good reasons to keep your dash cam as low-profile as possible. They’re often difficult to detect, thereby reducing the odds of someone breaking into your car to steal them.
What also comes in handy if the camera is inconspicuous is the ability to record. Let’s face it: most people are not at their best when stressed or angry. In addition, you may be confronted with malicious idiots who flat-out admit their plans to lie about the accident or are trying to commit insurance fraud.
Hiding your camera and letting them tie their own noose may seem sneaky, but calling out reckless, unprincipled drivers in court really is a public service. What they say on camera can indeed be used against them and may well cause the judge to ignore the rest of their testimony.
Do Sweat the Small Stuff
A lot of security-orientated systems fail just because the designer didn’t think of how people will actually be using it from day to day. Plenty of doors that are supposed to be locked are kept propped open, and forcing people to use complicated passwords just means that they’ll write them down somewhere.
One thing that’s worth paying attention to, especially if you share a vehicle, is any dash cam’s ease of use. Some, for instance, have a large touch screen that makes setting it up and changing settings as easy as changing the radio station. Others have no screen at all and require you to use a phone app, which some people may find more difficult.
Also of importance is how easy a dash cam makes it to review footage. Many require you to remove the microSD card and plug it into a laptop, which is of little use when you’re arguing with a cop on the side of the road. Being able to export your videos over wi-fi is much better. This matters especially for business vehicles where it can be desirable to permanently store a record of someone’s driving.
Finally, most dash cams have something called parking mode, which lets the camera record events even while the car is switched off. This is triggered either by a physical shock to the vehicle or movement visible in the video feed. The latter is obviously preferable, but will probably require you to connect your dash cam directly to your car’s fuse box instead of using the 12-volt power socket. Otherwise, a family of squirrels frolicking on the hood will quickly drain the dash cam’s internal battery.
No Time Like the Present
Any dash cam is better than none at all, but taking some care in selecting the perfect model is sure to pay off. The good news is that even the most cash-strapped consumer can today afford features that used to be found only on premium models: GPS route and speed logging, 4K resolution, and the ability to manage your videos from your phone.
This is one purchase you’ll very much regret not making sooner if you happen to get into an accident. By all means, take your time comparing features and prices, but don’t put off taking action for too long. You never know what might happen, but you’ll feel a whole lot better once you’ve taken some steps to protect yourself.