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What you need to know about dashboard-mounted car cameras

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We've all had it happen while out walking, cycling or driving. Somebody does something foolish and it results in an accident or a near miss, a giant meteor comes streaking through the sky or we catch a rare glimpse of a hoverbike-riding robot. Something memorable always happens when your phone is cached safely in your pocket. This typically leaves you shaking your fist at the missed opportunity.

Victim of road rage? An accident? Ever had your car dinged while parked in a public lot? These are all great reasons to invest in a dash cam. And with prices for decent units at well under a hundred bucks, the cost of admission is easy for just about any budget. While the technology may not appeal to everyone, the payoff in the unfortunate event of an accident might just make it a must-have. So if you're in the market for a dash cam or you're just plain curious what they're for, here's what you need to know.

WHAT IS IT?

A "dash cam" is exactly what its name promises it to be: a camera that's mounted in or around your car's dashboard. The cams are easily attached using a suction cup mount, direct dash friction mounts (those sticky rubber pads) and even built right into a not-too-conspicuous replacement rear mirror for your ride. Powered by batteries, hardwired into your vehicle's 12-volt system or via cigarette lighter, the dash cam faithfully records all it sees as you go about your daily business.

The cameras come in every conceivable configuration, from a single lens to multiple lenses allowing for simultaneous front and rear recording. While 1080p-capable cams are now becoming standard fare, VGA versions exist and can be had for pocket change. Of course, while dash cams are seen most often in cars, these cameras aren't just reserved for the auto industry. It's become commonplace to see a cam perched on the heads of two-wheeled vehicle riders, too. Purpose-built cameras are slowly beginning to occupy the space that was once reserved for pricey sports/action gear. Both cyclists and motorcyclists have long complained about how dangerous car drivers are and are now taking advantage of the chance to prove it.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

The camera's footage can be used for all kinds of fun and positive stuff: from sharing videos of hilarious vanity plates, to shots of beautiful cars and scenery. Pedestrian shenanigans you happen to roll past can transform a mundane commute into a Facebook highlight reel. We've seen great time-lapse coverage of long drives, animals doing cute stuff, weather footage during storms -- the possibilities for entertainment are endless.

But of course the more pragmatic use is for video evidence in cases of personal accident insurance or proof of innocence (or guilt) in an accident. Consider your options without any proof other than your word: Your insurance may have to pay, your rates climb and the jerk gets off scot-free. The internet is stuffed to bursting with videos of people willingly diving in front of cars in traffic, accepting minor injury for an insurance payout.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Most dash cams simply plug in to power, automatically start when your car does and record video onto removable storage. When you hit your storage limit, the system will begin to overwrite the oldest files in a never-ending loop. Of course, more sophisticated versions exist that geotag your files so you can pinpoint the location of what's been recorded and also monitor speed, time and date for the recordings. Shock sensors can even tag recordings upon impact to ensure they're not overwritten in the event of a collision. Some cams are able to sit in a standby mode and only begin recording on impact -- pretty neat! Consider if somebody bumps you and then drives away in a parking lot: The footage from your camera, combined with any footage from the lot itself, might help the police track down whoever bumped into your whip.

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY AND HOW CAN IT PROTECT ME?

The law generally says that dash cams are legal. As long as you're not infringing on people's privacy, you're fine. There's no reasonable expectation of privacy while in public, which is exactly where the roads you're driving and recording on are. In fact, we'd argue that has potential to simplify the police officer's job at an accident scene.

Video aside, if your unit records audio in the car, you'd be wise to alert your passengers that the system is recording at the beginning of your trip.

As for a real-word use case, I was recently the victim of some pretty crazy road rage behavior. After the police were contacted, license plate info and car description were handed over. We were quickly told that the most that could be done was to issue the other driver a warning, as it was our word versus the other driver's. In this case, a dash cam recording would have provided irrefutable evidence and empowered the police to take legal action.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

If you want to see some samples of footage, just Google "Russia dash cam winter driving" and prepare for chaos. Not comfortable shopping online? No worries: Dash cam videos have become so popular that even Best Buy has a section and display dedicated to this new frontier of video recording.

[Image Credits: Pocketnavigation.de]

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