If a picture is worth a thousand words, video of the unbelievably stupid things you see on the road is priceless. But can dash cams actually help you out in a sticky situation? Here's how to decide whether you should get one, along with the laws and insurance factors you need to be aware of.
Dash cam picture from Shutterstock
A dash cam, or dashboard-mounted camera, is a device designed to record everything that happens when you drive. Think of it as a GoPro for your car. Dash cams can cost anywhere from $60 for low-end models to well over $200 for the cream of the crop. They consist of a single or double lens digital camera that mounts via a suction cup to your window or dashboard, powered through direct 12-volt wiring to your vehicle, batteries, or the cigarette lighter. As soon as you start your car, the camera records video directly to an SD card on a continuous loop, so it sees what you see as a driver. Some record sound, some can record in night vision, and some even have built-in GPS so you know where something was recorded.
Dash cams can capture those moments that would normally come down to your "version" of the story as a driver. Whatever the occurrence — a car cutting you off, someone jumping in front of your vehicle — the dash cam records it and saves it for later reference. They're wildly popular in Russia because vehicle insurance fraud is so prevalent, but they're gaining a lot of traction in Australia as well.
Dash cams can be pretty polarising. Right now you're either thinking of how useful they might be, or how unnecessary they are for most people. This all started with a passionate debate I had with a buddy of mine. He swears on them, saying he won't drive his vehicle without one. I, on the other hand, have never felt the need for one and found them to be a little overkill. I decided to find out which one of us was right.
Dash Cams Won't Get You Discounts on Your Insurance
A few car insurance providers in the UK have started to offer 10 to 15 per cent discounts to customers with dash cams installed in their vehicles. Unfortunately, Aussie car insurance companies are slow to embrace the technology.
"Insurance companies are slow to respond to emerging trends, their systems being so complicated that it costs significant amounts to add in allowances for new items such as a field for car dash camera discounts," explained Car Dash Cameras' insurance broker Anthony Scott on the company's website.
"At this time and to my knowledge, there is no private motor insurance company in Australia that offers a discount for having a car dvr installed, but it will have to happen in time as they are a vital product in proving who is responsible in the event of a collision. The cost savings to insurers could be significant if you consider the legal costs alone when it comes to recoveries."
Dashcams don't prevent accidents from happening, and currently there isn't any evidence that points to dash cams making people better drivers, so why would there be a discount? As more people use them, however, additional data may sway things in dash cam owners' favour in the future. Dash cam footage may also potentially reduce the time required to settle disputes and push insurance companies to eventually offer those sweet, sweet discounts.
Dash Cam Footage May Help With Insurance Claims or In Court
Dash cams aren't completely useless when it comes to insurance, however. Some insurance companies may accept dash cam footage when trying to prove you're not at fault in an accident. If your claim becomes a dispute, it's always better to have more evidence than less.
Having footage of an accident doesn't guarantee that it will be used, however. According to Philadelphia attorney Scott Diamond, they don't always provide a clear picture of what happened in a car accident:
It's just not so simple to decide who's at fault at an intersection. I would say it's very helpful, but it's not conclusive evidence.
While many dash cams try to offer as wide a view as possible, it's still only pointed in one direction. Because of that and the potential graininess of some cheaper models, dash cams might show something happening, but may not help explain why it happened. The "why" is the most important part when determining if you're at fault or not. Still, it's better than nothing, assuming your auto insurance provider will take a look at it.
Additionally, if you're the victim of a hit-and-run, Tracy Noble, a AAA spokeswoman, suggests footage can at least prove that the accident happened:
From an insurance standpoint, they could be used to clear-up accident and hit and run claims as an objective observer in a crash instead of the "he said, she said" account. A camera could be a reliable source of information.
Notice that she says it "could" be a reliable source, not that it is. Still, there are a lot of instances where having even a small amount of evidence is the difference between getting something and nothing at all. Some dash cam models can turn on when they detect motion, making it possible to catch those jerks that bump into your car in the parking lot and don't leave a note. Overall, when it comes to insurance, stick to the basics when you get in an accident. Focus on filing a police report and nabbing eyewitness accounts because they still have more weight than photos or videos.
The Laws You Should Keep In Mind
In the majority of circumstances, car cameras are perfectly legal to use in Australia. The only real exception is if you use it to record a private act (such as inside a garage or building). Naturally, you also need to ensure that the cam doesn’t obstruct your vision and adhere to the same GPS/phone mount rules that apply in your state. Basically, this amounts to not fiddling with the device while driving.
Because dash cams record video (and possibly audio), they could potentially be considered electronic surveillance devices. In some Australian states, secretly recording conversations is against the law. This is unlikely to be an issue when driving around in a vehicle, but you should probably let your passengers know that their conversations might be picked up by the dash cam. Alternatively, just buy a model that doesn't record audio, or disable the audio recording functionality (in the event of an accident, it will probably just pick up swearing anyway.)
You Don't Really NeedOne (Yet)
While the benefits of owning a dash cam aren't exactly concrete, there's no real downside to having one as long as you follow your local laws. But do you need one? Not really. If you want one, however, there's enough benefits to justify the cost of a reasonably-priced model. If you're not sure where to start, DashcamownersAUS has a great guide on the best budget dash cams. Some people recommend mounting both a front and back-facing camera, but again, there's no guarantee you'll need it. For now, buying a dash cam is like buying insurance extras: it might just be your saving grace under the right circumstances, but there's no huge benefit to it upfront.
Additional reporting by Chris Jager.