From personal security to evidence for insurance claims, dash cams can provide peace of mind

Adam Osmond, a 52-year-old Connecticut resident, accountant, and runner, always wears a body camera when he’s running on trails around New England. And when he’s driving, he always has a dash cam recording everything that happens inside and outside of his car.

Osmond, who is Black, says he’s been racially profiled by the police while he’s been behind the wheel. In fact, he leaves early for races in case he gets pulled over. Most of the time the police officers cite minor infractions, such as driving too close to the curb, and let him go with a warning. In one case he was pulled over and ticketed for using his cell phone while driving.

“I didn’t say a word; I just took the ticket,” he says. “Then I went to court and said to the prosecutor, ‘I have the [dash cam] footage to prove I wasn’t on my phone.’ ” Osmond had his iPad with the video on it, but the prosecutor decided to drop the charges without even looking at it.

Osmond’s dash cam—an ITRUE X9D—features inward- and outward-facing cameras that catch all the action in 1080-pixel resolution both on the road and inside the car. It automatically records incidents, such as crashes and vandalism, saving the footage for future reference.

“It’s easy to use,” he says. “When you turn on the car, it turns on; when you shut off the car, it turns off.”

Dash cams are small video cameras (priced from $50 to more than $200) that can be mounted to a car’s dashboard or windshield to record what happens in front of the vehicle. More advanced models can also record interior audio and video as well as rear-facing video, and even livestream to the internet so friends or family can watch you on your drive. (See Consumer Reports’ expert advice on shopping for dash cam features, below.)

There are plenty of dash cams on the market with a lot of features to choose from. Some, such as Osmond’s, are equipped with WiFi, while others come with 4G LTE connectivity, and begin recording automatically when they sense an accident or an attempted car break-in. Bluetooth is also fairly common. Others come as built-in features provided by automakers, such as those in Teslas and BMWs, among other car brands. 

And iPhones updated with at least iOS 12 can be set up to work as a dash cam, with a shortcut that allows the user to simultaneously stop the music, dim the screen, send a location message to a predetermined contact, and record sound and video simply by saying, “Police,” or “Hey Siri, I’m getting pulled over.”

The galvanizing death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 during what should have been a routine encounter, has highlighted the importance of video documentation, as well as the continuing legacy of racism in America. His death was among the latest incidents of an African American being killed by police that was captured on video and shared on social media. But the raw scenes of Floyd’s death, recorded by witnesses on cell-phone cameras, seemed to represent a tipping point, spreading quickly and sparking nationwide protests. 

For those on edge about interacting with the police, a dash cam can give some comfort and also provide video evidence of a traffic stop or other incident. Dash-mounted and body-mounted cameras have become standard in many law enforcement agencies, but dash cams are becoming more common among civilians, too. 

“It’s more recently that civilians have gone out and purchased their version of dash cams,” says Frank Straub, Ph.D., director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation. 

Most states allow the use of dash cams with some restrictions regarding their physical placement in a car so that they don’t restrict a driver’s outward visibility. But some states have privacy laws that make it illegal to record audio of someone in a private space—such as inside a car—without his or her consent. And according to the ACLU, some states have attempted to limit audio recordings by using wiretapping laws.

T8Auto recommends reviewing state and local laws that deal with recording interactions with the police before buying a dash cam.

Straub says that having more video evidence is better, but that civilians should make sure they can record in a way that won’t jeopardize safety, escalate an encounter with law enforcement, or impede an officer from doing his or her job. He also notes that police officers are required to maintain all video footage collected from their police cruisers (whether that information is public depends on the jurisdiction) and from body-mounted cameras, and he urges members of the public to do the same. 

“If a civilian records a video as evidence,” Straub says, “we hope that person safeguards the video, if they make one, to ensure that no one is going to alter the video.”

In another incident, Osmond was able to use his dash cam to help the police after a hit-and-run accident at a traffic light.

He simply hit the camera’s “save” button and waited for the police to arrive at the scene. His model has a button that can be pressed to save footage, which he can then download to his smartphone.

“I was able to show the officer the video, and then email him the file,” Osmond says.

John Harrison, 65, of Brooklyn, N.Y., has had a dash cam for more than 10 years. Although he has never had to use it for anything major, the accident-prone streets of the city he calls home were reason enough to get one, if only for peace of mind, he says.

“When I first got it, it was still a thing that people would throw themselves on your hood and try to get insurance money,” he says. “I didn’t want to be falsely accused of hitting someone.”

When he got a new car last year, Harrison upgraded to a new dash cam loaded with features, such as a rear-facing camera and low-light capability.

“Driving around without one, I felt helpless,” he says. “The new car was a lease, so it’s covered [by collision insurance], but the last thing I want is for my insurance rates to go up.”

Police Behavior

Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, has written about video documentation and its potential to influence police behavior.

“I think police know they are being watched by body cams, dash cams, and citizens with mobile phones,” he says. “Knowing they are being watched doesn’t appear to decrease use of force. My theory is that police know just how unlikely they are to be disciplined for use of force, and therefore there’s no consequence even for documented actions.”

But there’s an upside, Zuckerman says. The images captured by cell phones and dash cameras can mobilize protests that could have the power to change policy.

“Imagery can be very powerful, but only if protesters can find a way to be powerful,” he says.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, the New York Legislature passed a bill that gives people the right not only to monitor law enforcement activity but also maintain custody of the footage. The New York City Council passed similar legislation a few days later.

“Transparency is critical to renewing the community’s trust and confidence in our policing systems,” said New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, in a statement after signing the state-level legislation into law. “Stopping police abuse vindicates the overwhelming majority of police who are there to do the right thing, and by making clear that all New Yorkers have the right to record and keep recordings of police activity we can help restore trust in the police-community relationship.”

What to Look for in an Aftermarket Dash Cam

Dash cams are only as good as the evidence they can collect. And there are a number of features—wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, motion sensing, automatic recording—that can make them more effective.

Features to Look For
High-definition video.
 You want your dash cam to provide as detailed an image as possible. The higher the image quality, the easier it is to see important details, such as the license plate on the moving car that sideswiped you. Look for a dash cam with a resolution of at least 1080p.

Low-light capability. You don’t want to lose important visual information because the light was too dim for the camera to record it. A dash cam with low-light capability increases the chance that you’ll get the video you need.

Ample storage. Most models have the capability to create a separate “event” file with the push of a button; you can later download the footage to a phone or computer via a removable SD card or through the onboard wireless connection. But it can be difficult to keep your wits about you to remember to save a video after an accident. Having a large storage card will increase the chance that your dash cam will preserve the footage you need, even if you don’t think to save it until hours after an incident. Look for a 32GB storage card or larger for the device.

Longer loop time. Because the memory card in a dash cam doesn’t have infinite space, it records in sections called loops, which are basically small video clips that are part of the larger continuous recording. When a memory card reaches capacity—which varies based on the resolution and settings—the camera will begin recording over the oldest loops first. You need a loop file that’s at least 3 minutes long. A 5-minute file is even better.

Nice-to-Have Features
Professional installation.
 Though most dash cams can be powered by the 12-volt outlet in a car, having a professional install the camera ensures that it’s always powered by the car’s battery. Professional installation is essential for dash cams equipped with a rear-facing camera. Installation costs on average run $99 to $150. Many electronics retailers offer package deals when you buy a dash cam from them.

LCD screen. Though screens may be distracting to some drivers, they make it easier to see whether an event has been recorded or the camera has stopped working.

Motion detector. Many models have a motion detector that can activate recording or create a separate event file when there’s movement or something comes in contact with the car while it’s parked. That’s a useful feature if your car spends a lot of time on the street or in public parking. These cams require an internal or external battery pack or other source of power, such as a hardwired installation.

GPS and WiFi. Dash cams with a GPS receiver will establish the time, date, and location of any incident it captures. But remember: Drivers who tend to speed are at risk of proving their own culpability. WiFi allows easy downloading of video footage to a phone or computer.

Inward-facing camera. While capturing the action outside the car is helpful, the most critical events can occur right where the driver and passengers are sitting.

Don’t-Bother Features
Safety features.
 Some full-featured dash cams offer integrated forward collision and lane departure warnings, which might appeal to owners of cars that lack them. But in our experience, there’s no easy way to tell what exactly the dash cam is warning about when it beeps an alert as there is with built-in advance driver assistance system (ADAS) features. Plus, the warnings aren’t consistent—sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t—so they’re often false alarms.

Vehicles With Built-In Cameras

Most dash cams are aftermarket products you can buy online. But there are a few vehicles, namely Teslas and some BMWs, that come equipped with surveillance camera systems.

Tesla’s system uses the cameras and sensors within the vehicle’s ADAS features to keep an eye on anyone who comes within range. Tesla says its Sentry mode identifies significant threats, allowing the cameras to turn on when the vehicle is off and unattended.

BMW’s system uses a suite of cameras that show a 360-degree view of the car to give occupants a display of what’s happening outside. Although not available on all BMW models, the system allows users to record bursts of video footage of up to 40 seconds for security purposes. In the event of a collision, the system saves up to 20 seconds of footage until the vehicle comes to a standstill.

Multiple Uses for Dash Cams

There are plenty of reasons to have a dash cam in your car, but at the end of the day it all boils down to providing proof. A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. Although no camera can capture everything, video evidence can help you if you’re involved in an accident or stopped by the police, or if your car falls prey to burglars or vandals.

“For now, dash cams that you stick on the windshield are still the most popular,” says Carl Mathews, senior director of mobile merchandising at Crutchfield, an electronics retailer highly rated by Consumer Reports readers. (Some states have restrictions on devices attached to the windshield, so be sure to check local laws before committing to a purchase.)

“We’re seeing growth in dash cams with WiFi capability that use an application on your smartphone for video playback,” Mathews says. “That way, if you are involved in an incident, it’s easier and faster to download a clip from the dash cam to your phone for sharing with your insurance company, the police, or on social media.” Crutchfield customers have paid an average of $125 for a dash cam, he says.

To help you decide whether a dash cam is worth the investment, here are five reasons people buy one, along with the features we think you should look for:

1. Evidence for Insurance Claims
Major insurers don’t currently advertise discounts on premiums for dash cam owners, but they will review dash cam footage of an accident, just as they accept photos snapped on the scene with a cell phone. Dash cam footage is usually more reliable than witness accounts and can be extremely useful to an insurance company in determining liability.

2. Silent Guardian
Urbanites who park their cars on the street are turning to dash cams for a measure of protection against car break-ins and vandalism. Some pricier models can record a 360-degree perspective, have an impact sensor, and are able to notify the owner if anyone hits the car. Once the gyro-enabled impact sensor is triggered, the camera creates a separate “incident” file that saves video from just before the impact and for an additional 1 to 5 minutes after, footage that could be essential to a police investigation if a car is broken into or struck while it’s parked.

3. Video Corroboration
Dash cams also can provide solid evidence that you’re not guilty. A few weeks after driving through Pennsylvania, Adam Osmond, the Connecticut accountant, received a ticket in the mail for failing to pay a toll. He says he successfully disputed the charge because he had footage of himself paying it and talking with the tollbooth operator.

John Harrison, the Brooklyn resident who has used a dash cam for years, also says he got out of a ticket by having video evidence.

“A cop pulled me over for speeding and said he got me going 32 or 33 mph in a 20 mph zone,” he says. “But I was going 25, 26 tops, and I told the cop that I had video to prove it. He let me off with a warning.”

Remember, though, that your own footage can potentially be used against you. For example, in some states, if your dash camera documents that you’re exceeding the speed limit, you could be held partly liable if there’s an accident—even if the other driver was primarily at fault.

4. A Reliable Witness
Interest in dash cams also has been prompted by videos of motorists having altercations with the police and reported incidents of members of minority groups being stopped without cause. One study, the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project’s 2016 Traffic Stop Analysis and Findings, found that in some towns the rate of traffic stops for minorities was significantly higher during the day than during the evening or nighttime hours, when it could be harder to identify a driver’s skin tone. And the Stanford Open Policing Project has found that Black motorists are more likely to be stopped by police officers than white and Hispanic motorists. Its analysis also found that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be searched by the police during a traffic stop.

Cameras can be an impartial witness in disputes about racial profiling. It’s legal to use a dash cam to document interactions with the police during a traffic stop, but we recommend that you notify any members of law enforcement that they’re being recorded, just as you should notify occupants of your car.

5. Personal Security
Some cams can provide an extra measure of security if a stranger approaches you when you’re parked and alone in a lot or stopped at an intersection.

Surround-view dash cam models can get a shot of anyone approaching your car no matter what direction they come from. Models that are hardwired to the vehicle’s battery or that have an internal battery can document any encounter even if the car isn’t running.

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