Need and eyewitness? Put a dash cam in your truck

By Ben Ellard
Special to Land Line


Do you need a dash cam?

Some drivers buy them for the fun of it, but the most common reason for mounting a dash cam in a truck – or at least thinking about it – is for the ability to disprove an allegation or to show that a collision or incident was someone else’s fault.

Dash cam is short for dashboard camera. A close cousin of the webcam, it’s generally a small, inexpensive camera that mounts on a dashboard or windshield. Variations from many manufacturers are available at electronics counters and Internet retailers.

Of course, in some instances drivers have been exonerated by data saved by onboard computers, but only if they have an onboard computer like one from Qualcomm or PeopleNet. Can a small, self-contained dash cam offer the same kind of protection?

Sometimes, yes, says attorney Jeff McConnell, who has seen video evidence help exonerate drivers. McConnell is with Road Law, which represents drivers around the country from its headquarters in Oklahoma City.

“Anything you arm a defense attorney with is good,” McConnell said, “but drivers should understand that they’re not going to march into a trial and have a major hearing on their video evidence. That’s not how it works.”

Bringing video evidence to trial requires legal groundwork that takes time. It’s far more effective to convince a prosecutor to drop a charge before it goes before a judge.

“A defense attorney can say to a prosecutor, ‘Hey look at this. We’re going to present this as evidence. You might want to see it,’ ” McConnell said.

“Prosecutors need CYA for their files. They don’t want their name associated with letting a guilty party go,” McConnell said. “If I can say, ‘I’ve got something you should see and I can download it to you,’ that’s good.”

But there are many dash cams with different characteristics on the market. What should a driver be looking for?

Antuan Goodwin knows something about dash cams. He is editor of Car Tech, a daily blog and e-mail newsletter from CNET, the CBS-owned, San Francisco-based site for technology news and reviews. Goodwin tells Land Line that there are two different kinds of dash cams.

“There are the kind they have in police cars that are constantly recording. They have hard drives or flash drives that can hang on to all the data for the duration of a trip,” he explained.

“The video quality is usually not (high definition),” Goodwin said. “It won’t pick up, for example, a license plate on a vehicle that’s too far away. But if you’re in an accident, you can very easily see the make and model of a car.”

There is another basic kind of dash cam.

“The newest technology we’ve been seeing are little cameras that basically record a 30-second loop,” Goodwin said.

This kind of dash cam is built specifically to capture accidents and as much associated data as possible. It may not connect to the truck’s sensors like a Qualcomm or PeopleNet onboard computer, but it has sensors built in.

“There’s usually some sort of a GPS receiver inside that keeps track of where the vehicle is and how fast it’s going. And there’s some sort of accelerometer that keeps track of hard braking,” Goodwin explained.

“The idea is that you have this 30-second loop of video constantly being recorded and if the system detects some sort of trauma to the vehicle – for example, if you’re rear-ended or you slam on the brakes or you run into something. It will save a snapshot of maybe 15 seconds leading up to the accident and 15 seconds after the accident.

“It will store that along with the GPS data on where the accident occurred and the accelerometer data for how fast you were going. And it will store that on some sort of a flash memory card that you can retrieve,” Goodwin said.

But displaying information from this kind of dash cam can be problematic. That’s because the files may not play in Windows Media Player or any other standard software.

Some of the loop dash cams require special, often proprietary, software to display the video and associated data. That makes it hard for an attorney to show the evidence to a prosecutor.

Digital evidence only works “if you have a method to get it to a prosecutor and they have a method to view it,” McConnell said. “Therein lies the problem, because how do you view it? Do you send the whole cam in a box to the prosecutor and say, ‘Hey look at this just press play’ ”?

And while GPS-enabled, loop devices have potential, they may not be necessary in the case of another driver’s nightmare: being wrongly accused of a traffic infraction or being in an accident you are not even aware of, never mind involved in.

In that case there’s no incident to record, only the video record of what you were doing at the time it supposedly occurred.

For that, the simplest video dash cam should fit the bill.

Meanwhile, according to CNET’s Goodwin, dash cam technology is bound to grow more sophisticated.

“The next generation of these devices will probably connect to the vehicle telematics,” he said. “It might be able to call 911 if you were in an accident – a kind of poorman’s OnStar.” LL