If you've seen any online or news videos of crazy drivers or wacky traffic incidents, chances are they were recorded with a car dashboard camera. Also known as dash cams, they're mounted on the dashboard or windshield of the car and can be useful for recording evidence in accidents or road rage incidents.
Video: CHOICE's top 5 tips for buying a dash cam
Is a dash cam legal?
A dash cam is legal, provided:
- you don't manually operate it while driving and it's mounted properly
- the camera is in a fixed mounting position and doesn't obscure your view of the road ahead, behind and to either side of the vehicle.
Can it get me out of a sticky situation?
Recording video while driving on public roads is OK, since privacy concerns don't generally apply in public spaces. But think carefully about how you use the resulting videos. There should be no problem showing them to the police or insurers, but it might not always be OK to post them online.
Okay, I want one ... how much should I spend?
The potential benefits of a dashboard camera are obvious, but are you willing to fork out the big bucks for one? You can pick one up for under $100, but they can cost $500 or more, so consider the pros and cons before racing out to spend any hard-earned cash:
- Rear-ending another car is the most common accident type in Australia, and if you're the driver of the rear-ending car then you're usually considered at fault unless you can prove otherwise. If you're innocent, a good dash cam could help prove it.
- Dash cam video has been used successfully in traffic cases overseas to prove what occurred in the incident; for example, to show that the other car ran a red light.
- A video recording might be a very useful backup in the case where it would be your word against the other driver's.
- Many motorists are never involved in accidents so won't get much use from a dash cam.
- A dash cam can only record video in its field of view (that is, in front of the car).
- Many dash cams don't give a clear picture of another car's number plate unless that car is very close, directly ahead and in bright daylight without glare (and some models struggle even then).
What do I need to look for?
Built-in display screen
So you can check the alignment of the camera when setting it up, and quickly review video without a computer.
Automatically records your location and speed and matches these to the video recording. Models that come with a GPS feature generally come with the software to view the recorded data. With dashboard cameras, a GPS feature doesn't mean they can navigate you to a destination like a regular GPS unit does.
Lets the camera run without permanent power connection, although generally only up to an hour. You'll also need a cable (which comes with most models) to run the camera from the car's 12V socket. Some models can also be hardwired to the car's power supply.
Continuous loop recording means the camera records until the memory is full and then just records over the oldest video again, so that you always have a recording of the last few hours.
A bracket with a suction cup is easier to remove for security or to transfer to another car. But for permanent mounting an adhesive fastening may be better (the camera itself can still be detached).
The camera turns on when you start the car, and usually stops after a set time when the car is turned off.
Activates the camera when it detects that the car has been bumped or moved. This is mainly useful if the offending car comes from the front and therefore appears on the video. Even if it doesn't, the time and date stamp on the video may be useful information. Some models automatically save this video in a separate file that won't be deleted. Some also record data about the force and direction of the impact.
Allows the camera to keep running when the car is turned off, so that any accidents are still recorded. This requires the dash cam to be hardwired to the car's power. Models with internal batteries may keep running for a short time after the car is turned off.
Removable memory card
Should be easily accessible when the camera is mounted so you can remove it without having to detach the camera. More memory means more hours of video storage, and the number of hours of video depends on the selected resolution and frame rate. 16GB will usually provide several hours of recording at high resolution. Some models have a card included while for others you'll need to purchase this separately.
Media player software can usually handle all video formats, but there are many variations of video formatting and you may have trouble playing back some files on a Mac for example.
Some models claim a 'night vision' mode to assist in low light or night time. But don't rely on it; we haven't found it to make a significant difference in our tests.
The dashboard cams we tested range in price from $79 to $545.