Dash cams explained: Should you have one?

Dashboard cameras, more commonly known as dash cams, can provide a wide range of benefits for drivers.

These digital video recorders sit on the dashboard or windshield of a vehicle, capturing what happens while driving. Several styles exist, including those that record behind and inside the car, while the car is parked, or after an event such as the driver swerving or braking suddenly.

Dash cams are commonly used in the trucking industry, where they provide trucking companies with insight into how safe their drivers are. If there’s a crash, the dash cam can provide an objective record to the trucking company and the police about what occurred, often reducing liability for the trucking company as a result of false claims.

Whether you drive a vehicle for work, commuting, or just day-to-day personal use, dash cams are becoming more accessible and beneficial. Consider how many times you’ve had close calls with drivers who were speeding or not paying attention. If there had been a crash, how would you have proved you weren’t at fault? That’s what a dash cam aims to do.

What is a dash cam?

Dash cams are typically small, high-resolution cameras that plug into your car’s accessory port for power. Some have an internal battery, while others have capacitors and turn on and off with the car. Battery models allow for recording while the car is parked and turned off, while capacitors can work better for drivers in hot or cold climates and may have a longer service life. Many record audio as well as video, and advanced models can display the speed and location of the car alongside the footage.

Most often, the cameras mount to the dashboard or windshield of the car, facing toward the street. They operate as a silent witness, recording what’s occurring as you drive. Most cameras have a screen to help adjust the view of the road, and to communicate information like battery charge. Typically, the recorded video is saved to a memory card on a rolling basis; when the memory reaches capacity, old video is replaced with new video. Some models retain footage if they detect hard acceleration or deceleration (such as during a crash) or if the driver hits a “save” button. 

What are the advantages of a dash cam?

When a car crash happens and there are no cameras or other witnesses, it’s often one driver’s word against the other's. It’s common for drivers to not remember all the details or the timing of events during a crash (especially if one of the drivers was distracted) and without a recording, you could be found at fault even if you weren't. Depending on the accident and where you live, being at fault could mean serious fines, expensive increases in auto insurance costs, demerit points on your driver’s license, and even lawsuits.

When might having a dash cam help you?

  • You’re in a crash and you’re not at fault: If, for any reason, you worry about being wrongly found at fault in a car crash, having a dash cam will likely help by providing proof of what you did or did not do in most types of crashes.
  • You’re a victim of insurance fraud: Insurance fraud occurs when a person makes a claim against another party's insurance policy for damages not made by the insured. A common form of this is the staged collision, in which the scammer purposefully causes a crash with the victim and then says the victim is at fault, seeking a big payout from the ensuing insurance claims.

    It can be difficult to defend yourself against a fraud claim if it’s your word against that of multiple scammers, but having video of the scam in progress can help expose it.
  • You get a traffic ticket in error: Though laws in each state differ on how video like this can be used in court, for certain kinds of violations, dash cams make it easier for police officers to verify what occurred. If you're pulled over for a violation you didn’t commit, your dash cam footage may help to show your innocence, either at the scene of the ticket or (if allowed) in court.
  • You're a commercial driver and want to protect your livelihood: The use of a dash cam is a type of liability-reducing, blame-reducing tool for commercial drivers, who rely on their good driving record to make a living. An erroneous claim could put your career at risk, so a dash cam could be a valuable investment in protecting your commercial license.
  • You want to review driving footage: Another way to use dash cams is as a tool to help you improve your driving. You can review the footage after long trips or difficult routes to determine how well you did. More commonly, you may want to use these cameras as a way to monitor how well (and safely) your teen driver is doing on the roadways when you're not in the car to monitor them. This is a great teaching aid for new drivers.
  • You want to watch an unattended vehicle: Many dash cams can run on battery power to monitor your vehicle when it’s parked. This low-power setting typically turns on the camera if the device detects acceleration from an impact or vandalism, similar to a car alarm. If you need to park your car long-term, such as at an airport, or if it’s frequently parked in public, having a dash cam might help you find the responsible parties if someone strikes the car, vandalizes it, or even steals and abandons it.

Interested in getting a dash cam?

AAA members save up to 51% on dash cam bundles from Nextbase, a leading maker of dash cams. Learn more

What are the disadvantages of a dash cam? 

  • Could be used against you: The biggest risk to dash cameras is their ability to tell the truth even when you might not want to. If you're at fault in a crash, your own dash cam's footage could prove it.

    In addition, footage and other device data may let others see where you’ve been, who you’ve been with, and what you’ve talked about. If the device is stolen or the footage is stored in the cloud and hacked, anyone might be able to see it.
  • Expense: Though there are budget models, any dash cam will cost money, and advanced models can be expensive—$200 and above. For that reason, you want to be sure they’re the right fit for your needs.
  • Distraction: If you're focused on setting up or adjusting the camera, that could mean you're not paying attention to the road.
  • Theft: The camera itself could become a target for theft. As a valuable piece of tech, there is an increased risk someone could break into your car to steal it.

States have different laws about where a dash cam may be mounted in your vehicle.

What dash cam laws should you be aware of?

Before you invest in a dash cam, research your local laws. States have different laws about whether you may place a dash cam on your windshield glass (versus on the actual dashboard), and it’s important to ensure it’s never blocking your field of view. 

California, for example, has specific areas of the windshield where you can place a dash cam, as well as size restrictions. Other states don’t provide specific rules, but may state that the windshield must be unobstructed or that nothing can be mounted on the windshield. A dash cam could be a violation of that, in which case you'd need a dashboard mount.

Another concern is that some states require 2-party consent for audio recording. If you live in one of them, you’ll need to ensure you’re not breaking the law by recording your passengers without their consent. In some states, this may mean you need to post a sign in a visible place notifying passengers that their conversations are being recorded. If the passengers don't consent, you'll need to turn off the dash cam (or just the audio recording, if your cam allows that).

Are there insurance discounts for dash cams?

Unlike with anti-theft systems, most insurance companies don't offer discounts for having a dash camera. The primary way a dash cam can save you money is by preventing you from being wrongly found at fault in a crash, which can help keep your insurance rates from going up. If the footage proves you're not at fault, you also won't have to pay a deductible to your insurer for repairs.

AAA members save up to 51% on Nextbase dash cam bundles

Choose from 6 different bundles from Nextbase, a leading dash cam maker. Bundles start at $63.99 and include a Nextbase camera, 32GB SD card, and polarizing filter, with an optional rear window camera. Higher-level bundles feature cameras with higher resolutions and wireless connectivity.

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