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Why Your Car Could Use a Dashcam

Video-on-the-go can thwart thieves or provide evidence in an accident


spinner image a couple driving find the road blocked by a flock of sheep and their dash cam records it
Michael Parkin

Social media is filled with viral videos of shocking road mishaps, amazing bolts of lightning, approaching tornadoes — all captured at just the right moment through the windshield of a car. Which begs the question: How did they film that?

The videographers probably weren’t holding a phone while they drove. An increasing number of people are installing a dashcam — a camera mounted inside the car that regularly makes video recordings.

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Next question: Why? Many users get them just for fun, to capture what they see while they drive. But it turns out dashcams also have a practical use. And a case can be made for these devices whether you are at the wheel or when the vehicle is parked.

Peace of mind for your car

If you live in a high-traffic area, a dashcam could prove to law enforcement or an insurance company that you weren’t at fault in an accident. Indeed, if you’ve been in a severe collision, the victim of a hit and run, or even a minor fender bender, this may be the only “eyewitness” you have, says Jeff Chuh, vice president of marketing for North America at dashcam-maker Nextbase. And if you are pulled over during a traffic stop, you can grab video — and audio — of the episode. “It reduces the risk of ‘he-said, she-said’ incidents,” he says. 

Dashcams that turn on when activated by motion sensors can also help when a car is left unattended. If your parked auto is sideswiped, for example, a dashcam might capture video footage that reveals the license plate of the offending vehicle. It also may be able to identify a vandal or would-be thief.

Dashcam costs are all over the road 

Some popular dashcam brands include BlackVue, Garmin, Mio, Nexar, Nextbase and Rexing. Models can cost under $100 or up to several hundred dollars. Amazon-owned Ring, the company that popularized doorbell cameras, also recently joined the market, with its Ring Car Cam ($250). 

Among Ring Car Cam’s features is one built specifically for a traffic stop. A user can say, “Alexa record” and it will start capturing a clip, says Ring Chief Product Officer Jason Mitura.

Across the board, you’ll find a wide gulf in terms of prices and features. Sub-$100 models may be good for your budget but not function as well on the road, especially if you’re hoping to make out a license plate captured at night. But not everyone needs all the bells and whistles in a model that costs well north of $400.

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Features to consider

Image quality: Choose 1080p, high-definition as a minimum video resolution, as well as a model with a decent field of vision that can also deliver crisp, high-quality video in bright sunshine and at night. Consumer Reports recommends a dashcam with 4K resolution to record useful, high-quality video for insurance purposes.

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Storage: Get a dashcam with a slot to insert an SD memory card, though the cost of the card itself is not always included with your purchase. Typically, when you’ve run out of storage (capacity depends on the size of the SD card and video resolution), the camera will record over older footage. But you always have the option to remove the card and download any video to save on your computer. Some models can upload video directly to the cloud, typically for a fee. For example, the Ring Protect Go subscription plan costs $6 per month or $60 per year. A seven-day Garmin Vault cloud subscription plan costs $4.99 when billed monthly, or $9.99 for 30 days of storage. Subscribers can send a secure link to an insurance company, say, of relevant incident footage that’s stored in the vault, says Garmin Vice President Caleb Herbst.

Single cam or multicam: Using a dual-facing camera lets you grab footage of the front of the car and inside the cabin, a smart choice to capture video of break-ins, or if you want to monitor your teen child or grandchild in the back seat while you drive. It might also add security if you’re moonlighting as a ride-share driver. “What happens in front of your windshield is only half the story,” Consumer Reports notes.

Key add-onConsumer Reports also recommends looking for car cams that capture your GPS coordinates and log your speed, among other granular details. These can provide crucial evidence in an accident. Garmin’s Herbst concurs: “GPS is nice for a source of truth in terms of speed and stoppage points,” he says.

Power: Dashcams draw power when the ignition is on. They can be hard-wired to your car’s fuse box, which likely will require professional installation. Or they can also be plugged into the 12-volt outlet (formerly the cigarette lighter socket) or the OBD (on-board diagnostics) port beneath the steering wheel. Some run off an internal battery pack that will need to be recharged from time to time.

Though there’s some risk of draining your battery in a standby mode, according to online vendor The Dashcam Store, these cameras “consume very small amounts of power, so a healthy car battery in a vehicle that is driven regularly will have no problem supplying power to a dashcam for many hours or even days before reaching a safety cutoff threshold.”

 

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

AARP Auto Buying Program Powered by TrueCar

Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

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