Dashcam for Cars: Is It Worth It?

By Russ Heaps 05/30/2023 12:00pm

Dashcam showing traffic ahead


Quick Facts About Dashcams

  • A dashcam can be a silent witness in the event of a collision.
  • Depending on the system, a dashcam can record video of views in front of and behind the vehicle.
  • Aftermarket dashcam systems are fairly simple to install.

Anyone who has spent time surfing YouTube and other video-posting sites is probably aware of dashcams, or dashboard cameras. The devices are responsible for thousands of videos of accidents, police-motorist encounters, foul weather incidents, and so forth. According to a story published by Santander Consumer USA, if you are like most American drivers (more than 60%), you’ve thought, wow, a dashcam is worth it; I’d like to have one in my next car.

And why wouldn’t you want a video record of an accident, or other activity, occurring to or near your car? The answer is there’s no reason at all not to want one. More than a novelty, a dashcam can produce video evidence of an accident or traffic violation committed by another motorist. It’s like having an impartial witness in the passenger seat. Therefore, such footage can have entertainment value as well as actual value.

As you move through this article, we’ll explain what a dashcam is, the types of dashcams, their benefits, how they work, and more. Please use the jump links we provide below to skip ahead in the story.

What Is a Dashcam?

A dashcam is a video camera with recording capabilities mounted on the dashboard, windshield, back of the rearview mirror, or rear window of a car. Also known as a dashboard camera, dash camera, or dash cam, the device provides an accurate record of what occurs within its viewing area. You can point the camera in any direction, including the car’s interior. However, its most popular use is recording incidents through the windshield.

How Do Dashcams Work?

Most dashcams have a recording memory based on the size of the camera’s removable memory card (SD card), but it varies from as little as an hour to more than six hours. To watch what the dashcam records, you can pop out the SD card and insert it into a reader connected to your PC. However, if your camera has the capability, you can connect to the internet through Wi-Fi. Then, load the video to the cloud and use the appropriate app to watch the video on your personal device. Dashcams with Bluetooth connectivity can also interface with a smartphone via an app.

Some vehicles provide built-in dashcams as factory options. These are hardwired into the car’s power supply. Aftermarket dashcams can source power from the vehicle’s electric system through a power port or hardwiring. There are a few battery-powered units, as well.

When powered on, a dashcam will constantly record what it is seeing. Some provide multiple views: front, side, rear, and interior. Some also offer advanced security features. Consequently, sensors will turn the camera on when motion is detected around the car, or if your car is hit when not in motion.

Pros and Cons of Using a Dashcam in Cars

Although we are convinced the benefits of a dashcam far outweigh the negatives, we offer both so you may make your own decision.

Pros of a Dashcam

  • Reliable witness – Regarding an accident, a video capturing the event is virtually rock-solid evidence, which can prove your case. Moreover, a dashcam can capture traffic violations committed by other motorists.
  • Fraud protection – Recorded video can aid your insurer in defending you against fraudulent claims — like an accident being staged.
  • Young driver monitoring – Many dashcams offer a view of the vehicle’s interior, which can help parents monitor the behavior of a teen driver.
  • Added security – Some dashcam systems provide a parking mode, which will activate the camera when it senses movement around the car or physical contact with the vehicle.

Cons of a Dashcam

  • Reliable witness – In the case of an accident in which you are at fault, recorded dashcam footage can be damning evidence.
  • Privacy – Any recorded videos have the potential to invade your or someone else’s privacy. This is particularly true for any video recorded inside the vehicle. Different countries have varying regulations concerning dashcams and privacy.
  • Cost – Whether aftermarket or built-in, dashcams can be quite expensive, especially when they have extras. For example, extras like night vision, parking mode, etc. Furthermore, if you have an aftermarket unit professionally installed, it will further increase the cost.
  • Memory card – For any degree of significant memory, most dashcams require an SD card with plenty of storage space. When a card comes with a camera, it often has inadequate storage capacity.
  • Provoke theft – True, many dashcams can recognize and record a break-in of your parked car. However, a dashcam mounted in plain sight is another temptation for thieves.

What Should You Look For in a Dashcam?

As with many emerging automotive technologies, dashcams come in various sizes, offer different features, and cost from $50 to $500 or more. Consequently, when shopping for dashcams, it’s not about the types of dashcams but the various features they offer.

Dashcam Features To Consider

  • Resolution – This is the pixel count, which determines the resolution or sharpness of the image. We recommend nothing less than HD 1080p. However, you will find dashcams offering even crisper images with higher pixel counts. For evidential purposes, we say the higher, the better.
  • Channels – As the channel count increases, so does the number of different camera views. In other words, one channel provides a view through the windshield. A second channel may add a view of what’s behind the vehicle or the interior of the vehicle. A third channel will add whichever view the second channel didn’t. The view from the windshield and the interior can usually be captured with the same camera unit. The view of what’s behind the car will add a second camera.
  • Frame rates – This is the number of image frames per second (fps) the dashcam records. Recording more images makes for a smoother video. We believe 30 fps is a good baseline when comparing cameras. As with pixels, more is generally better.
  • Field of view – Here, we are talking about the width of the video image. Most manufacturers don’t provide this information, but it’s worth researching. You don’t want a field of view so wide the image is distorted. Yet, you do need a view wide enough to see more than just the width of the lane. Our advice is about a 150-degree field of view.
  • Night vision – Most dashcams provide some degree of night vision. We recommend it for all views.
  • Image stabilization – Some dashcams offer image stabilization to help steady the video during any incidents. This isn’t a critical feature, but it’s appreciated when included.
  • SD capacity – The higher the GB rating (or gigabytes) for an SD card, the more memory it offers. However, be sure to check the user guide because some dashcams are limited in the amount of memory they accommodate. In other words, a 256 GB SD card won’t work in a dashcam with a 128 GB capacity limit.
  • Looping – Taking away some of the anxiety of running out of memory, “looping” is the ability of the dashcam to overwrite the oldest video on the SD card once it’s reached its memory limit.
  • Wi-Fi – Many dashcams offer Wi-Fi with the ability to store video in the cloud. Usually, cameras with Wi-Fi capability will automatically recognize a collision incident. Then, immediately transfer that video to the cloud.
  • Bluetooth – This allows your dashcam to interface with your smartphone, which increases your control over the camera. Moreover, it allows the camera image to appear on your larger phone screen.
  • GPS – Being able to record the location and speed of your vehicle may have some value in a legal dispute. However, we consider it more of a bonus benefit than one you should demand.
  • Parking monitor – Keeping watch over your vehicle when parked can prove invaluable when recording instances of vandalism, burglary, or a crash. Movement outside the car or the impact of someone breaking in or hitting it with another car will trigger recording. On the other hand, unless your dashcam is hardwired into your vehicle’s electric system or you have an auxiliary power source, the parking monitor won’t work if the dashcam isn’t getting power.

How To View Recorded Dashcam Videos

How you choose to view recorded video will depend on the system you use.

Camera display – You can play back whatever video is stored in the camera’s memory on the camera’s display screen.

Bluetooth – If your dashcam offers Bluetooth, with the appropriate app, you can view video stored in the camera on your smartphone.

SD card – Most aftermarket dashcams record to an SD card. Removing the card from the camera and inserting it into a card reader attached to your computer allows viewing and saving to your PC. However, remember, if your dashcam has the looping function, it will record over old video when the card is full.

Cloud – If your dashcam has Wi-Fi, some video, including video of traffic events, is stored in the cloud. You will need the appropriate app to retrieve such video on your smartphone or other personal device.

Do Cars Have Built-in Dashcams?

Yes, you can find built-in camera recording systems in some higher-end models. Typically, such systems repurpose cameras already pulling duty in the vehicle. Here are a few examples:

  • Tesla – Every new Tesla model provides a dashcam function. Images from front, rear, and side cameras provide recorded video in the event of a collision event, or even if the Tesla’s horn sounds. Furthermore, Sentry Mode silently guards every new Tesla when the car is shut down. If a passerby gets too close or touches the car, or if another car bumps it, not only does the system begin recording, but the exterior lights begin flashing.
  • Mercedes-Benz – Certain new Mercedes-Benz models offer a dashcam system, providing front and behind views. However, only the front view can be recorded on a memory stick. This system also includes a parking monitor. Mercedes also allows the driver to engage the recording function manually. Mercedes makes the dashcam system available in assorted models, including the E-Class, CLA, GLA, GLC, and others.
  • BMW – To gain the dashcam system available in some new BMW models, the car or SUV must have the surround-view function. BMW repurposes up to four of these cameras for recording incidents. Depending on the system’s programming, the system can record up to 30 seconds prior to and 30 seconds after an impact incident. BMW’s system also allows for up to 40 seconds of driver-triggered recording. BMW models using the Operating System 8 also adds a parking monitor. BMW offers dashcam systems on the 3 Series, 7 Series, X5, X7, and other models.
  • Cadillac – Cadillac is on the way to offering a true dashcam system. Currently, only the 2023 Lyriq offers the Surround Vision Recorder. Driver-controlled, this system allows video from the front and rear cameras to be recorded; however, there is no automatic recording function.

Aftermarket Dashcams

Dashcams are readily available from aftermarket producers. They span the gamut from simple one-channel windshield-view cameras to sophisticated multi-channel, 4K systems with night vision, Wi-Fi, parking monitor, and lots more.

How Much Do Dashcams Cost?

You can spend from $50 for a single-channel camera to more than $500 for a multi-channel-camera system with all the bells and whistles. If you want a seamless experience with a fully operational parking monitor, you’ll need to hardwire your dashcam system into the vehicle’s electric system. If that’s your decision and you aren’t experienced with tinkering with your vehicle’s electronics, we advise using a professional for installation. This could add as much as $150 to the bottom line for more involved installments.

Installing a Dashcam in Your Vehicle

Most aftermarket dashcam systems are relatively easy to install using the supplied camera mount, power cord, and the vehicle’s 12-volt power outlet. If you aren’t worried about appearances, sticking the main camera unit to your windshield and dropping the cord to your power outlet will put you in business. For a neater job, you’ll want to hide the cables. A task often more time-consuming than difficult, plenty of videos available offer tried and true techniques for running and hiding cables. They even include hiding cables from rearview cameras mounted on the rear window.

Remember that parking monitors usually won’t operate if the dashcam is plugged into a vehicle’s 12-volt power outlet because it only has power if the ignition is engaged.

  • Front camera placement – Be warned that there are state laws governing the obstruction of the driver’s view. Consequently, you’ll want to place a dashcam on the windshield as high as possible. Locating it on the passenger side of the rearview mirror is also a good idea. Place the camera as close to the center of the windshield as possible. Once you’ve arranged the camera to precisely deliver the view you want, you shouldn’t need to mess with it while you are driving.
  • Rear camera placement – If your dashcam system includes a rearview channel, it will consist of a separate, smaller camera to mount on the rear window. We suggest mounting it as close to the top of the window’s center point as possible. Most dashcam kits come with a rear-camera cable long enough to run from the camera, around the inside of the cabin to cable input on the main camera.

Should You Buy a Dashcam?

Unless you have it for fun, the odds are, you’ll probably never need the video from a dashcam. However, think of it as a form of insurance. Most of us pay insurance premiums for years without ever filing a claim. Yet, we would feel somewhat naked without the peace of mind insurance provides. Likewise, a dashcam is a novelty until you wish you had one to back up your story in an accident investigation, insurance fraud attempt, or early morning car burglary.

So, should you buy a dashcam? Yep, if you can afford it.