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Would Dash Cams Resolve Accident Disputes In U.S.?

vehicle dash camWatch any of the spectacular dash cam videos of the meteorite that struck Russia in February, and after being amazed by the blaze of light streaking across the sky, you might think it would be a fun idea to put one in your car.

But unless you can rig one yourself, you’ll have a hard time finding a good dashboard video camera, called dash cam for short, that’s meant to be used in a car. 

In the United States they’re mostly used by police officers and bus drivers to record traffic stops and possible accidents, and often offer grainy video.

In Russia an estimated 1 million people have dash cams on their cars to help crack down on police corruption. The cameras record nonstop and are used as evidence in insurance claims and in Russian courts for traffic accident disputes.

The rare meteorite aside, Russian dash cams have recorded some entertaining and frightening drivers.

 But would they help American drivers?

“It’s just not so simple to decide who’s at fault at an intersection,” says Scott Diamond, an attorney in Philadelphia who specializes in personal injury cases.

Because dash cams are only pointed one direction and often without sound, they only offer one view and may not provide a complete picture of what happened in a car accident, Diamond says. The low-resolution videos can show an accident happening very quickly, and may not be helpful in explaining why something happened, but can assist in showing the physical conditions the driver faced, he says.

“I would say it’s very helpful but it’s not conclusive evidence,” he says.

Dash cams are common in municipal transit buses, he says, and with front and back views can show if passengers are faking whiplash. But they can leave out other evidence, such as if the driver blacked out, a tire failed or if a steering mechanism broke.

“It could be misleading if not in the right hands,” Diamond says.

There are also issues with getting video from a privately owned video, which a plaintiff’s lawyer may need, he says. Many transit agencies have them because they’re targets for civil allegations.

Dash cams could help show the severity of an impact, even if it doesn’t result in significant damage to the cars involved, says Shane Fischer, a personal injury and criminal defense attorney in Florida.

“On almost every claim I have with minor property damage the other side argues that my client can’t possibly be injured unless the car was totaled, or nearly totaled,” Fischer says. “Having a dash cam showing the impact would convince jurors that you can’t just look at the amount of damage to the cars to determine the severity of the injury, especially since cars are being made safer. As a result, the force of impact is being transferred to the person, not the car.”

For a defense lawyer, a dash cam on a California Highway Patrol car or suspect’s car can help if the officer was wrong or lied about traffic stops, such as a suspect who was said to be weaving when he wasn’t, says Christopher McCann, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles who specializes in DUI cases.

“In the past, all they had was the cop’s word for it” if the suspect appeared drunk, McCann says.

But the CHP’s cameras don’t swivel to catch the field sobriety tests, which McCann says his clients frequently dispute the officer’s assessment of.

He says he’s never seen a dash cam on a client’s car, but thinks they could be beneficial in criminal cases and in civil traffic accidents. 

“People are more likely to behave better when they know someone is watching them,” McCann says.

Finding a good one one for your car, however, isn’t so easy. They can break easily or you can adapt one of the GoPro video cameras that are meant for bungie jumpers, surfers, mountain bikers and other sports enthusiasts to show their latest ride.

DriveCam is one of the companies that makes them for cabs, truck drivers and other commercial fleets, but the company is working on a consumer version, says Michael O’Shea, CEO of Abalta Technologies, which develops software for mobile devices.

“It’s something that’s coming, for sure,” O’Shea says.

Dash cams could be used in the U.S. for more than recording accidents, he says. A dad, for example, could monitor if his daughter was driving safely. DriveCam’s dash cams do more than record video, detecting sudden acceleration or speeding and sending the video wirelessly to a service center that could send the video to the father when unsafe driving is recorded.

When that happens, parents around the world will celebrate dash cams more than any scientist looking at a meteorite recorded on one.