Dash cams: a complete guide

Dash cams are becoming more and more popular on UK roads, with sales rocketing last year after insurance companies started to accept dash cam footage as evidence in car insurance claims.

But as with all consumer electronic products, there is a lot of choice when it comes to dash cams - and it's not easy to know exactly what you're looking for.

If you're thinking of buying a dash cam but are still a bit unsure about whether you need one and which one you should buy, then read our full guide below to get clued up and informed about dashboard cameras...

What is a dash cam?

Put simply, a dash cam is a camera that drivers can put on their dashboard to continuously record what is going on in the road ahead of them. As well being attached to the dashboard, dash cams can also be stuck to the front windscreen and are designed to be small and unobtrusive.

Dashboard cameras in car

There are many different types of dashboard camera - some are front-facing only while some offer rear recording as well. Others can offer a 'cabin view' feature so drivers can record what is going on in the back of their car, which is handy for taxi and Uber drivers.

As well as these options there is also a growing market of dash cam smartphone apps for people to double up the Sat Nav they use on their phones with dash cam capabilities.

How do dash cams work?

There are actually quite a few factors that set dash cams apart from any alternative handheld/portable recording device, all of which make them a lot easier and much more convenient to use to record your journey.

First of all, dedicated dash cams tend to be very simple pieces of technology. There’s not much in the way of ‘bells and whistles’ on them like fancy recording options and power switches. Most dashboard cameras feature just these basic components:

  • Video camera
  • Hard-wired power inputs
  • Either built-in or removable storage (SD card)

They are designed with function and reliability in mind more than anything else, which is exactly what you want.

As dash cams are typically hard-wired into a circuit that only has power when your engine is running, and without any kind of controls for the recording they are designed to record continuously whenever the power is on. These very simplistic units are therefore designed to automatically fire up and begin recording each and every time a car is driven, without requiring any input from the driver at all.

Compare that to any alternative recording device, such as your smart phone or GoPro camera. Every time you get in the car you will need to remember to bring it with you, turn it on and set the recording settings and make sure it is seeing the road correctly. Not to mention making sure the battery is charged. If you are thinking of a dash cam to give you peace of mind when you drive, then forgetting to set it up every other day or having the battery die on you halfway through a journey isn’t going to give you that.

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Another interesting function of dash cams that set them apart is how they deal with storage. Whereas a generic video recording device would just keep recording until the memory is full and then stop, dashboard cameras are able to automatically overwrite old files and data as they record – so it will start deleting last weeks recordings as it creates new ones, all while you are driving along completely obliviously.

Such a feature would be terrible on another device – imagine taking a photo and it replacing one of your old, treasured photos! But for a functional dash cam that only has one job, it is the perfect solution.

The benefits of using a dash cam

A dashboard camera is basically a type of camcorder that is mounted to the dashboard of your car, van, lorry or any other vehicle you want to attach it to, which records the road in front of you while you drive.

Dash cams can therefore record exactly what is happening both inside and outside the vehicle at all times, which can be used for a variety of different reasons.

Dashboard cameras are widely used all around the world by normal, regular drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, police officers and driving instructors. Many dash cams can also be paired up with other in-car technologies like GPS devices to help enhance the overall experience and improve the data they record.

Some of the key benefits of dash cams are...

A dash cam provides indisputable evidence following a car accident

This is probably the most popular reason why a growing number of car drivers are deciding to buy a dashboard camera. They have been used for years in Russia, and are regularly cited in disputed insurance claims to help establish liability.

Most dash cams currently on the market are equipped with motion sensors, so they being filming automatically as soon as you start driving and provide real-time evidence of exactly what happens on the road while you drive. So if you are involved in an accident you can easily prove exactly what happened and who’s fault the collision was.

This is especially useful in disputed liability claims as, unless there is an independent witness to provide evidence, these often result in a split-liability decision as they are just ‘one word against another’. This is obviously a very frustrating and costly experience for the driver who wasn’t at fault, but insurance companies have no other choice if there is no independent evidence.

That’s where dashboard cameras come in! You can send your crystal clear recording in as evidence which proves you were not at fault for the collision, which means the other driver will have to accept the blame and their insurance company will have to pay for your repairs and any other losses you incurred.

A dash cam is therefore the strongest and most efficient proof you have for defending yourself if you are involved in a disputed car accident claim. As they are relatively affordable – some cost less than £20 – they are well worth having just in case.

A dashboard camera can help identify bad and dangerous drivers

Every driver has experienced at least one bad driver in their time – whether they were erratic, aggressive or just plain dangerous. Having a dashboard camera means that these drivers can be identified, and the footage used to report them.

Not only could this help to reduce the instances of reckless driving on the roads, it may also help to save the lives of other drivers and passengers who could fall victim to undisciplined drivers.

Before the advent of dash cams it would be difficult to report dangerous driving due to the lack of evidence, but now the full footage of the drivers transgressions can be used as evidence.

Driving instructors can use a dash cam as a teaching aid, and they can also put worried parents’ minds at rest

When learning to drive, students are understandably a bit nervous and won’t necessarily recall everything that happened during their lesson.

If the driving instructor is using a dash cam though, the complete footage of the lesson can be played back to the student – who can then relive the situations they found themselves in while on the road and identify areas where they need to improve.

For instance they may have been overly cautious when entering a roundabout, and the dash cam footage will show them gaps that they could have used to enter.

For parents of newly qualified drivers, a dash cam can put their minds at ease as they can review their child’s driving and make sure they are being safe and sensible on the roads.

Keep track of your vehicle’s use with a dash cam

Another benefit a dashboard camera can provide for parents is that they can check if their child has taken their car without permission. Dash cams work automatically so that every trip is recorded, meaning parents can double-check to see if the vehicle has been in use.

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Likewise, owners of taxi companies can review their drivers’ trips if they suspect they have been over-charging customers, or making personal trips instead of being on call. Dash cams can also be used to monitor fleet car activity – especially if you suspect employees have been using business cars for personal reasons.

Also, if you leave your car at an airport car park or at any other valeting service then a dashboard camera can help you see exactly what happened to it. This can be invaluable evidence if you suspect the car has been used without your permission.

As a lot of dashboard cameras include GPS functionality, they can also record the speed at which the car has been driven as well as the different street routes it took.

Dashboard cameras can help prevent fraud

As well as helping to settle disputed insurance claims, dash cams can also help put a stop to insurance fraud.

Fraud is a huge problem for insurance companies, and law-abiding motorists end up having to pay for it through increased premiums.

A common form of motor fraud is drivers purposefully causing accidents so they can blame the other driver and get their insurance company to not only pay for the damage to the vehicle but also exaggerated injury (especially whiplash) and loss of earnings claims.

Some common forms of fraudulent crashes include cars slamming on the brakes for no reason, resulting in the innocent driver behind them hitting them in the rear – and a driver ‘pretending’ to let another pull out of a side road in front of them by waving them on, only to carry on driving straight into the side of the innocent driver.

These two examples are particularly difficult for the innocent driver to dispute, as the nature of the accidents typically points to them being at fault – despite the fact the accident has been completely engineered by the other driver.

With a dash cam though, you can prove the accident was a direct result of the actions of the other vehicle – who was behaving fraudulently in order to cause a collision.

A dash cam can record your entire road trip

If you are fond of taking road trips and like to hold onto memories, then a dash cam can be great purchase for you.

The footage you capture during your road trip can be watched whenever you want, and even edited to just keep the highlights.

Many dashboard cameras have lots of other useful features

Dash cams are not just great for recording your driving. Like all technology they have advanced over the years to include a lot of different and useful features.

For example, a lot of dash cameras include real-time audio notifications so you can stay up stay up to date with the ongoing recording process and notified if there’s any problems.

Most modern dash cams also now feature GPS capabilities to help you keep track of your speed and location – which can be synced up with the recording so you get all that extra data when watching the footage back. Furthermore, these cameras can also keep a log of your destination and route so you can always keep track of what happened and when and where it happened.

You will also find that most dashboard cameras have low battery usage features, so they have a lot of life in them – which is important for those that require batteries rather than using the car battery for power. As many dash cams work automatically, the low battery usage means that once they are in place you can just forget about them and let them do their thing.

Dash cams can act as an effective car security system

As well as boasting a host of benefits for when you are driving, dash cams can also be useful when your car is parked.

As most have motion detectors as standard, they will begin recording whenever your car is touched – meaning those annoying scratches you might get from cars passing your parked vehicle will be recorded, as well as any acts of vandalism.

Some dash cams can also be operated remotely from the privacy of your home, and you can sync all the data from them to your device of choice: laptop, computer, tablet or smart phone.

They will also activate if you car is stolen and driven away, which could provide vital evidence when the vehicle is recovered.

These dash cams are designed to provide you with the peace of mind you need at night, safe in the knowledge your vehicle is safe and sound outside where you left it.

How much do dash cams cost?

Typically the price of decent dashboard cameras starts at around £50. There are cheaper dash cams available, but to be sure you are buying a dash cam you can trust then it's best to pay that little bit more.

At the higher end dash cams can cost over £200 - with the cost ramping up when you start adding extra features and higher quality lenses, more storage etc...

Below is a selection of some of the best priced and best rated dashboard cameras currently available to buy in the UK:

What to look for when buying a dash cam

Due to their growing popularity, there are a lot of different dash cams on the market right now – and a lot of them have different features and options.

Because of the sheer number of options available to motorists, it can be difficult to know how to choose the best dashboard camera for you and your needs.

To help you out with making your decision, here’s a few things you should be considering when looking for a dash cam…

Video Quality

This is probably the most important factor when choosing a dash cam.

There’s very little point in buying a camera that doesn’t film in high definition – 720p or 1080p – as the whole reason for getting a dash cam is that it clearly records what is happening on the road in front of you. If your dashboard cam doesn’t record in HD then it can be difficult to make out, so make sure you prioritise video quality.

The only reason people might sacrifice video quality is for price, but these days you can pick up a HD dash cam for less than £50.

Here’s some tips for when you are reviewing the video quality:

  1. Watch videos in full screen at the highest resolution
  2. Watch night videos rather than day videos.  Most HD cameras, even the cheaper ones, perform well in the day.  To see how well a dash cam really performs, you need to see how it performs in poor lighting conditions.
  3. Watch videos from real users, not from the manufacturer.  The manufacturer videos usually appear better than real user videos.  They may be using a better lens on the camera.  They may mount the camera on the outside of the windshield to minimize glare.  They may be recording at a higher bit rate.  They may record in perfect lighting conditions (night videos in well lit streets).  Videos from Russian camera owners are more representative of the video quality than videos shot in Asia.
  4. Be wary of videos from review sites, particularly if they are selling the camera.  Some review sites get their cameras from the manufacturer.  The manufacturer may have provided a “ringer”, a better camera than what is available to purchase.
  5. Also look at how wide the recording angle of the video recording.  Note that most manufacturers greatly exaggerate the viewing angle.  When the real recording angle is known, we have included this information on our dash cam FAQ pages.

Reliability

Similar to video quality, it’s important to choose a dashboard camera you can trust to capture the critical footage. Cheap/unreliable dash cams can suffer from recording drops, faulty sensors and blurry picture recording, so should be avoided as a general rule.

Unfortunately reliability information on products can difficult to collate – so the best advice is to look for customer reviews of the dash cams and try to identify any common complaints previous buyers have had.

Where to buy dash cams

Dashboard cameras can be purchased online from Amazon and eBay and from all main car and electronics retailers.  Some of the most popular dash cam stockists are:

Halfordshttp://www.halfords.com/technology/dash-cams/dash-cams

Curryshttp://www.currys.co.uk/gbuk/cameras-and-camcorders/camcorders/dash-cams/347_4435_32096_xx_xx/xx-criteria.html

Argoshttp://www.argos.co.uk/

RAC Shop - http://www.racshop.co.uk/sat-navs-tech/dash-cam.html

SD cards and dash cams

One area we regularly get questions about when it comes to dash cams is what are the best memory/SD cards for dash cams? Questions range from what type of storage card is needed, what the class rating on the cards mean and how much video can be recorded per gigabyte?

We’ve attempted to answer these questions and more with the below guide to dash cam memory cards:

What type of memory card do I need for my dashcam?

While there are a lot of different types of memory cards out there, nearly all dashboard cameras use Micro SD cards. These are just 15mm by 11mm, so are very small, but can can pack a lot of storage.

How much storage you opt for in your SD card is entirely up to you, as dash cams typically support 8GB, 16GB and 32GB cards. Some of the newer models even support 64GB Micro SD cards.

As well as the storage capacity they hold, SD cards also have a class rating on them which indicated how fast data can be written and stored onto it – with the higher the class rating the faster the data can be recorded onto it. You will find that most dash cams these days require class 6 or class 10 rated SD cards, however don’t be fooled into thinking the higher the class the better. Some dash cams may struggle to cope with a memory card that is too fast so it can cause problems with the recording process.

As long as you have purchased your dash cam from a reputable source then you should be able to easily find out what class of SD memory card is compatible with it. Our advice is then to not go too much above the class stated by the manufacturer.

How much dash cam footage will my SD card hold?

How much you can record onto your dash cam depends on a few factors, the most important being the bit-rate of your dashboard camera. This figure indicated how much data your camera can process at any one time, and the higher the bit-rate the better quality of recording – which means more storage is required.

As well as the bit-rate, the screen resolution you choose to record in will also determine how much footage you can store on your SD card. Most modern dash cams now give you a choice of resolutions e.g. 1080p or 720p which refers to the numbers of frames-per-second that are stored. So again, if you opt for a higher resolution to get better quality recordings then it will impact the amount you can store on the SD card.

Our tip is to choose as low a resolution as required – as long as you can clearly see what is happening on the road and can read car registration numbers then you are fine. Anything higher is not necessary.

Dash cams can also record and store other forms of data like sound, GPS and g-sensor information, all of which can take up space on your SD card.

As a basic guideline for some for some popular dashboards cameras, here’s how much footage can be recorded:

Camera Bitrate (kbps) 8GB 16GB 32GB
Mobius 18,000 1 hour 2 hours 4 hours
Mini 0801 12,000 1½ hours 3 hours 6 hours
G1W 15,000 1¼ hours 2½ hours 5 hours
BlackVue DR3500-FHD 10,000 1¾ hours 3½ hours 7 hours
Mi-Witness HD 10,000 1¾ hours 3½ hours 7 hours
BlackVue DR650GW-2CH 11,700 1½ hours 3 hours 6 hours