Dashcams: Should you get one to protect yourself from liability?

By Wayne Xu

“Dashcams” are video cameras mounted inside vehicles that begin recording when the engine is turned on or when they sense movement. A portmanteau of the words “dashboard” and “camera,” dashcams start at around $40 and go up in price from there. They come in a variety of form factors and can be mounted on the dashboard, the windshield, and on the inside rear view mirror.

Most dashcams have just one forward-facing camera, but some have the ability to attach a remote rear-facing camera. In addition to recording video, most can also simultaneously record audio. Higher end models have GPS and accelerometers to overlay location, velocity, impact force, and other data over the recorded video. The idea is that if an accident were to occur, the driver will have an objective record of what happened – like a black-box for the car. Potentially, “he said-she said” disputes could be resolved by video evidence.

In this article, I will discuss the legality of dashcams, whether they will reduce your insurance premiums, and ultimately, whether you should get one.

Are dashcams legal?

Yes. In Maryland, there is no law prohibiting the installation of an aftermarket camera inside a vehicle. However, beware of laws that prohibit the obstruction of the view through the windshield. See Maryland Transportation Code §§ 21-1104 (c) and (d). Most dashcams that are intended to be mounted on the windshield are smaller than the typical suction-cup mounted navigation system and can be mounted in a way that arguably will not interfere with the clear view through the windshield.

There are privacy concerns as well. If the dashcam is also recording audio, you must be careful not to run afoul of your state’s “wiretapping” laws. All states have, in some form or another, restricted recording private conversations. Because your personal vehicle is a private place, you may have to get the consent of all passengers before recording audio. This could be problematic if the dashcam begins recording as soon as the engine is started.

Laws vary between states. In some states, only one party to the recording must know that audio is being recorded. Other states require notification or consent of all parties to the recording. Maryland Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-402 requires that all parties to a private conversation provide consent before one can begin recording.

Using a dashcam to record video on public property, such as streets and parking areas, is almost always permitted as there is little to no expectation of privacy in public areas. Additionally, recording an on-duty police officer (both video and audio) is permitted as long as you do not interfere with the officer’s duties. In 2010, a judge threw out a case where a man was arrested for taping his own traffic stop and posting it to the internet, and in 2012, the Baltimore Police Department released a directive stating that police officers cannot prohibit videotaping of law enforcement activities in public. However, if the police suspect that a dashcam may contain evidence of a crime, the police may temporarily take the dashcam, but may not view the video until a warrant is granted.

Are there insurance discounts if you purchase a dashcam?

Dashcams have become extremely popular in Asia and Europe, where fraudulent claims made against drivers are rampant. Search for “dashcam insurance fraud” when you have some time – the videos of thwarted attempts at defrauding drivers may shock you. In fact, many insurance companies in Europe and Asia incentivize dashcam ownership by providing discounts to drivers who install dashcams. Most American insurance carriers have not yet followed suit. Many, however, are providing usage-based discounts if you plug in their telematics device into your vehicle, which allows the insurance carrier to monitor your driving habits. These telematics devices are plugged into the vehicle’s “OBD II” port, often found underneath the driver-side dash area, and permit an insurance carrier to monitor different aspects of how the vehicle is driven, including among other things, vehicle speed, acceleration, distance driven, vehicle location, and the time of day of vehicle operation. Snapshot®, In-Drive®, and SmartRide® are some examples of these devices. Potentially, dashcams could be included as part of future telematics suites offered by insurance carriers as part of their usage-based discounts.

Should you get one?

Maybe. A dashcam with GPS, accelerometers, and multiple cameras may cost between $150 to $350. That might turn out to be a good investment if it the video and any interlaced data vindicate you. For example, when someone backs into you and then claims that you rear-ended them.

On the other hand, your dashcam could implicate you as the at-fault party. If you did rear-end someone, and an action is brought against you, your dashcam footage could be the subject of a document request during the discovery phase of trial. Further, intentional spoliation or destruction of evidence is prohibited, and you could be in violation of those prohibitions if you fail to take measures to preserve the footage following an accident (i.e., deleting the video). See Klupt v. Krongard, 126 Md. App. 179 (1999). At trial, there may be an adverse inference against you for deleting the video – that is, it may be inferred that you deleted the video because it showed that you were at fault.

As useful as dashcams can be in trial, just because there is footage of the accident does not mean that it will be dispositive of your case or can even be used at court. The video may not capture the offending vehicle or the point of impact, it might be too blurry, or it just might not provide a clear picture of what actually occurred. Even if there is speed, location, or data showing impact-force, arguments can be made that the dashcam’s sensors were not correctly calibrated. Like all evidence, the footage will be given the weight it is worth by the judge or jury.

Ultimately, whether you should get a dashcam or not is highly dependent on your driving habits. If you are an aggressive or inattentive driver, or think you might be more likely to get into an at-fault accident, you should probably not install a dashcam. However, if you are a cautious driver who obeys the traffic laws, having a dashcam may prove useful if an accident occurs.

Nonetheless, in Maryland, I recommend against purchasing a dashcam that also overlays or imbeds vehicle speed if you often drive faster than the speed limit. If you are exceeding the speed limit and are involved in an accident, even one that you do not think is your fault, the velocity data could be used to argue that your excessive speed contributed to the accident.

One final thought about dashcams: Dashcams could also be useful in a traffic stop situation where a driving infraction may be the subject of interpretation (e.g., “aggressive” driving) or a result of mistaken vehicles (e.g., the officer mistook your car for the similar car next to you that was speeding). Given the recent news related to police misconduct in Baltimore, New York City, Ferguson, and many other places, a dashcam may help to keep everyone honest about traffic violations.

A dashcam has the potential to vindicate as well as incriminate its owner. As they decrease in price, become more sophisticated, and increase in popularity in the United States, what “he said or she said” about an accident may eventually take a back seat to what the video “said.”