How Do Dashcams Work?

Do you feel a bit silly asking your mates to explain the basics of how a dash camera works?

Then you have come to the right place! This article will help you understand the ins and outs of recording all those mad drivers you watch on YouTube at work (sneakily).

By the end of this article, you should feel comfortable enough to set up and start using your own dash cam and join in the conversation.

What is a dash camera?

You might have heard them called a car camera, car DVR or even an auto Blackbox recorder. It is a small, specialised camera that you stick to your vehicle windscreen or dashboard that records everything going on as you drive. Essentially, a dash cam is an extra set of eyes watching what’s going on around you on the road.

Need eyes on the back of your head?

Some dash cams can film everything going on in front and behind you! This is particularly great if you drive as a job or have children to keep an eye on in the back seat.

Dash cameras start recording automatically when you start the ignition and stop when you stop driving. If you want extra protection when you stop driving, the latest cameras offer “Park Mode” for added security when the car is not being used. If the car’s motion sensors go off, the camera will start recording. This feature is a powerful deterrent for thieves and vandals.

How do I work my dashcam?

Contrary to popular belief, dash cameras are quite easy to operate. There are only four
things you need to get your head around:

  • Camera
  • Memory Card
  • Power cable
  • Tape Mount/Suction cup

Sounds easier than using most smart phones to me! If you can use an iPhone, then a dash cam will be a breeze. In fact, opening the box may be the most difficult part.

All you need to do is insert the memory card into the camera, attach it to your windscreen and plug the cord into your cigarette lighter. As soon as start the car, your camera will start recording.

For ease of use, videos are recorded in 1, 3- or 5-minute segments. Videos of this length are easy to access and download to other devices. You don’t need to worry about your memory card filling up due to the internal loop modelling. Your camera is continually recording and when your memory card fills up the oldest files are overwritten

How do I access or watch the videos I have recorded?

There are a few different ways to access your recordings which change depending on the type of camera you own.

  • Take out the memory card and insert it into your computer to download and playback the video loop files.
  • If your camera has a screen, just use the toggle buttons to choose and play the videos.
  • If you have a WIFI enabled cam, you can connect to it with your phone or tablet and stream the videos. Most of the newer cams are compatible with Android and iPhone mobile devices.

What about all that technical jargon?

Sometimes it sounds like people are speaking in another language. Once you understand the main terms used to describe your dash cam’s features you can join in on those techie conversations. 

The most common tech features and their meanings in layman’s terms are below for your reference:

Video Resolution (sometimes referred to as “Res”)

Essentially, this refers to the quality of the videos that you are recording. It refers to the number of pixels on the video screen e.g. 1080P means that the screen’s pixel dimensions are 1980 x 1080.

  • VGA – this is the lowest quality resolution (and takes up the least memory).
  • HD – High definition. This is also called 720P and is like HD TV quality.
  • Full HD – Full High Definition. You might also hear this called 1080P
  • Quad HD – this has 4 times as many pixels as Standard HD/720P, so your video is going to be clearer, crisper and more defined. At this level, you can zoom in more effectively from a distance and read small details like number plates more easily. The pixel dimensions of this are generally 2560 x 1440. If you have a wide screen it may have 3440 x 1440 and could be referred to as Ultra-Wide UHD.
If you don’t want to embarrass yourself amongst your clued-up friends, you must not refer to Quad HD and 4K or UHD. It is a common area of confusion and will expose your noob status!
  • WQXGA – even wider that Ultra-wide UHD mentioned above with dimensions of 2560 x 1600p.
  • 4K or UHD (Ultra High Definition) – this is the crème de la crème of video resolution. The term 4K is ambiguous to many people. It could refer to a few different screen definitions (3840 x 2160p (also referred to as UHD) or 4096 x 2160p). 
If this is all too confusing, all you need to remember is that 4k resolution has at least 4 million pixels in the entire screen area. Therefore, it covers multiple dimensions. So, if you aren’t sure, just multiply your screen pixel dimensions to sort out any arguments about whether your cam is 4k or not! 
The resolution is not the only thing that impacts the quality of your videos. Other factors that affect quality are:

Frame rate

The frame rate per second influences the smoothness of your video. Higher frame rates make it easier to catch every little detail in your recordings. A frame rate of 30 seconds will be fine for 720 or 1080P. If you are using UHD or 4K then a frame rate of 60 frames per second is ideal.

Wide Viewing Angles

This refers to your camera length and the angle it will capture video. Wide angle is defined as a viewing angle from 120 – 180 degrees.

Some of the other key features and benefits dash cams offer include:

GPS

This is your Global Positioning System. Most cameras have an inbuilt GPS receiver which is there to capture your speed and location.

Cycle or Loop Recording

Dash cams split up the recordings into manageable chunks of time. The default is usually 3 minutes, but you can normally customise the video time into loops of 1,2,3,5, or 8 minutes. Loop recording allows you to continuously record for as long as you need to. Once your card is full your camera will delete the oldest loops (instead of the entire card).

Parking Mode

If you want to keep your car safe when parked, some cameras have motion detectors that will activate from external movement around your car.

Time and Date Stamping

You can turn this on or off in your camera settings. If it is on then you will have the time and date permanently marked on your video, showing exactly when it was recorded.

Gravity Sensor – G Sensor

Your G Sensor will automatically detect impacts or irregular movements and make sure the relevant video files are protected. This stops them being automatically wiped by loop recording and keeps them safe for insurance, social media or to send to law enforcement.

Auto On/Off

Your camera automatically starts recording when you turn your key and start the car’s ignition and automatically turns itself off when you start the car.

Still Picture Camera

Just like it sounds, this is a feature which enables your dashcam to take still photos and save them onto the memory card.

Audio Recording

This is a feature which will record all the sounds within the dashcam’s range (mainly records the audio inside your vehicle)

Night vision

This is so you can get good video recordings at night or when there is very little light using infra-red or other technology.

Bracket mounts

This is how you attach your cam to your dashboard or windscreen. You have two main options:

Suction Cup Mount

This is a good option if you don’t always drive the same car and want to take your cam with you. This is super easy to use but suction cups do tend to slip off your windscreen easily (not the best if you have an accident!). They are also more affected by vibrations from your vehicle which leads to low quality video (think shaky and blurry)

Adhesive Mount

A thin, flat adhesive mount is a more reliable mounting option (and recommended by most dash cam brands). Adhesive mounts do not vibrate as they are firmly stuck to your windscreen and strong enough to stay attached when the going gets tough. An adhesive mount will stick around after strong impact and keep filming when you need it most.

Wide Dynamic Range (WDR)

This is the jargon we use to describe the technology used to capture videos in low light/night-time. Essentially, this technology enables the camera to automatically change its exposure, so you get quality footage in all types of conditions.

File Compression (H264)

H.264 compression technology is considered the pick of the bunch because it enables more HD video files to be saved onto your dash cams SD card.

How do I install and power a dash camera?

Getting started is easy. Most dash cams just plug straight into your car’s cigarette lighter. A long cord can be hidden away under your interior pillar to keep things looking neat and avoid distractions. If you are ready to commit to a dash cam long-term and require more power to record footage all the time, you can also hardwire your dash cam into the battery fuse box. This will give you UPS (uninterrupted power supply) and open a whole new level of reassurance, protection and capabilities.

Leave the hardwiring to the experts!

Don’t try this at home! Just because you can easily buy a hard wiring kit doesn’t mean you should install your cam by yourself. A qualified auto electrician is required to safely and correctly hardwire your camera to your car battery. There is more to dash cams than making the next viral video and keeping up with your techie mates! The Russians have shown us how many astounding things you can see driving around your hometown with dash videos of meteors, weddings, plane crashes – what will be next?! Recording the weird and wonderful world is a great benefit for many but your dash cam has some more sensible benefits that you need to know about. False accusations from other drivers will become distant memory! In a car accident situation, everything can go too fast and tempers flare. A dash cam will provide you with video evidence to clearly see what/who caused the accident.

Save money on insurance

Being able to prove you’re not at fault will save you paying an excess and help you get that no claims bonus you normally miss out on.

Time is money too!

Settling claims with irrefutable evidence from a car camera speeds up the claim process. Consider the benefits of providing a deterrent to car theft, vandalism and other criminal behaviour (like a hit and run). On the off chance that you do have to go to court, you will have the right evidence to make sure the good guys and girls win. Most dash cameras have an inbuilt GPS that track your driving speed and coordinates. This information is extremely valuable if you need to know your speed, point of impact and location for an insurance claim or for the police. Big Brother is watching your car even more closely thanks to the GPS, hardwiring and audio recording features of the latest dash cams. If you like to be in control, you can now track, watch and hear car whenever you want.

Track your teenagers

Use your GPS and camera combo to keep tabs on what your teenagers are really doing when they take the car. You can see where they went, how fast they are driving and their interactions with other road users. Its much less painful than being in the car with them and gives you a clear picture of how well they are driving.

Lending your car to family and friends all the time?

If your friends and family borrow your car regularly, you have the chance to understand what really goes on when they borrow your car. You can see where your car is being driven and know it is being driven responsibly.

Worrying about your work vehicles?

If you are providing your employees with fleet vehicles installing dash cams is a great way to make sure they are following the rules, driving responsibly and in the right places at the right times. Dash cams are a great tool to help improve your workplace health and safety, and potentially reduce other costs. You may see fewer speeding fines, less accidents, lower insurance premiums, and increased productivity.

Want to know what goes on at the mechanics or car detailers?

For some, a car is their most precious possession, their baby, to be treasured and treated with the utmost of care. A dash cam be a car’s very own “nanny-cam”, confirming that it is being treated right all the time. The motion sensors that activate in park mode will provide exclusive insights for protective owners. Imagine being able to see what really goes on at your local mechanics or what type of clean is provided at an expensive trip to the car detailers. Audio recording adds a whole new level to an owner understanding of what is happening to their vehicle. Family, friends and employees may not be impressed at the thought of their conversations being listened to. They just need to be reminded, “my car, my rules” Of course, sometimes you will be outsmarted. Eventually, the more savvy will learn to pull the plug on the dash cam and regain some anonymity. It’s very easy to pull a plug out of the 12V cigarette lighter. Hardwiring your cam to use your car battery as a source of power will make this a thing of the past. Hardwired dash cams allow for almost continuous surveillance. Motion sensors activate when the car is parked, providing protection from theft and vandalism. This can give owners some useful insights regarding the security of the areas their car is left unattended. Hardwiring uses your car’s battery as a source of power for almost continuous filming. Motion sensors can be activated to protect your car from theft and vandalism, while giving you an insight into the areas you leave your car unattended. Some may say that all this monitoring is an invasion of privacy, but for many people, their car is one of their most valuable assets and a symbol of their hard work. It’s only natural to want reassurance that you are making informed decisions, protecting your possessions and protecting your own safety on the roads. For those who drive for a living, this level of monitoring has improved parts of the industry on many levels. Delivery drivers can work smarter, rather than harder by reviewing their GPS tracking and making changes to their delivery routes. Passengers and taxi/UBER drivers can feel safer knowing that there is a camera looking forward and backwards on their trip. A multiple lens camera can act like eyes in the back of their head and keep an eye on their passenger’s behaviour so they can concentrate on driving. In fact, most people who drive at work are relying on dash cams now, whether it’s a police officer, bus driver or trucker. Dash cams are driving change by making drivers take ownership and responsibility for their behaviour on the road. Most drivers in Europe, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Russia, America and Australia are using one for personal or business purposes. As they become more prolific, legal issues also need to be considered.

Where is it legal to use a dash cam?

Most countries allow the use of dash cams; however, they are banned in Austria, Luxembourg and Portugal. In most countries, roads are considered a public space, so it is permitted for drivers to record video. US law enforcement encourage drivers to use them except for in a few situations.

Turn your dash cam off if you are crossing the border!

Save yourself the hassle and turn off your camera when you are crossing borders (especially in the USA and Canada). Officially, they are not banned but border guards perceive them as a security risk. Leaving your dash cam on will increase your chances of a long lecture from a border guard and making your border crossing take longer than it needs to.

Recording audio may be illegal

Its important to be careful when recording audio as eavesdropping is illegal in many countries. This is a grey area for dash cam owners. The two best practice solutions to avoid legal issues are:
  • Tell passengers that your camera has a built-in mic to ensure they are aware they are being recorded and agree to it.
  • Ensure your camera’s microphone is mutable so you can turn off the audio recording when needed.

Make sure the camera does not distract the driver or obstruct their view

Drivers will get a ticket in many countries for distracting themselves while driving. Just like you are not permitted to be distracted using a mobile phone when driving, you should not distract yourself with your dash cam.  Obstructing the drivers view is another area where caution must be exercised. Consider a discreet camera that will not block the view of the road to avoid a ticket. Again, drivers need to have clear view of the road to keep themselves and other users safe. As the speed of new technology increases, so will the tools we use to make our lives easier, safer, less risky and more informed. The use of dash cams will start to change the culture of driving and our behaviour on the roads. Hopefully, this article will give readers a greater understanding so they can join in on conversations and embrace the benefits and mitigate any risks that dash cams may provide. HAPPY DRIVING!