Dashcams: beyond protection and entertainment

So, earlier this week I was driving to an appointment and this happened:

I called in the first responders, did an initial assessment of injuries, gave my witness statement–which included an on-the-spot video replay–to the police officer attending the scene, and was eventually on my way. I was of course terribly late for my meeting (and out-of-pocket for the time lost with the professional I had the appointment with), but at least injuries were minor. It goes without saying that it could have been much worse, but I’ll say it anyway.

Dashcams are very popular in Russia, where we are told drivers use them to protect themselves from insurance fraud, but face it: the internet has an insatiable appetite for these often jaw-dropping and sometimes funny crash videos.

While the focus of talk about dashcams usually relates to their utility as a documentation tool for insurance claims (and assignment of fault) and as a source of sometimes spectacular entertainment, there’s an opportunity to leverage these devices as part of a proactive strategy for improving road safety.

One obvious application for dashcam video is to aid incident reconstruction. Unless an intersection camera captures a crash, crash analysts need to rely on reconstruction of the event through such methods as assessment of vehicle damage, measurement of skid marks, and more recently, information captured by on-board Event Data Recorders. As dashcams become more prevalent, access to footage such as the crash I recorded this week will become an increasingly common addition to crash analyses. Dashcam footage can help traffic engineers directly observe road system “failures,” supplementing current common practices such as observing traffic flow in high-crash locations with an eye to identifying disruptive points in the flow that set the stage for crashes. If crash analysts and traffic engineers can gain an improved understanding of the events leading up to and occurring during a crash, changes can be made to reduce the likelihood of similar events occurring, improving safety for everyone in the process.

Dashcams can also be an invaluable incident prevention tool in their own right. My 16 year old son is in his first year of BC’s Graduated Licensing Program, and is facing a huge learning curve as he works to build skill and experience. The dashcam allows me to replay video on my smart phone via an in-car Wi-Fi connection. As a novice driver, he may not spot a potentially hazardous situation developing, and by the time I draw his attention to it from my position in the passenger seat the earliest stages of the developing situation have passed. With the dashcam I can direct him to pull over where we can review the video. I can walk him through a replay of what he was driving through a minute earlier, and I’m able to roll the video back to show him when and how the situation first began to develop, what should have drawn his attention, and why. This kind of understanding is extremely difficult to ¬†gain without a near-instant video replay of events available immediately. It has proven to be an enormously useful driver coaching tool. Being able to identify potential dangers where one didn’t think to look for them previously is a fundamental part of the driver training process. It would be interesting to design a study to evaluate the utility of dashcam-assisted driver coaching compared to driver training that does not use coached dashcam review.

There’s also subtle yet profound effect on driving behaviour resulting from simply knowing that everything one does is being recorded. In fact, I have my dashcam configured to announce (in a professional-sounding female voice) “Starting normal recording” every time the car is started and the camera completes its start-up cycle, reinforcing the fact that there is a dashcam in the car. The camera displays the time and vehicle speed in every frame recorded, and every person driving my car knows this; they also know that should they get in a crash, the video will be reviewed and their driving scrutinized.

We never plan to get in a collision–such incidents are by nature unexpected–but knowing that everything is being recorded reinforces for me the importance of driving as professionally as possible. After all, should I ever get in a crash, I want to make sure that the video footage clears me of fault rather than providing evidence that I was even partly responsible. Who wouldn’t? Nobody wants to be the subject of blame; we want to look good. Perhaps dashcams can make our roads safer by exploiting peoples’ desire to be portrayed in a positive light. It’s an interesting question of social psychology; if that’s the case it’s difficult to see the downside of appealing to this psychological trait in the name of road safety.