Runaway 18-wheelers, death-defying motorcyclists and vehicular acrobatics that seem to defy the laws of physics have become a staple of YouTube, in large part a result of the availability of dashboard video cameras. It's all entertaining, but there are also practical reasons for recording while driving.
The technology is readily available. Personal action video recorders are already popular among outdoor sports enthusiasts who attach cameras like the GoPro Hero3, starting around $200, to their helmets. Taxi fleet operators are using similar equipment to monitor their drivers and to act as an eyewitness when collisions occur.
For consumers, an inexpensive model designed specifically for the family car is the Genius DVR-FHD590, about $120 online. The dashcam is about the size of an Oreo, so it can be installed on top of the dashboard without blocking the driver's view. It records full HD video, has an LED for low-light situations and includes USB and HDMI ports for downloading and playback. It stores files on a microSD card; I installed an 8 GB card that cost $13.
Compared with point-of-view sports camcorders like the GoPro models, the Genius is easier to set up -- no squinting at endless menus required. It has a built-in 2.3-inch color display, so there's no need to have a device like a smartphone to serve as a viewfinder, and it comes with a power adapter, windshield suction mount and a clip to attach it to a sun visor.
Once plugged into a car's 12-volt outlet, the Genius DVR-FHD590 automatically begins recording when the car is started and stops when the ignition is switched off. A built-in sensor will initiate emergency recording in the event of an accident, and the file remains stored until the owner deliberately deletes it.
On several 200-mile excursions, I found the recorded video clear enough at night to see the vehicles traveling around me, although on a dark street it was still difficult to pick out a driver entering her double-parked car. Scenic country drives and urban highway routes were captured faithfully. The wide angle camera tends to capture a more inclusive vista than what drivers normally focus on, however; on the Interstate, the camera's recording of passing trucks in narrow lanes looked more treacherous than it was in reality.
While most drivers are unlikely to record a hot lap around a racetrack or witness a meteor strike while on the road, dashcams can be useful. I've been the victim of a hit-and-run by a New York taxi, which then ran a red light to escape, leaving an ugly yellow streak down the side of my vehicle. The driver's dangerous getaway meant I missed catching the license plate number. A dashcam like the Genius might have saved the day.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.