When you hear the phrase “dash cam,” it’s easy to think of those ridiculous dash cam videos recorded by Russian drivers. But the truth is, the car accessory has far more functionality beyond catching crazy drivers, like for security or capturing a particularly beautiful drive.
We decided to explore exactly what a dash cam is and take a look at all of the many pros and cons that come along with owning one. We also provide you with a few thoughts on the gadgets, along with a few recommendations if you’re looking to pick one up.
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A dash cam is a camera mounted to the interior of your car, often just below the rearview mirror. Its primary function is to record the road ahead of your vehicle, but you can also buy more dash cams to use as backup cameras or to watch the sides or interior of your vehicle. Recorded footage can be used to document car accidents (especially hit-and-runs), or create a lovely road-trip timelapse.
Typically, these devices are powered either by plugging into your car’s cigarette lighter port or by being professionally wired to your vehicle’s battery. Newer devices transmit data to your smartphone or computer via built-in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, though some still opt for writing data onto a local microSD card. Some can support several GB of data, but usually, these cameras just loop record over footage infinitely until you save a clip.
Dash cams are typically quite small and can be mounted more or less discreetly to your windshield. Some even have a small built-in screen and navigational panel that allow you to review footage and adjust settings without having to use your phone or laptop.
It’s fair to say that, when it comes to dash cams, you get what you pay for. Super cheap or overly expensive dash cams are rarely worth looking at, and the best dash cams usually retail for anywhere from $150-$300. Generally speaking, higher-end models offer better video resolution (which is important for capturing little details like license plate numbers, dents, etc.), wider viewing angles, and maintaining good video quality while recording in low-light situations.
Dash cams can help you contest speeding tickets, capture car theft or other unexpected events, and record evidence of dangerous drivers or car accidents (whether they involve you or other drivers). Certain auto insurance companies may also offer discounts to dash-cam owners.
Some dash cams have handy included features as well, like built-in GPS, which can geotag a particular location you recorded. This is great for finding exactly where that beautiful road you drove on last Sunday was, or for providing evidence in a car crash. Newer dash cams also have integration with smart assistants, like Alexa, or support voice commands that let you tell the device to save a clip while you keep your hands on the steering wheel.
A few dash cams can notify you of upcoming speed traps and traffic cameras, preventing you from getting an unnecessary ticket. Others can notify you of lane collisions and tailgating, helping you be a safer driver. They’re also a great tool to have in your teenager’s car to ensure they are driving safely and paying attention to the road.
Another great feature some cams have is Emergency SOS, which can alert emergency services on your behalf if you’re incapacitated in a car accident. Lastly, some dash cams come with a second camera that can be used as a backup camera or to record the inside of your vehicle. This can be a good way to keep an eye on your kids or capture a car thief.
Depending on what features you want—and even factoring in professional installation—dash cams can be pricey. Like, over $500 pricey. Alternatively, super cheap options are almost always problematic in being unreliable or missing crucial features.
Regardless of what you end up spending on your dash cam (and it’s worth noting that good devices cost at least $200), there’s always the risk that they could be stolen because they sit out in the open and are easy to spot. And if a burglar decides to break into your car for that, they might root around and look for other goods. It’s a noteworthy risk, especially considering the fact that a dash cam isn’t something most people need to have.
Some dash cam models can record audio or include a secondary camera for monitoring your car’s interior. Because the cameras are mounted inside your vehicle, this means they could record the conversations and actions of you and your passengers. It also means it could record you texting while driving or doing other things you shouldn’t do. While well-intentioned, this brushes up against privacy issues, especially if the dash cam you choose stores data via the cloud, rather than on an internal SD card. You’ll also be responsible for notifying your passengers of these features and asking for their consent.
Although they’re not something you have to have, the benefits of dash cams far outweigh their few disadvantages, so we heartily recommend having one if it’s within your budget. Despite the high purchase price, the long-term ability to record incidents and receive advanced warnings for things like speed traps makes a dash cam an invaluable asset to have while on the road. They’re also great to have if you live in a high-traffic or dangerous area.
Ready to buy one for your vehicle? We reviewed all of the best dash cams—take a look at our favorite picks: