We use them to take millions of Instagram selfies every day. They’ve made it almost too easy to post unending streams of videos and images on YouTube and Twitter. But when it comes to documenting our car trips in the U.S., cameras mysteriously disappear from the digital scrapbooking landscape.
And on those rare occasions that we do catch video footage from the road, it’s usually thanks to a piece of equipment most of us have never touched: a dashcam. The usually cheap, inconspicuous dashboard-mounted cameras, which automatically record video of the road in front of the driver, have often provided a vital piece of visual evidence in automobile accidents and controversial police stops when eyewitness testimony wasn’t enough.
In an average month, 87% percent of Americans will either drive or ride in a car, truck or other type of private vehicle, according to a 2013 Arbitron study.
So why, as we happily snap photos of the most mundane aspects of our daily lives and now habitually whip out our smartphone cameras during any accident or police action, has the dashcam been largely ignored by drivers in the U.S.? The answers, both technological and cultural, are a bit surprising.
“Most ‘consumer’ technology today is sold as entertainment, and although the video from dashcams can be entertaining, a dash camera is primarily a tool and that is how it is viewed by drivers,” says Bill Gremminger, the owner of DashCam USA, a site that sells dashcams and related accessories. Contrary to other consumer electronic devices, like the latest high-end headphones or smartphones, “There is not a lot of status in owning a dash camera,” Gremminger says.
This underexposed part of our digital footprint in the U.S. was made even more apparent during two recent news events in Russia and Taiwan. In 2013, a meteor crashed into the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia and was recorded via dashcams by stunned drivers who quickly shared the videos, which went viral.
And earlier this month, the fatal crash of TransAsia Flight 235 was captured by several dashcams in Taiwan, one of which offered a terrifyingly close look at the commercial aircraft during its descent, which claimed 40 lives.
Although it’s not difficult to find dashcam videos on YouTube recorded by American police officers, you’ll rarely find U.S.-based dashcam video of a major accident or event recorded by a civilian-owned device.
“Dashcams are extremely popular in Russia, Asia and Europe, but here in the U.S., we are just starting to see these catching on,” says Rhonda Marsh, of Giinii Tech, the manufacturer of Polaroid’s new line of dashcams. “Polaroid views this as an untapped market here in the U.S.”
If you’re living in the U.S., the first dashcam video you’ve seen was probably recorded from the dashboard of a police car. In recent years, U.S. television newscasts have relied heavily upon police dashcam footage, which often shows a suspect being arrested or fleeing the scene of a crime.
Further popularized by reality TV shows like America’s Most Wanted and World’s Wildest Police Videos, over the years, the dramatic, grainy footage has revealed a previously unseen view of what many police officers encounter on the road when dealing with suspects and criminals.
The cultural impact of those popular shows is hard to quantify, but in the wake of such programs dashcams have come to be seen by many in the U.S. as an official tool for security and law enforcement agents, as opposed to just another recreational gadget you can pop on your dashboard next to your GPS device.