At 9:20am on the fifteenth of February 2013 an asteroid falls from the sky. 19 metres wide and entering the atmosphere with an energy estimated to be equivalent to 500,000 tonnes of TNT, it explodes over Chelyabinsk, Russia, resulting in over a thousand injuries. For months to come, researchers and scientists alike are quoted time and time again – ‘the risks posed by asteroids of this scale is seriously underestimated’ – in scare articles. The moment is captured and shared by a dozen motorists across the city thanks to one device in particular: the cameras installed on their dashboards.
Had it happened five years before, the astronomical event would never have been shared in such a way. Every day we carry cameras and microphones in our pockets; they grant us twenty-four hour access to such a largest source of information; every moment of your day, significant or otherwise, could be documented and shared. With that in mind, where do we find ourselves in the eyes of the law?
Dashboard cameras (or dashcams) are hugely popular in Europe. The Chelyabinsk motorists likely had them installed to protect themselves in court against false insurance claims and dangerous drivers, a common occurrence in many parts of Russia. In the years since the Chelyabinsk meteor, we have seen footage used as evidence in all manner of cases like this in the UK: insurance fraud, speeding violations, irresponsible driving, for example.
This kind of documentation has its obvious benefits, but it is not without its consequences
This kind of documentation has its obvious benefits, but it is not without its consequences. What is caught on camera can be used as evidence.
It is not uncommon to see videos uploaded of a GoPro attached to a BMX, and it’s difficult to forget the notoriety of the happy splashing fad that we seem to have (thankfully) moved on from. The dashcam seems to exist for two separate purposes: for use by hobbyists and for legal protection. It is in this distinction that that responsibility can be forgotten.
Last July, Devon saw a classic case of irresponsible driving caught on camera. Racing at speeds of up to 100mph in a 40mph zone, motorcyclist Nicholas Pannell lost control of his vehicle and launched over a hedge, crash landing in a field near Halwell. Footage of the crash was found on the camera installed in his helmet and, in an unfortunate twist, Pannell unintentionally provided evidence against himself. He was disqualified from driving for a year and given 180 hours of community service.
It seems odd that such a seemingly insignificant gadget, like a camera to record a drive, should prove to condemn Pannell, a man who prior to the race may not have had any intention of speeding. It is scary to think about, despite how ridiculously comical Pannell’s situation seems. The dashcam really did appear harmless. Perhaps this is an indication towards the way we document and store information in the UK. With the publicity offered by social media, it is too familiar a sight to see a politician or a celebrity caught out by contradictory information they thought was private. Could the dashcam be an indication, a tangible reminder, of the dangers posed by the publicising private life?
Across the pond, these lines between hobbyist and the law are less of an issue, as the laws surrounding the installation of a dashboard camera are somewhat of a deterrent.
When a motorist in Santa Ana, California collided with a highway divider last month –lifting the vehicle into the air, the car crashing into the second floor of a dentist’s office – the incident was caught on video by a bus driver’s dashcam, narrowly avoiding the accident.
In the US, installing a device in your vehicle is not necessarily illegal in of itself, so long as it cannot be claimed that it obscures the driver’s vision. And yet, even if the device is adequately installed, they are not totally in the clear.
In the eyes of the US law, the right to a dashcam is a matter of free speech
In the eyes of the US law, the right to a dashcam is a matter of free speech. Thanks to the First Amendment, the video taping of public events is protected against Congressional intervention; in other words, the driver cannot be tried on a Federal level for taping public events. But they very well could be tried by the State Government. Each state has its own rules regarding the dashcam, and each driver would need to be well informed of them. Capturing the Great American Road Trip would likely see a driver researching the legality of their gadget in at least five states: most will decide the effort isn’t worth it. Had the Chelyabinsk meteor instead exploded over the US, we likely never would have seen it shared so widely.
The more we document, the further we pull our private lives into the public eye
The more we document, the further we pull our private lives into the public eye. For most, this is harmless – owning a dashcam is unlikely to backfire in such bizarre ways – but it hits close to home. We might watch the Chelyabinsk meteor in awe, or stare in confusion at the car launched into a dentist’s office, but the very fact we can is only a matter of time and place.