Dashcam watchdogs use YouTube in drive to bring rules to road [Chicago Tribune :: ]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 03--On the back of Joe Elbaor's 1990 Chevy Silverado is a bumper sticker that reads, "The closer you get, the slower I drive." On the front is a video camera about the size of a cigarette pack.
Elbaor mounts the $300 camera in his passenger compartment to record erratic or uncivilized driving. The Glen Ellyn man is part of a growing number of motorists using the devices to monitor what's happening in front of -- and sometimes behind -- their vehicles. They want cameras for protection from scammers, they say. Insurance companies, prosecutors and personal injury attorneys largely agree on their value.
But making that record is only a prudent first step. The second, bolder move is posting clips of erratic driving on YouTube, which Elbaor and others who share his perspective do routinely. They say posting makes the roads safer by exposing violators and educating inexperienced drivers. Plus, Elbaor and his allies say, it's entertaining.
"It's almost like a stress reliever, too," said Elbaor, a mechanic and former emergency medical technician who posts under the name Joe Fpoc and includes his own driving mistakes. "When you were younger, somebody would cut you off and you'd yell at them or give them the finger, or whatever. Now, when you see somebody do something stupid, you don't get angry. You just say, 'You're going on YouTube.'"
Police and other emergency service providers have used video recorders in vehicles for decades, but everyday drivers' use of them is much more recent, experts say. Decreasing prices -- dashboard cameras can be bought for $30 -- is one factor.
Just as influential, drivers and experts say, is the popularity of harrowing, sometimes hilarious dashboard camera videos from Russia, where many more motorists use the devices to guard against widespread insurance fraud.
Compilations of those videos -- a legendary segment shows a truck driver thrown through his vehicle's windshield and landing on his feet after a crash with another truck -- gain tens of millions of views on YouTube.
A clip that Illinois trucker Brian Miner uploaded to YouTube on June 25 has garnered nearly 4 million views. It shows Miner's exchange with an Illinois state trooper who stopped Miner after the trucker honked at the officer for purportedly speeding and using a handheld cellphone.
Early in the five-minute video shot in the cabin of the truck, the trooper threatens Miner with a ticket for "unlawful use of horn." Miner tells the officer he's recording the conversation, and about 90 seconds later, the officer changes his mind, saying he understands "you were just trying to help me drive safely."
After the encounter, Miner turns the camera on himself. "And, that's what happens," he says, "when they know you're recording."
Watching clips recorded in Russia was what prompted Sebastian Dembinski, of Winfield, to mount a cellphone on his windshield in 2012, he said. Dembinski, who manages a store in Winfield, is on his third dashboard camera. He bought his current model for $30 on Amazon.com in January and posts under the name mydashcam6.
"It's the best tool you have to avoid being scammed," said Dembinski, 28. "It's simple protection. Mine is $30 and it could save me thousands. It's a no-brainer."
He experienced validation in February in Lombard, where a van driver changed lanes, snapping back Dembinski's side-view mirror. It was undamaged, but the other driver denied his vehicle struck Dembinski's 2013 Chevy Sonic -- until Dembinski replayed the video for him.
"That's when he changed his tone," Dembinski said. "It was completely different. He became apologetic. That's the thing. Once you have that proof, it changes the whole scenario for you."
Since he began posting in about July 2012, Dembinski has uploaded 87 videos on YouTube, he said. He's alerted police to a drunken driver, although authorities were unable to apprehend the offender. Many of the comments he's received, Dembinski said, are from younger drivers who say they're learning what driving practices to avoid.
"I want more people using them," he said. "The more people use them, the more they'll realize (how valuable they are). I think it'll calm people down."
Dozens of dashcam models exist, with features as varied as those of smartphones. Prices can range from less than $20 to several hundred dollars. Some have sensors that automatically save several seconds before and after the vehicle's sudden movement. Some have motion detectors to allow recording when the vehicle is parked.
Most have high-definition resolution and date and time stamps. The better models have high-quality night vision, GPS, a screen for immediate viewing and the capacity to record indefinitely, "overwriting" the oldest files after storage is full.
Electronics manufacturers and retailers decline to release sales statistics. But more companies are offering dashcams, and industry experts say the number of people buying them is rising steadily.
"We've definitely seen increased interest in dashcams, which is one of the reasons why we decided to develop our own model," said Johan-Till Broer, spokesman for Garmin International Inc. in Olathe, Kan. The company introduced its first model in January. "Whether you damage your car by driving over a pothole, or you find yourself in a 'he said/she said' scenario, capturing video of what happened can be helpful in many situations."
Justin Gear, who oversees auto technology at 15 Best Buy stores in the retailer's south Chicago region, says the number of dashcam installations has increased dramatically in the last two years. Many customers are parents of new teen drivers. Encouraged by insurance companies, the parents buy cameras that can record what's happening in the vehicle cabin as well as in front of it, Gear said.
"They're spying on their kids, essentially," Gear said, adding that general interest in the cameras is spreading too.
Added Bill Gremminger, of Springfield, Mo., owner of online retailer DashCamUSA.com: "It's going to take off. It's just a matter of time."
Insurance actuaries looked at the capacity of dashcams and determined, for the most part, that the devices don't reduce the number of accidents or their severity, said James Lynch, chief actuary of the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.
"There's the possibility of a lower marginal cost because the camera could sometimes help sort out fault, lowering the cost of adjusting the claim," Lynch said. "But those savings would probably be really, really small."
Insurance giant State Farm "welcomes video footage from a dash camera," said spokeswoman Missy Dundov, but does not offer discounts for the devices for the same reason Lynch cited. "While a dashcam may provide information about why a crash occurred," Dundov said, "it is not a device that is designed to inhibit the crash from happening in the first place."
Attorneys are a little more supportive.
"On behalf of prosecutors, we love videos," said David LaBahn, who worked as a prosecutor in California for 10 years and now serves as president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, in Washington, D.C. As long as the footage can be authenticated, "a few seconds of video are worth all the testimony in the world" and are especially compelling for a jury, LaBahn added.
On that point, personal injury attorneys agree with prosecutors, said Thomas Prindable, managing partner of Clifford Law Offices, a Chicago firm specializing in personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death litigation.
"If there's a camera and a record of what actually happened," Prindable said, "that speaks the truth better than what a witness might state."
In a recent local case, authorities used a seven-minute video shot from a camera attached to a motorcycle to track down and arrest a Plainfield man accused of trying to goad Westmont police into chasing him. Footage from the pursuit was uploaded onto YouTube. The motorcyclist was sentenced last month to four years in prison.
Although Lt. Pat Gengler of the Kane County sheriff's police doubted that posting videos of bad driving would improve motoring skills, he thought "there could be huge value" for police when a private citizen captures video of a dangerous or illegal traffic situation.
He cautioned, however, that authorities wouldn't want drivers to place themselves in danger. "I'd much rather see a dash-mounted camera than somebody reaching down to grab their cellphone camera," Gengler said.
One camera is helpful, but Nichole, who asked that her last name be withheld, has two on her SUV and has been posting for about a year. One camera is mounted under her rearview mirror, and the other is held to her rear window by a suction cup.
Posting under the name of SeaDashGirl, she resides in the northwest suburbs and works at a dental office in Lincoln Park.
"The reason I have them is to protect myself because of these crazy drivers out there," she said one evening at her office. "I cringe every time I have to get off that expressway" and face the city streets.
Like Dembinski, Nichole recorded a swerving van that indicated drunken driving. And, like Dembinski, she contacted police, but they were unable to find the driver.
Such outcomes can be frustrating. Nichole, Elbaor and Dembinski say their video recording has yet to lead to arrests. But they all contend that using dashcams is no longer viewed as peculiar.
"They used to say, 'Oh, Nichole, you're so crazy for having a dashcam,'" she said. "Now I get texts from people who say, 'Wow, Nichole, if I only had one of your dashcams,' Now, they don't say I'm crazy. They say I'm smart."
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