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It was just before 1 o’clock one Saturday morning in mid-October when John Pettifor left his mother’s house at Fleet in Hampshire to head home. Behind the wheel of an imported Chevrolet pick-up, Mr Pettifor had hardly reached the 30mph speed limit as he drove down the town’s quiet high street when – precisely 72 seconds into his journey – disaster struck.

It came in the form of a blue Vauxhall Astra that shot out of a side road at an estimated 30 to 40mph, and careered into the path of Mr Pettifor’s truck. Despite slamming on the brakes, there was no way he could avoid the Astra, and the massive Chevrolet ploughed straight into the side of the little Astra at exactly 22mph.

Uninjured, Mr Pettifor got out of his car – and so did the other driver.

‘I immediately noticed that he stank of drink,’ says Mr Pettifor. ‘He then got back in the car and tried to restart it, but the damage was too great.

‘His girlfriend was in the front passenger seat, and he yanked her out and they both scarpered.’

When police arrived, Mr Pettifor gave his side of the story. As with any accident, the officers had to keep an open mind as to whose fault it had been. But in this instance they were armed with a powerful piece of evidence that showed exactly where the blame lay – video footage from Mr Pettifor’s dashboard camera, or ‘dash cam’.

‘The police saw it right there and then and they instantly knew it was not my fault,’ says Mr Pettifor. ‘It showed that I hadn’t been speeding or driving badly. It ruled all that out, and entirely proved my innocence.’

Better still, when it came to dealing with the normally time-consuming and frustrating business of making an insurance claim, the footage was equally useful as it comprehensively proved the Astra driver was at fault.

‘His insurers had nothing to argue with,’ Mr Pettifor says. ‘They couldn’t say I was veering around, and the video shows their driver speeding straight through a Give Way sign.’

As a result, the insurers swiftly agreed to pay out, thereby saving Mr Pettifor much time and hassle over having to establish who was at fault.

He says: ‘Do I think all cars should have dash cams? Put it this way, I will always have one. They’re essential when dealing with any sort of dispute.’

Those of us unlucky enough to have spent weeks, if not months, wrangling with insurance companies in the wake of an accident will look upon Mr Pettifor’s experience with an envious eye. Although car crashes can often be traumatic, many people find that the bureaucratic aftermath can be even more upsetting.

Dash cams, with their unimpeachable record of any incident, are therefore becoming increasingly popular, and it looks certain that 2017 will see thousands of us forking out for a device that may soon become as ubiquitous as the satnav.

It is now common for police to appeal for dash-cam footage following serious accidents – they did so after a pile-up on the A40 near Witney in Oxfordshire a few days after Christmas.

It is estimated there are already about 840,000 dash cams – including helmet-mounted cameras for motorcyclists – on the roads in the UK. In 2015, the last year on record, sales increased by a massive 395 per cent, making dash cams the fastest growing category in consumer electronics. Globally, it is estimated that the market for them will triple to some £4.5 billion a year by 2022.

Already, many professional drivers fit them as standard.

Yet while there are plenty of motorists who are convinced dash cams really do make life easier in the event of an accident, others believe they are the thin end of a disturbing wedge, in which insurance companies and law-enforcement agencies will be able to gather and collect data about yet another aspect of our private lives.

Just because a device is popular, does that make it necessary? Should every car really have a dash cam?

Before trying to answer that, it’s worth getting to know exactly what one does.

A dash cam is a small camera in a unit fixed to the dashboard or windscreen that records the road ahead. Images are saved on an internal memory card – a budget model with a 32GB card will film a four-hour trip.

Many units have screens allowing instant playback. If necessary, footage can be transferred to a computer and saved, and in the event of an accident, the film can be viewed.

Some more complex dash cams record other data, such as speed, exact location and even G-forces, all of which can help to build up a terrifically accurate picture of the circumstances of any accident. Typically, these more complex dash cams are connected to a vehicle’s electricity supply via the fusebox, while the simpler versions are powered through a cable that runs to the 12-volt socket.

Dash cams are certainly not expensive. The cheapest models can be as little as £30, with the priciest running to some £300. However, it is not necessary to spend much more than about £150. The essential feature to look out for is video quality. The cheapest cameras may be tempting, but there is little point in recording an accident only to find that the image of the other vehicle speeding away from the scene is too grainy for the number plate to be readable.

If you do splash out, you may get your money back in the form of a cheaper motor insurance policy.

AXA, for example, offers ten per cent off insurance premiums for new and renewing customers with a dash cam.

The thinking is that if you’re involved in an accident that is not your fault, the dash cam makes it easier for your insurer to prove that, and not to have to agree to a fifty-fifty split with the other insurer.

An AXA spokesman said: ‘If a claim is settled on a ‘non-fault’ basis, your no claims discount is unaffected and your insurer can usually recover your policy excess – this could you save hundreds of pounds.’

Another company offering dash-cam discounts, sometimes as high as 20 per cent, on its insurance policies is Markerstudy.

The group’s underwriting director, Gary Humphreys, said: ‘Dash cams save us a huge amount of time. With a normal claim, it can take us about eight to 12 weeks to exchange details with the other insurer, and to agree liability. If we have dash-cam footage, we can turn the whole thing around in about 72 hours. That’s a huge difference, and we can pass on the savings to our customers by offering discounted policies.’

Such cameras clearly also save the police an enormous amount of time, and make it easier to track down drivers who have left the scene of an accident. That’s what happened to Hemang Sheth who, in November, was knocked off his motorcycle at a roundabout at Canary Wharf in London, by a driver who then sped off.

‘I was lying in the middle of the roundabout, and she drove around me,’ Mr Sheth recalls. ‘In fact, nobody stopped at all!’

The police arrived shortly afterwards, and Mr Sheth was able to show them the video footage from his helmet cam on his laptop in the back of the squad car. ‘Luckily, I had passed the car in traffic just 30 seconds before the crash, and I got a good view of the number plate,’ he says.

‘The police were instantly able to get her address, and within an hour they had gone round to her house. She admitted everything.’

As well as quickly establishing fault, many dash-cam owners say the cameras make them better drivers. Among them is David Doyle, from Manchester, who was in his car when he was smashed into at a road junction by a driver who ran through a red light. The camera instantly showed the police that he was not to blame, and Mr Doyle says the camera has another benefit.

He explains: ‘Having a dash cam makes me a lot more considerate and cautious. You’re well aware that you can incriminate yourself if you drive badly, and because you’re aware it’s there, it calms you down a bit.’

Simon Marsh, the managing director of VisionTrack, a leading supplier of dash cams, agrees.

‘I think people with dash cams drive more responsibly,’ he says. ‘When you know you’re being recorded, you slow down, and that extra second can often help you avoid an accident, or lessen its impact. You drive more defensively, because you also know that you can be judged on your driving.’

Some dash cams, such as the VisionTrack VT2000, even offer a function called ‘telematics’, which can report the data gathered by the dash cam in real time back to a computer at home.

‘This is invaluable if you’re a parent keeping an eye on young drivers,’ says Mr Marsh.

‘You can set up an alert that reports directly back to you if the driver has exceeded the speed limit, or has been involved in a crash.

‘My personal opinion is that all cars should have dash cams. The case for them is just so strong, especially with the benefits they can bring with insurance claims. It’s a no-brainer.’

Gary Humphreys regularly uses this function when his children – now aged 21 and 18 – are on the road.

He says: ‘Once, I saw that my son had been speeding, so when he got home, I sat him down, showed him where and when he had done it, and told him he’d be paying for his own insurance if he did it again. Funnily enough, he hasn’t done so since.’

Of course, the fact that dash cams can effectively spy on drivers does raise the issue of privacy. Although drivers are perfectly entitled to film the road as it is a public space, some may feel that these cameras, if they do become ubiquitous, will act as little Big Brothers in our cars.

AXA says it treats dash-cam footage ‘with the same degree of sensitivity as other claims-handling data in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998’. But as we know, even big internet firms can fall prey to hackers. And how long before police demand footage?

Markerstudy says (as with AXA) its policy-holders are not obliged to hand over footage in the event of a crash, but if they do not do so, it is possible their policy excess can be raised.

So long as insurers respect the data gathered from the dash cams, it is hard to see the downside. Perhaps the real question then is not whether you can afford to buy a dash cam – but whether you can afford not to.

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