Everything you need to know about using a dash cam in Canada
How difficult is it to install a dash cam? Can I share the footage online? Are they even legal here? We answer your questions about in-car dash cams
Most people are familiar with dash cams, the dedicated video cameras installed in all police cars, and, increasingly, in many private vehicles, too.
Designed to keep a record of what happens in front of a vehicle, they’ve captured reckless driving footage, settled insurance disputes, provided proof of theft or vandalism, and once, famously, netted video of a meteor hurtling through the sky.
As dash cam quality has gone up and their prices gone down, more drivers are wondering if now is the time to install one. We recommend it, but suggest you hear these technical and legal questions answered first.
What do they capture?
Unlike a GoPro or other consumer-grade cameras, dash cams are designed specifically to record constantly. Most turn on automatically and start recording the moment you start the ignition and record until you turn the car off. Most also have a microphone, and record audio unless you disable that feature.
The amount of footage the camera can retain depends on the quality of video you’ve chosen and the size of the memory card installed. Typically, when the card’s available storage runs out, the dash cam will start overwriting the oldest files, so you always have a record of your most recent activity.
Do they use batteries?
Most dash cams have small, built-in rechargeable batteries. In normal operation, while driving, the camera gets power directly from the car via a USB cable connected to a cigarette-lighter-power-outlet adapter. When parked with the ignition off, the battery lets the camera operate in sentinel mode, with the ability to turn on and record short clips if it detects movement or noise.
However, if your car is regularly exposed to very high temperatures – imagine the car parked outside on a hot summer day for six to nine hours without a sunshade – you may want to buy a model without a battery, as those extreme conditions can damage batteries and the camera, too.
What does the footage look like?
This is the biggest difference between dash cams. There’s variety not only in fields of view (how much the camera can “see”) but also in level of detail. Since a dash cam is meant to act as a reliable witness to what’s happening while you drive, the more detail, the better.
While full HD (or 1080p) is a good level of resolution, many models now offer higher levels of detail, up to 4K, which could make the difference between being able to read a license plate or not. However, not all 4K dash cams are equal. If a camera applies too much video compression to its files, a 4K video can be less useful than 1080p video saved with less compression.
Also consider the camera’s ability to deal with nighttime or low-light scenarios. If you drive a lot in darkness – as many Canadians do during winter – you don’t want a dash cam that can’t deal with oncoming headlights.
What about features like Wi-Fi or GPS?
A Wi-Fi-equipped dash cam is very handy for reviewing footage on a regular basis, because it lets you transfer captured video to your phone or tablet without unplugging the camera or its memory card. If you use a dash cam to record motorsports track days, or off-roading, Wi-Fi is a real benefit.
The same can be said for GPS if you use your dash cam for recording scenic footage during a vacation drive: being able to locate a video clip based on where you were can be a big time-saver.
On the other hand, if you simply want a dash cam to act as your unblinking witness while you drive, paying for these extras doesn’t make sense. They increase the price substantially and you’ll probably never use them.
Is installation difficult?
There are a wide variety of mounting options for dash cams—from units that clip to your rearview mirror; to suction cup mounts; to simple adhesive strips for the dash or windscreen. The difference is mostly personal preference.
Camera placement can be a problem if it obstructs your vision, though. “We don’t want them in the line of sight,” Sergeant Kerry Schmidt of the Ontario Provincial Police’s Highway Safety Division told us. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it, as long as they’re not a distraction.”
Running power to the camera via the included cable is the biggest concern. Some folks simply dangle that cable from the camera down their dash to the USB power outlet, which is not only unsightly, it’s dangerous, impeding visibility and possibly flying around unsecured in an accident.
The best way to deal with the cable is to carefully tuck it into the headliner at the top of the windshield, and run it down the passenger side A-pillar, then under the console to the USB port so it’s out-of-the-way and mostly invisible.
Some keen DIY installers have found clever ways to power their cameras from hidden power taps in or near their rearview mirrors—this might work, but it’s not recommended. These power taps’ voltage may not be regulated, possibly damaging the camera over time, or preventing it from recording. If you’re not comfortable doing the job yourself, consider having your dash cam professionally installed.
Are they legal?
“In Canada, there’s no law that prevents somebody from installing a dash cam and recording while they drive,” Ben Bloom, a Toronto-based lawyer and privacy expert, told us. The Canadian law that governs the use of these devices, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, or PIPEDA, protects your right to record in public. Since most roads are considered public, using a dash cam is perfectly legal. However, Bloom points out if you fiddle with a dash cam while driving, you’re at the same risk for a distracted driving charge as if caught using your cell phone while driving.
Will I get hassled by the cops?
On the contrary, law enforcement is very supportive of dash cam use. “When we get called to an incident,” Schmidt said, “there may be no witnesses on scene. But people may have inadvertently driven through the area with their dash cam running but didn’t stop to report it. We often reach out through the media to ask people with dash cams to review what they’ve recorded.”
Can I share the footage online?
“There’s nothing stopping you from sharing dash cam footage online,” Bloom said, but there are a few caveats.
First, remember your footage likely includes audio, too. If that audio’s only captured your personal Carpool Karaoke session, no problem (but remember, YouTube commenters are merciless). However, if it also captured a conversation between your car’s passengers, you could be violating their privacy. You’ll want to either mute the audio before uploading, or ask their permission.
Second, like anything else you share online, think of uploaded footage as permanently public, even if you delete it later. You might think shaming the person who cut you off in traffic is a good idea, but if the footage shows you driving recklessly, or too fast, it could haunt you. Just because you can share doesn’t mean you should.
Can I record everywhere I drive?
No. There are certain places where the right to record is not necessarily protected by law—crossing international borders, for example. “Border agents don’t like when dash cams are turned on,” Bloom said. “That area is not public, it’s an international boundary.” An agent could prevent you from crossing if they thought you were recording, and as we’ve seen recently, even detain you if you refuse them access to the contents of your smartphone.
Do I have to provide recorded footage if the police ask for it?
This is a sticky one. During a routine traffic stop, if a police officer has no reason to think a crime has been committed –traffic offenses like speeding are largely not considered criminal offenses – there’s no reason a driver must show the attending officer their dash cam footage or surrender it for inspection.
However, if you are pulled over as part of a criminal investigation, it’s a different story. In this case, police are allowed to “seize the device and then proceed with judicial authorization to search for evidence,” Sergeant Schmidt said. Police would need a valid search warrant to watch or copy the cam’s content, but can hold it pending the outcome of that warrant request.
Can I delete any videos that make me look bad?
“That’s a grey area,” said Bloom. If a crime hasn’t been committed, but you deleted video that could have been used in a traffic accident investigation, or as part of civil trial, it could have negative repercussions. Though technically not illegal, “if it could be proven you deleted video at that time,” said Bloom, “you’re opening yourself up to a negative inference from the fact that you deleted it. It’s going to work against you.”
Deleting video associated with a crime, however, is more severe. “That could be tampering with evidence,” said Bloom, which is itself a criminal offense.
What if I’m an Uber or Lyft driver?
You can still use a dash cam, but you will have to follow the same privacy rules that cover the use of security cameras in taxis. You would have to advise passengers they are being recorded, and, technically according to Bloom, “you need to inform people before they get in the car.”
Your passengers have the right to request a copy of the recording, or ask you to delete it. Disabling the microphone would eliminate this issue, but would also mean you have no recording of what was said between you and your passengers in the event of a dispute.