Accountability on the Bike: Consider a Camera

The last few years have seen an explosion of action cameras on the market.  GoPro has created such a name for itself that “GoPro” has nearly become synonymous with “action camera”, but other big names like Garmin and Sony have joined in, as well as countless Asian-made knockoff brands.  While designed and targeted at making your own thrilling videos to toss on YouTube and Vimeo to show off to your friends, cyclists all over the world are finding another usage for them: “dash” cams, mounted either on the bike or on a helmet.Helmet with Camera  Dash cams are the cameras commonly found on the dashboards of commercial vehicles to be used to prove liability if the commercial vehicle is involved in a crash or other incident, and bicyclists are starting to use them the same way.

Now why would a bicyclist feel the need for such a camera?  Well, if you spend much time riding your bicycle on public roads then the answer is likely obvious for you: road rage and harassment!  Sure, everyone who drives likely has a story or two (or ten…) of a ridiculous road rage incident they’ve encountered, and occasionally people even brag about their own road rage in “I sure showed him!” revenge stories, but I don’t think any group on the road can say they experience a more disproportionately large amount of harassment than bicyclists.  Furthermore, plenty of bicyclists have discovered an unintended benefit of using cameras: helping prove fault in a crash.  But there are a few things you should know before you go out and buy a camera to put on your bike:

The Double-Edged Sword

The best thing about a camera on the bike is that it can capture everything it sees in video form.  However, the worst thing about a camera on the bike can also be that it captures everything it sees in video form!  While I encourage with utmost sincerity that you should always be obeying your local laws and riding responsibly anyways, that is even more important when you are filming your rides.  If you try to present your video to a police officer to make a case that a driver was at fault for hitting you in an intersection at a 4-way stop, yet your video clearly shows you riding through your own stop sign without stopping, all you’ve done is prove without a doubt that you were at fault (or at the least, partially at fault) for that collision and not the driver.  You should always be aware of the laws where you are riding and obey those laws.  Some may feel stupid to follow, but not as stupid as it feels compromising yourself because you decided to willfully disregard the law.

Stop SignBesides more encouragement to follow the law, I’ve also personally found an unintended benefit of riding with cameras to be a positive attitude change on my part.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but before I rode with cameras I would frequently curse at drivers who passed too closely or flip the middle finger to drivers who yelled at me.  After riding with cameras for a while, I too often watched my videos with the intent to make a clip for submission and thought to myself, “Wow, I look like a huge jerk here!”  I even found firsthand that yelling at drivers in one of your videos is a quick way for a police officer to decide to take no action regarding your video, or even shift blame to you after watching it, no matter how bad the driver’s actions were.

Don’t Expect “Gotcha!” Moments

Some start using cameras on the bike in the hopes that police will ticket every driver they report for passing too closely or harassing them, but the reality is that will never happen.  The police can’t go around delivering tickets to people’s homes for things they did not personally witness, particularly when there was no collision involved (although sometimes they may ticket drivers at the scene of a crash, which is a different thing entirely).  Sometimes the most they can do is send a letter to the vehicle owner’s home stating that they received a report of aggressive driving or harassment and they should cease to continue doing it, or if you’re lucky a police officer will visit the vehicle owner’s home, but even those things don’t always happen.

PoliceSpeak to someone at your police department before submitting a report with video to find out how they receive reports and what they do with them.  Submitting a report and video with unrealistic expectations will just set you up for disappointment.  As a tip, be very careful how you present your report or questions to a police officer: going in with a “why won’t you do your job!” attitude will result in wildly different results than going in with a “can you please assist me with this dangerous driver?” attitude.

Be Aware of Camera Limitations

Close PassThe fisheye lens of most action cameras can be both a blessing and a curse.  The wide-angle effect allows the camera to pick up a huge chunk of the roadway, but at the same time makes it very difficult for someone – especially someone not used to viewing footage shot with a fisheye lens – to determine how close a vehicle is to you when passing.  If your main intent for cameras is to report closely passing cars, be aware that passing vehicles may not appear as close as they are.

Camera while cycling at nightProper ambient lighting is also crucial for clear footage with these action cameras.  It may be hard to identify a vehicle’s make, model, or even accurately capture the color if it is dark outside, and don’t bother expecting the license plate number to be clearly visible.  If an incident you will want to report happens in the dark it is best to literally shout at your camera the description of the vehicle and license plate number if you can read it, that way when playing back footage you have all the details from the scene rather than hoping you remember them all later.  Even in broad daylight license plate numbers aren’t always clear, particularly on bumpy roads or if the other vehicle is going significantly faster than you are, so shouting a plate number at your camera for reference is never a bad idea.

Don’t Let the Camera Be Your Focus

Riding with a camera (or cameras) can help relieve a bit of anxiety and help you feel safer riding on the roads, but you shouldn’t make it the focal point of every ride.  If you turn every post-ride ritual into reviewing your footage to replay all the dangerous passes and any awful things that happened to you, then you will quickly find the cameras will suck the fun out of your hobby or commute.  Likewise, putting yourself into dangerous situations where you would technically be in the “right” as far as the law is concerned just to make a driver look bad will not only nurture a bad “gotcha!” attitude on your part, but it is stupidly dangerous to do.   Never change how you ride just because you have your camera as a “witness” if anything were to happen to you.

Remember that cycling is supposed to be fun, so don’t let the camera detract from that.  Treat it just like your emergency flat repair kit that you keep with you when you ride: be happy that it’s there and hope you never need to use it, but if you ever do need it you will be beyond grateful for it!


Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.