These days, dashboard cameras, or dashcams as they are more commonly known, are present in almost every vehicle. Motorists install these cameras to record their on-road journeys, in the hopes that they may become useful visual evidence in the event of theft, vandalism or a traffic accident.
In a dispute of whether a collision has occurred or how it occurred, a vehicle’s video recording can serve as vital evidence for the public to resolve disputes amongst themselves. The video may also be a source of evidence used by a traffic accident reconstructionist to determine how an accident occurred, and if it could have been avoided.
It is a common belief that a video recording is irrefutable evidence, but does it mirror the accident through the eyes of the motorist? The answer is NO. What are some of the differences between what a motorist behind the wheel sees versus what is recorded in a video?
Fixed view vs Dynamic view
A dashcam is usually positioned to record events happening directly in front of the vehicle. Driving is a dynamic activity, and a motorist does not constantly look in only one direction. He would often turn his head to survey the traffic conditions around his vehicle, looking to the wing or rear-view mirrors and over his shoulder to check his blind-spots. One should take note that a video records only the forward field of view and does not provide the “snapshots” that the motorist observed around his vehicle.
Visible in video ≠ Seen by motorist
All that is visible in the video footage may not necessarily be visible or apparent to the motorist – what is recorded in a video does not mirror what a motorist can see or has seen. A forensic reconstructionist or the legal practitioner can scrutinise a video recording repeatedly at a pace that is slowed down many times over, or play it forward and backwards repeatedly to spot or ascertain events or details of interest e.g. when was the earliest moment the pedestrian was captured on the video recording etc. The motorist, on the other hand, only experiences the whole incident once, and within a short few seconds, often with a critical part of the incident lasting only milliseconds. Details that the motorist recollects of the incident would be limited to his memory from that short time frame. Therefore, something seemingly obvious to someone who has viewed the video multiple times may not be noticed by the motorist at all.
The expected vs The unexpected
A motorist’s primary focus when driving would be on the traffic condition and the road ahead; he would not have anticipated that an accident was about to occur. In contrast, when viewing a recorded footage, the reconstructionist has prior knowledge that an accident has occurred. As such, even though it can be seen in the video that something was coming into the line of sight of the motorist, caution should be taken when implying that the motorist was or should have been able to see and react to it.
In a nutshell, there is no doubt that video recordings may be useful evidence in traffic accidents. However, unlike a layperson who may not be aware of the various considerations, it is the responsibility of the forensic reconstructionist to recognise and understand the salient differences between what was recorded in the video and what the motorist actually saw, and the consequent limitations on his analysis. The reconstructionist has to ensure that any information gleaned, inference drawn and subsequent conclusions reached are used within realistic boundaries.