When B.C. university student Alex Jang opened up his dashboard camera online store, consumers were initially skeptical about the purpose of the device.

“It was tough for us," said Jang, founder of Blackboxmycar.com.  "I think we were one of the first to bring over the high-quality dashcam to North America and we had [to go] through so many questions —  why do you need it, is it just another Big Brother scam, is the government trying to watch us?"

Now, Jang says, sales of the cameras are brisk and their popularity is growing, as more and more drivers seek out the device to give them video evidence for insurance claims in case of an accident.

"It gives you ammunition. It’s like a silent witness," said Steve Kee, a spokesman with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The device has also become a valuable tool in helping police track down drivers who may have left the scene of an accident.  This February, dashboard camera video of a near head-on collision north of Thunder Bay between two tractor trailers helped police catch the driver who allegedly drove away.

Saved from insurance scam

And CBC News recently reported about a Hamilton man who believed a dashcam may have saved him from an insurance scam.

“I would say about 70 per cent of people are trying to protect themselves on the road. And the rest of the people want to get protected from any mishaps while the vehicle is parked," Jang said.

The small camera, which can be mounted on the windshield, can be positioned to record the interior of the vehicle or can be pointed forward to capture whatever's going on in front of the car. The number of hours it records depends on the size of the SD card and the car does not need to be running for the unit to work. Prices of the camera can range from $50 to $400, with the more expensive cameras including a GPS feature that can also record the speed of the vehicle.

Ursula Lebana, owner of the Toronto-based Spytech store, said she has been selling dashboard cameras for a long time to car owners concerned about vandalism to their vehicles.

“We had the small ones that you could hide in a Kleenex box and put them in the dashboard," she said. "Now the more obvious ones are becoming more popular because people want to film where they’re driving, sometimes to prove they weren’t speeding, [or] if there’s an accident.”

Lebana said her sales actually spiked after a number of dashboard cameras in Russia recorded a meteor exploding across Russia’s western Siberian sky last year.

"All kinds of strange things you can capture on your camera," she said.

Dashboard cameras have been popular for years in countries like South Korea, China and Russia, where drivers install the devices to record potential accidents, but also the actions of corrupt officials.

Jang said that about five per cent of his sales to U.S. customers are to those who feel they need to protect themselves from the police.

But cameras are not all used for purposes of protection. People also like to use them recreationally, so they can record that first-person perspective of their drive, said Melanie Raposo, tech expert at The Source. 

Bit of a grey area

"We're in that age where we record everything we do in our daily lives. So this is sort of an extension to that," Raposo said. "You can't use your smartphone in the car. But this gives you a way to capture what’s going on while you’re driving."

So far, the Canadian Automobile Association is neutral about the device, saying it's a bit of a grey area when it comes to the positives and negatives.

On the positive side, the camera provides more information for insurance purposes, giving insurance companies “real data that they can use to make proper decisions on claims,” said Kristine D’Arbelles, a CAA spokeswoman.

It also may curb reckless driving, since a motorist will now know their driving behaviour is being recorded, she said.

“So maybe you’re going to be thinking twice about following the car in front of you a little bit too closely because...if you happen to ram them, there is now footage saying it is your fault."

However, there is some concern that the device could become a distraction while driving.

"If it’s just sitting there, and just recording, you don’t have to touch it, then it’s fine,” D’Arbelles said.  “If all of a sudden you have to fiddle with it while you’re driving and moving it around…then that becomes an issue because that could become an added distraction behind the wheel and could actually cause an accident instead of actually trying to prevent one.”

Steve Kee, the Insurance Bureau of Canada spokesman, said the device is something the IBC will watch, but can't yet support until more research is done.

But he encouraged motorists who have installed a dashcam to call their insurance representatives.

"Maybe they’ll find a way to provide you with some sort of small break."