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Forward-facing cameras – the driver’s friend

They say the camera never lies. Forward facing cameras are proving invaluable in the fight against false insurance claims and encouraging safer driving habits. Sharon Clancy gathers the evidence.

If you’ve ever been in a motoring accident, you’ll appreciate that there’s a lot to take in.

What exactly was the sequence of events leading up to the impact? What other vehicles were involved? who was the driver? Were there any passengers or pedestrians and were they injured? What damage was caused?

Even with witnesses, accounts of what happened can vary significantly enough for insurance and claims companies to be unable to determine who was at fault.

Forward-facing CCTV cameras in vehicles can capture a lot of this detail automatically, helping police and insurers determine fault. It’s this protection against false blame that is behind rising sales are mobile CCTV cameras, which are becoming an essential item in many afleet managers’ telematics toolbox.

Many insurers settle claims on a no-fault 50-50 basis, explains Ben Burford, managing director of insurance specialist Stonebridge Corporate, so whether the fleet is insured or self-insured, consequential costs from accidents are rising.

“Determining fault is time-consuming and costly, especially if there is lack of reliable evidence, so often accidents are dealt with on a no-fault basis. Cameras can reduce motor fleet claims by between 30 to 70 per cent simply by helping ensure you don’t pay if you are not at fault.”

Apart from the savings because of the reduction in 50-50 no-fault claims settlements, cameras can also help lower the cost of personal injury claims, says Nick Plowman, managing director of Intelligent Telematics UK. “Providing proof of the actual speed and g-force at the point of impact can mitigate inflated injury claims,” says Plowman.

There’s been a lot of publicity about “crash-for-cash” scams, where an accident is staged and the innocent driver becomes the “at fault” driver. The Insurance Fraud Bureau (set up by insurance companies to liaise with police to fight fraud) calculates that crash scams cost insurers £392 million a year.

It says one in seven personal injury claims is suspected of being linked to scams that also include writing off repairable vehicles and claiming for bogus additional passengers. Bradford, Birmingham, Bolton, Manchester, London, Liverpool and Halifax are all “crash-for-cash” hotspots, warns the IFB.

Liveried trucks are seen as an easy target. “In Russia, Poland and Japan, fake accident scams are an increasing problem,” reports Chris Evans, marketing manager for Snooper UK. “Fortunately the UK is not as bad but increasing numbers of crash-for-cash’ fraudsters has seen an increase in sales.”

Similarly, if there is an allegation of a driving or tail-gating offence, or damage to another vehicle, a video clip can prove the driver’s innocence. It’s this aspect that appeals to drivers who might normally resent the “spy-in-the-cab” implications of a forward-facing camera, says Clive Taylor, director of fleet management and commercial business at Garmin Europe. “Companies want to defend their drivers when they are in the right, and protect them from false accusations of bad driving, tailgating and so on.”

Driving style improvements

The video data captured by cameras can be integrated into driver training programmes. They already capture data on risky driving behaviour such as harsh braking and acceleration, and there is also anecdotal evidence that drivers will adopt a more gentle driving style once they know that any risky behaviour is likely to be caught one camera.

How they work

Forward-facing cameras (also called dash cams, digital video recorders, “incident” or “event” recorders) are mobile CCTV cameras with an integral video recorder and g-force sensor. When the ignition is switched on the camera records the forward view from the cab on a continuous loop, but only saves the video clip when the g-force sensor registers a g-force above a certain level – on impact or when there is harsh braking. Some systems categorise events as low, medium or high severity depending on the level of g-force that triggers it.

The camera is attached to the inside of the windscreen with an adhesive pad or suction cup. There are plug-and-play models, where the device is powered by a cable plugged into the cigarette lighter or USB port, and permanently installed devices that are hard-wired to the vehicle ignition.

Typically the device will save up to 15 seconds’ video footage prior to an accident and between 5 and 20 seconds after; it varies depending on the device and it is configurable on some units. On most devices the video is saved as a MPEG4 file to an SD memory card, although some devices also have an internal memory as a backup.

Some have a small LCD screen where you can review a video clip. To review any event, the memory card is inserted in a computer and replayed using the software supplied with the device. The memory card can be secured to prevent tampering, and varies in capacity from 512MB up to 16GB.

Taylor advises fleet operators not to skimp on the size of the memory card. “Once, full, the earliest event is overwritten. A large memory card is essential if you are recording the whole trip for training and compliance purposes, rather than just g-sensor-triggered events. We supply a 4GB card as standard, with the option to go up to 32GB.”

 Additional features can include a GPS sensor that records time, date, direction and speed; a manual button that the driver can push to save a video clip; an audio record function; an inward-facing lens that will also record in-cab activity; a park mode that can record events while stationery; and a SIM card that allows the footage to be sent live over the 3G or 4G network. On more sophisticated systems there are additional camera feeds to cover the blind spot area along the side of the vehicle and the rear.

Data security and uploads

For many fleet operators, a key factor in deciding which cameras to deploy will be how the video data files are secured against tampering. There are several ways of doing this. Expert advice is to avoid entry-level systems where the memory card can be removed by the driver, and to opt instead for devices where the SD card is locked in place and can only be accessed by the fleet manager or other authorised personnel. Some devices have an additional internal memory, so even if the SD card goes missing, the data is still available to download.

Some cameras can be linked to a telematics black box, and tracking companies are already partnering with camera suppliers to offer this additional real-time data flow. Richard Lane of telematics specialist  CTrack explains: “If an event is saved, an SMS or email can be sent to alert the transport office. Companies don’t have to rely on the driver reporting it, or wait for the vehicle to return to base before the memory card is downloaded.”

Plowman agrees there will be more integration of cameras with telematics black boxes in future, but predicts that insurers may start to insist on the actually video footage being sent in real time rather than using simple event reporting. Insurance claims companies like the concept of real-time video data because it speeds up the claims management process.

Stonebridge is installing 3G-enabled Intelligent Telematics cameras in its fleet business. Ben Burford expects live reporting of accidents will become the norm because of the benefits it delivers. “In tests, we are getting notification of incidents in under a second and full HD video uploaded within two to three minutes. In theory we could have cars booked in for collection / repair, have hire cars en route to the customer, and have decided liability – all within thirty minutes.”

Buyers’ tips

Just as early consumer satnav systems that didn’t include truck routes and bridge heights, dash cams intended for car owners might not be suitable for trucks. Not all entry-level devices are suitable for 24-volt systems, for example, and they won’t necessarily be robust enough to cope with the day-to-day environment of a truck, although two- or three-year warranties instil some confidence.

For more tips, see column to right.

Dash cams – what to look for

Prices start at around £70 for a basic dash-cam without GPS, while mid-range models cost from £150 to £350. Generally speaking, the pricier the unit, the higher the quality of the camera lens, g-force sensor, GPS transceiver and video speed (all potentially critical for reliable evidence in the event of a claim).

An HD lens is preferable for high-resolution images, offering a horizontal angle of view between 90 and 130 degrees. A wider lens allows camera to monitor blind spots to the sides of the vehicle, but at the cost of resolution in centre because they suffer the fish-eye effect. Video image capture rates can vary between one frame-per-second and 30fps. The higher the fps, the better the video quality.

A three-axis g-sensor is recommended, and look out for automotive-quality sensors such as those from Bosch; they will have been designed to cope with the normal vibration from a truck, so are less prone to triggering a false event recording. Some cameras categorise events as low, medium or high g-force, allowing fleet managers to focus on the riskiest behaviours.

A GPS fix provides useful evidence in a collision, as it matches vehicle speed and direction of travel to video images, and can be useful for replaying footage for driver training using Google Earth or 3D maps.

GPS position update frequencies can vary from 1Hz to 10Hz and are critical for speed measurements, warns Burford. “A device that measures speed at 1Hz (once a second) is not going to make the grade. Insurers will not be able to use the information with any confidence as it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Similarly, g-force sampling rates and calibration are critical. “Most devices are sampling g-forces at over 50 times a second (50Hz). However, unless a device auto-calibrates at installation, it might register a positive g-force at standstill. I’ve seen an install where at stationery the camera was registering 0.55g – the sort of force that equates to what some insurers would consider harsh driving!”

Taylor says LCD displays such as those incorporated in Garmin’s Cam 10 and Cam 20 devices are reassuring to the driver and useful at the scene of a crash. “Drivers can check that the field of vision is correct and that the device is functioning correctly. Playback can also be useful for police officers at the scene.”




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