Things I learned after years of watching dashcam videos

I have an odd nightly routine where I often grab my iPad and some headphones before bed and watch 30-60min of random YouTube stuff before I drift off to sleep.

One of the oddly relaxing things I watch are dashcam videos on YouTube. If you hear that and think I watch police chases or high speed wrecks and love "fail" videos of people getting hurt, that's not what it's about at all. I've watched hundreds of different dashcam channels on YouTube that compile them and I have one clear favorite, which is done under the guise of a driving school.

Mostly, they're small fender benders and I use them as an opportunity to become a better driver. Here's their latest (I suspect they use sensationalized titles and previews to gather more viewers):

Why I watch these

Watching dashcam videos like the ones on this channel is a 2-part puzzle game you can play in your mind (I hate to use the word "game" here as if I'm having fun at the expense of people having a very bad day, it's more like the made up mental puzzles that go along with them).

The first is I tend to watch these in the same way one might play GeoGuessr, which is a popular Google Maps game (complete with competition champions!) where they plop you randomly into street view and you have to figure out where in the world you are.

I've had to look far and wide for YouTube accounts that don't tell you exactly where a driver is at the start of the video. RR&BD above tend to show an explanation and a location only at the end of a clip, which creates a 5-10sec gap for a mini GeoGuesser game while you watch.

After a few years, it's pretty easy to tell a North Carolina clip from a Seattle downtown one, but it gets harder when you have to guess a Nebraska video apart versus an Ohio clip. I can spot any Pacific Northwest or California clip instantly and frequently can guess the city within a few miles.

The second "game" within these clips is a simple puzzle. The puzzle is "what is about to happen?" and this is where experience with driving and watching clips comes in handy. Often the people recording their clips are going too fast, or passing stopped cars at a high rate of speed, and you can often guess correctly that someone is going to change lanes without a blinker or another car will cut across traffic to pull into a parking lot, and bang! the drivers will make contact.

But I correctly guess what is about to happen way less than 50% of the time. People are more unpredictable than I previously thought and you'll be surprised how often you think "oh I bet the semi truck accidentally merges into someone" when suddenly a car jumps a median and hits another out of nowhere, a sort of once-in-a-lifetime event.

If you've ever tried the "count the basketball passes" video test on perception (likely from a psychology class), you'll find a lot in common with these dashcam videos, where your eyes will tend to dart all over the screen wondering where a problem is going to crop up, and you get a little satisfaction when you guess correctly or spot something weird from a mile away, because both of those are lessons you can take from them when you're driving yourself (and how to avoid what is about to happen).

What I get out of them

That Youtube channel embedded above calls themselves a "driving school" and perhaps that's a bit cheeky of them, but I think these can be a real teaching tool.

As I've gotten older, I've realized I drive a bit slower than I did as a young lad because I've Seen Some Shit while driving for the past 35 years. The more weird experiences I have, the more I tend to slow down and leave space for Weird Shit To Happen without me being involved. These videos reinforce that and show you a whole world of extremely rare events taking place. Sure, some are just dumb fender benders that are predictable, but a surprising number are extremely unexpected things and it's made me a more cautious and aware driver.

When I was teaching my kid how to drive with her learner's permit, we would watch these from time to time so she could see what too much speed does to reaction times and how cars behave in rain and snow, and how many of these are quite preventable if you slow down and pay attention to your surroundings.

Like I've said, I've watched thousands of these videos over the past several years and over that time I've noticed trends in the footage. Here's a quick list of things that stick out.

Auto-braking saves lives

Often the clips have ambient sound in them and you frequently hear auto-braking and early collision warnings systems in newer cars beeping to snap the driver out of any freeway driving hypnosis. I have no doubt they prevent quite a number of accidents, and wish they were mandated on all cars like reverse cameras were.

Phones are very bad for inattentiveness

Perhaps related to the above, but it's clear from watching hundreds of rear-end collisions that the main factor was driver inattention, especially when it looks like there's plenty of room to stop and a truck just plows into a car without braking. People love to text each other and Americans love to drive, so the combination of the two together is dangerous and can be deadly.

These videos have actually made me dive further into using CarPlay and never touching my phone while driving, as I use Siri to do anything beyond a single tap on the stereo's touchscreen.

Red light running seems more common

Also related to the above is full on red light running. If you watch these videos, chances are you will see a handful of videos showing cars flying full speed through a completely red light, and after years of watching these videos and thinking back to my own experiences where I've maybe witnessed it personally only a couple times a year, I think people staring at their phones are causing a hell of a lot of high speed dangerous wrecks when people miss red lights entirely.

This is an honest trend over the years, 3-4 years ago you might only see this once in every 4-5 different compilation videos and now almost every single one includes at least a couple. They're so frequent they've become regular in these compilations.

Recently, I've noticed a couple extremely troubling trends that keep showing up in dashcam compilation videos.

One is a wrong-way driver going down a freeway off ramp that is one-way and getting onto a high speed freeway (also wrong-way) and continuing to drive full speed at cars going 55-65mph towards them. I'd never seen a single video with this before last year, and now they pop up once a month, and lately about twice a month. These are extremely dangerous and often end in fatal high speed collisions, and in the dashcam videos that capture one, the reason is most often an older driver confused about signage, but I honestly don't know why someone would continue to drive their car towards hundreds of headlights and not immediately pull over and stop.

The second disturbing trend is guns. I've never seen the presence of a hand gun in dashcam videos before maybe two years ago. Then every few months, someone road raging at another would flash one. Now, it's about once a month I'll see a video of someone waving a weapon around. The most disturbing thing about it is the person submitting the video and involved in the road rage incident will often mention they have a gun too and concealed carry it too. This is kind of a ticking time bomb and I wouldn't be surprised if road rage shootings become common place in the next few years, as I'm already seeing new altercations that weren't there before we relaxed gun laws across the US.

Brake-checking continues to be the stupidest driving thing ever

Road rage is a common theme that pops up in dashcam videos, and watching these incidents unfold in video after video, it has taught me things to notice and avoid as well as how far other drivers will go while enraged so I can avoid altercations.

One of the most popular road rage activities seems to be the brake check. That's where a pissed off driver gets in front of a car, then immediately slams on their brakes. I've encountered this in real life a few times on road trips in unfamiliar places, and it's boggled my mind why someone would even do this, since they risk a terrible accident (that they would blame the driver who hit them when they prompted the collision themselves).

Benefits of owning a dash camera in your car

After years of watching these videos, I've added small cameras like the Garmin Mini 2 to all my cars. I spend another hundred bucks or so to have a local stereo shop hide the hard-wired connections into the car so:

  • There are no cables in my field of vision
  • Nothing takes up any USB or 12v plugs on the dash
  • They automatically turn on when the car turns on and are always recording while driving

I also feel better having a dashcam in any car I drive because it lets you capture these weird once-in-a-great-while events that eye witnesses testimony tends to muddy up. It's worth noting that eye witness testimony is frequently used as hard evidence when two people can experience the same event extremely differently. People can think you rammed them when a video shows the opposite, and it's not that they're flat-out lying, it was just their perception of the events that took place. Video is extremely powerful for clearing things up for everyone involved.

Instead, you have a sort of "black box" recording of what really happened, and it's clear from watching dashcam videos that owners of the cameras save months of paperwork and arguing and lawsuits by simply having an actual digital record of what took place (especially in a brake-check situation where fault can be the car that started it, not the one that contacted the other).

I will say after years of using dashcams in my own cars, I've only captured a couple accidents in front of me (and I've pulled over and sent the video to drivers and to police). I've seen a bunch of close calls myself but thankfully I've never experienced an accident with a dashcam. Overall, I tend to pull video down from my dashcam to my phone or computer only once or twice a year, and that's perfectly fine and probably an expected rate of usage. It's an emergency situation type of upgrade, where it'll be amazing the very few times you need it but give you peace of mind.

Car accidents should be rare and capturing them should be even rarer, and while dashcam video compilations on YouTube aren't an average survey of all driving, there are some lessons you can take from them. You can become a better, more cautious driver and spot the signs of bad things about to go down and react accordingly in all your future trips.