Given how affordable most car cameras are, motorists are fixing them front, back and centre in their vehicles for self-protection
Catch it on your car camera Garmin GDR 190. -- ST PHOTO: STEFFI KOH

Most taxis already have them, the police want more of them, car owners cannot seem to get enough of them and even motorcyclists are wearing them.

Video cameras installed in vehicles are simply soaring in popularity. One reason is the cost - for as little as $50, drivers can have a camera perched on their dashboards or fixed behind their rearview mirrors, occasionally capturing dramatic footage like that of the May 1 accident along East Coast Parkway that killed a magazine publisher and a Taiwanese woman.

But the most obvious reason for having a camera is self-protection. Says Mr Azri Zulfarhan, a 27- year-old engineer who has cameras installed on his motorbike: "If something happens, the video is like a witness."

And even if the vehicle with the camera is not involved in a fender bender, the device can still catch road bullies in the act or even record careless parents who let their toddlers stray onto roads.

The police are embracing cameras too. All patrol cars already have cameras that point to the front and rear and they are being upgraded to cameras with a 360-degree view.

For drivers, a potential perk of having cameras installed is lower insurance premiums. At least one insurer, DirectAsia.com, offers a 4 per cent discount for motorists who install such gadgets.

But not all cameras are built the same.

Smartphones can be used as cameras too. Insurance giant Income launched a smartphone application this week that allows drivers to use their phone - mounted on the windscreen with a bracket - to record footage on the go. But the hassle of removing and mounting the phone and the drain on its battery limit its practicality.

In the long run, it may be better to install a dedicated camera.

Having such a camera is like buying insurance. You get it fixed, check it diligently to make sure it works and trust it will not let you down when you need it.

Life! gives you tips on how to pick a camera. Essentially, there are three types: those that shoot the front, those that cover the rear and camera systems designed to nab vandals by continuing to work even after the car is parked.

SEE WHAT THE DRIVER SEES

Cost: From $50

Pros: Affordable and easy to self-install

Cons: Covers only the front, dangling cable

These plug-and-play cameras are powered by the car's cigarette lighter socket and they record onto an SD or micro-SD card on a loop, writing over files when the card is full.

The cheapest camera that I found for sale online costs only $46. But be careful when you buy these gadgets from the Internet. You cannot be sure of long-term reliability and there will not be any product support when they fail.

The two things to look out for when shopping are the angle of the recording field and the quality of the videos. Reject any camera with less than a 120-degree view. And the recording must at least allow you to see the car's number plate clearly, even in rain or low light.

Other useful features include Global Positioning System, G-sensor to measure any sudden acceleration or deceleration and a built-in screen to view the recorded files.

A typical set with these features costs between $200 and $300.

But if you want to splurge, a top-of-the- range model to consider is the Garmin GDR 190, made by the Taiwanese company better known for its navigation devices.

Its $449 camera uses two lenses to cover an ultra-wide 200-degree range. The image is somewhat distorted, like a fish-eye camera lens, but it captures everything in front of a car's A-pillars.

It records in high-definition format and the footage can be viewed on a 3-inch screen.

The Garmin has two unusual functions - it warns the driver if he is driving too close to the car in front and it has a built-in battery that powers the camera for up 90 minutes after the car's ignition is switched off.

Although these cameras are plug and play, the power cable connecting a camera to the cigarette lighter socket can be messy.

The work-around is to get a skilled electrician to tap the car's electrical circuit through its fuse box to power the camera.

But beware that car dealers generally frown on such modifications, especially for new cars that are still under warranty.

DETER VANDALS

Cost: Around $600

Pros: Works round the clock with optional independent battery pack

Cons: Expensive, needs to be installed professionally

Catching vandals requires not only patience, but also proper equipment. The usual plug- and-play car cameras will not do because these are powered by the cigarette lighter sockets. When a car is parked, the power is cut off and the cameras stop working.

And if these cameras tap the car's battery for power through its fuse box, they can be a significant drain on the battery. The risk of not being able to start your car after a couple of months of usage is quite real.

A solution is to install a camera system which comes with its own battery pack that powers the cameras when the car is parked. This requires professional installation.

Life! tried out a $598 two-camera Blackvue system this week.

The Korean-made system is unusual because both the front and rear cameras are powered by just one cigarette lighter socket.

Although the footage is recorded onto a micro-SD card on a loop, they can be viewed over Wi-Fi using smartphone applications.

The cameras have typical features such as Global Positioning System, G-sensor and full high-definition recording.

On the move, they record in one-minute blocks and the front and rear videos are synchronised.

The package also comes with its own video-viewing and editing software.

Once the car's engine is turned off, the cameras switch to a "parking mode" and continue to run on an external battery pack ($140) for about 61/2 hours. Two battery packs are needed for longer use and these need to be charged either from the cigarette lighter socket or household power points.

In parking mode, the cameras are on standby and record only if their motion sensors detect movement. Flashing lights on the cameras show they are "armed", which could deter would-be vandals.

Still, since each camera covers a range of 146 degrees front and rear, the sides of the car, which are often targeted by vandals, remain vulnerable. A car-scratching vandal who approaches the vehicle from the sides will remain out of the cameras' coverage.

No car camera system is completely vandal-proof. But the Blackvue, although expensive, is about as close as it can get. At least for now.

WATCH YOUR BACK

Cost: $100 to $400

Pros: Easy to install

Cons: Loss of privacy for driver and passengers

Those who want cameras covering both front and rear views have two options: install a dual- lens camera that shoots in both directions or use two separate cameras.

Both methods have drawbacks.

A dual-lens, bi-directional camera is hard to find. Major brands such as Blackvue, Garmin and Marbella do not make them.

VisionDrive is about the only established brand with this function here. It is pricey (close to $400) but its camera angle is so wide that it can capture a good percentage of the sides of the vehicle as well.

Others are found online and are mostly self- imported, which means after-sales support may not be available.

Assuming that you can find them, privacy can be a worry because the camera that shoots backwards essentially records what happens in the car too.

The other way is to install two independent cameras.

But fixing a camera at the rear of the vehicle poses two additional challenges: you need a rear power socket and a spot on the rear windscreen to mount the camera.

While it should not pose a problem in sedans, it is not possible in a convertible. Also, the constant opening and closing of the tailgate may dislodge the camera or skew its angle.

There is also the problem of loose cables.

But for those who decide to fix two separate cameras - one at the front and the other at the rear - the Marbella MX6 should be on the shortlist.

It is not a new model and has been available in Singapore since last year. But it has all the key features, including high-definition recording, G-sensor and built-in screen.

While it does not have Global Positioning System, it has a night recording mode where the videos do not turn out dark and blurry.

The MX6 is about the size of two match boxes laid in a row. And it is so light (about the weight of an egg) that it can be held onto the windscreen using a suction cup.

The biggest draw is the price. At $189 a piece or $378 a pair, it is a steal for front and rear video coverage.