New tech could make us all traffic police informers — is that a good thing?

Picture the scene. You’re tootling along in a 30mph zone when a car zooms up in your rear view mirror. You can see what’s about to happen, so you tap the dashcam app on your smartphone. As he blasts past you at double the speed limit, the app opens your phone camera, focuses on his number plate and tracks the car’s speed. In a few seconds, it’s forwarded to the police video portal.

This could soon become a reality… with the emphasis on the soon. May 2023 sees the launch of DashCamUK, the brainchild of Ukrainian-born Oleksiy Afonin. As you will have gathered from the above, it’s designed to let you use any dashboard-mounted smartphone as a dashcam. About a quarter of UK vehicles already have dashcams installed, but that leaves an estimated 25 million drivers without one. The dashcam app could change all of that.

Now, just to be clear, the app doesn’t yet have the ability to track speed — although some news stories are incorrectly reporting that it does — but that’s on the cards. And when fully developed, the app isn’t just designed to record speeding.  According to the RAC website:

…it could also be used to submit evidence to the police for those drivers who commit 21 different driving offences.

This includes breaking the rules of the Highway Code, jumping red lights, failing to indicate when turning or merging lanes, using a mobile device, illegally parking, or carrying out dangerous driving.

“Ah-ha!” you say, “But you’re not allowed to faddle with a mobile phone while you’re driving — so you would be in breach of the law yourself. He didn’t think of that, did he?”

Well, actually, he did. Mr Afonin had talks with the National Police Chiefs Council early on in the app’s development, and as the Daily Mail tells us:

As a result, it includes a number of recommended features to ensure the video evidence stands up to scrutiny in court.

Those using the app while driving will not face a risk of using a mobile phone behind the wheel, as they will simply be required to touch th [sic] home screen to record a breach.

To meet privacy laws, and save on memory, the app deletes the footage after 30 seconds unless the user forwards it.

The app could lead to safer roads…

There doesn’t seem much doubt that widespread use of the app could improve driver behaviour, leading to safer roads. As Executive Director of Road Safety GB, James Gibson, put it:

If drivers believe that they’re being watched by others, we hope they will drive in the right way.

Now of course, there are already zillions of dashcams out there, and not everyone is driving safely. However, sending off dashcam footage currently requires a lot of effort. The new app promises to make things much easier.

Whether the police will be able to respond to those reports is another question. Potentially it could save huge amounts of time if they have indisputable evidence in their hands. On the other hand, the app could increase their workload if they’re flooded with terabytes of video footage.

Also, maybe there’s more to discuss here than just safety.

…but at what cost?

Is anyone else out there feeling a bit unsettled by this? It’s the idea that every time you make the slightest infraction of the motoring rules, or a simple mistake, a Good Citizen can potentially report you in an instant.

We already live in the most surveilled era in history, giving governments unprecedented power to monitor people. We see how tech is being used by authoritarian states to control its population, including modifying behaviour through public shaming. Now the DashCam app will make it possible to instantly report transgressors to the authorities. Somehow it feels like another Pandora’s Box getting pried open. Or is that too much of a leap?

Maybe how one responds to this is a generational thing. Anyone under thirty has grown up with the idea of everyone constantly filming everyone else (then sharing it all on social media, another way of enforcing social rules). Only oldies might bring to mind the scene at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Donald Sutherland finally becomes a lackey reporting to his alien overlords, literally squealing on his former friend:

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