Is It Legal to Use a Car Dash Camera in California?

By Phyllis Greene
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images

California drivers love their cars -- and the gizmos that go into them such as global positioning systems, hands-free phones, multi-disc CD players, DVD monitors and video cameras. Since January 2011, California law permits drivers and manufacturers to install dash cameras in private automobiles, but not without certain restrictions.

Proper Placement of Device

Prior to 2011, the use of video cameras in private vehicles in California was illegal because of fears that these devices would impair the driver’s view of the road. However, the use of video recorders in cars, if installed according to the legal restrictions, is now permitted. Commonly referred to as dash cams, video recording devices are most often attached to a vehicle’s windshield. There are several options when it comes to installing the device. California law requires their placement outside the range of airbag deployment in a 7-inch-square area at the lower right-hand corner of the windshield, in the lower left-hand corner of the windshield in an area no larger than 5 square inches, or in a 5-inch square area on the upper center portion of the windshield.

Capabilities of Recorders

California’s Vehicle Code refers to dash cams as “video event recorders,” defining these devices as video recorders that continuously record a digital loop that contains audio and video information. They can also record your driving speed, direction, seat belt usage and steering and braking events. A crash or "unusual motion” of the vehicle can automatically trigger the camera’s recording function, but the driver can also manually operate it for the purpose of monitoring his driving performance. The recorder may not store more than 30 seconds of data before and after the event that triggers its recording function.

Purposes of Dash Cams

The law permitting the use of recording devices in private automobiles in California aims at encouraging drivers to operate their vehicles in a safe manner and, hopefully, to reduce road accidents. There has been an 80 percent reduction in accidents in cars equipped with video recorders, according Vaughen Cain of the California Highway Patrol in a 23ABC News article. Other purposes of installing dash cams in your car can include providing a record of police behavior during traffic stops, documenting incidents of road rage and recording events leading up to accidents for reporting to insurance companies.

Audio Recording

Dash cameras obviously can make a visual record of the road ahead, but under state law, they must also be capable of recording and saving audio data. Because this requirement raises privacy concerns, you must post a notice in a visible place in your car that notifies passengers that their conversations are being recorded. The owner or lessee of the vehicle can turn the device off at any time. The information stored on the recorder belongs to the owner as a matter of law.

About the Author

Phyllis Greene is a legal writer and editor who loves to travel. She has worked as a senior legal editor for an international publishing company, produced content for law-related software and represented appellate clients. When not traveling, she writes and edits content for law and travel websites. Greene has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from CUNY and a J.D. from Lincoln University Law School.