In George Orwell’s ‘1984’, citizens of Oceania were watched by the telescreens of Big Brother, a prescient glimpse of today’s surveillance society. What Orwell didn’t predict was the rise of personal CCTV: citizens watching each other. While GoPro and the other action camera companies advertise their wares with sweet footage of swoopy singletrack and ramp jumping, many cyclists are not just using ‘bikecams’ for recording scenic adventures, they’re using them for everyday security. Cameras worn on the person, or clipped to the bike via seat post or handlebar mounts, are increasingly being used to allow urban cyclists to grab evidence of motoring misdemeanours.
The increasing level of camera use is shown by these two videos. They were shot by YouTube users thefireuk and CyclingxRob. They pooled their videos following an incident when a motorist decided his dangerous driving required even more dangerous driving. CyclingxRob and thefireuk filmed the same incident and, via tagging of the driver’s numberplate, linked them online.
YouTube is awash with cyclist-bashing footage: close calls, side swipes and road rage. Cyclists aren’t always sweetness and light: in a case from last year an Australian mountain biker was ticketed for attacking a cyclist who had asked to pass. The following cyclist was packing an onboard camera and recorded the attack, using a call-out on YouTube to identify the assailant. And many of the bikecam-packing cyclists also upload videos of cyclists riding dangerously.
David Brennan of Glasgow, Scotland, posts to YouTube as Magnatom. He has 186 videos online, with 1.7m cumulative views. His daily commute of 12 miles each way is filmed from the front and the back, via Contour cameras.
“Although I tend to post incidents [when they happen], the vast majority of my journeys are uneventful and enjoyable,” promises Brennan.
When one of his commutes is “eventful”, Brennan posts the video evidence online and cites the motorist’s registration number so any further infractions are ‘Google-logged’. His YouTube subscribers and his 640 Twitter followers help make the video go viral. The BBC has used his footage on multiple occasions, including a clip of a heavy goods vehicle nearly crushing Brennan on a traffic island. Less experienced cyclists have been killed by such manoeuvres and Brennan is one of many video-cyclists who sometimes submit footage to the police, in the hope dangerous driving citations will follow. Other prolific bikecam video posters include Cyclegaz and CyclingMikey.
Prior to the advent of action cameras, examples of bad driving reported to police were rarely followed up because of the lack of reliable evidence. Bikecams are enabling cyclists to capture high quality video and audio evidence, and police forces are starting to use such evidence in prosecutions.
An Australian study from 2010 analysing bikecam footage showed that drivers were responsible for 87 percent of near-misses or crashes with cyclists.
Bike-cam commuters who film incidents on action cameras are sometimes known as ‘visualantes’ – a play on the word vigilante – and there’s a website that helps such visualantes to submit their YouTube videos to the police. PoliceWitness.com was set up by former police chief Alan Featherstone of Northamptonshire. PoliceWitness.com retails the ‘Justice’ camera and also sells a hi-vis vest emblazoned with the site name (and the word ‘Police’ in large letters to grab cyclists more passing room).
However, Policewitness.com is not endorsed by any police forces. In 2011, Suzette Davenport, Deputy Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police, wrote to road policing colleagues saying any implied police endorsement of the site was wholly wrong and, perhaps bizarrely, said that video evidence may not always be the best evidence:
“In relation to the concept of prosecution of mobile phone and other minor traffic offences from video submissions from this company, I have sought guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and expert advice from Roads Policing colleagues. It is the opinion of such experts that a prosecution for offences based solely upon this video evidence is unlikely. I also have concerns that such an approach effectively removes the level of discretion and professional judgement used by officers when dealing with incidents or offences of this type, the value of which cannot be underplayed.
“Policewitness.com [urges] members of the public to stand at the side of the road with their mobile phones and other video equipment to capture drivers they believed were committing offences. I have publicly advised against this for two main reasons. Firstly, anyone engaged in such activities may be exposed to a risk of confrontation from those allegedly committing offences. Secondly, there is a heightened risk to members of the public not wearing high visibility clothing from traffic on a busy or fast road.
“A prosecution for an offence via a clip submitted in such a manner is unlikely and therefore the value of such clips should be taken as limited. If Forces are seeking an appropriate response, I would recommend that in most cases, a suitable letter to the registered owner of the vehicle would be proportionate where the submitted clips meet a high enough standard; You may wish to consider making a clear policy decision not to act upon submitted video clips where the volume becomes unmanageable; The idea of a ‘vigilante’ approach of members of the public standing by the side of the road with mobile phones and video cameras should be argued against for safety reasons.”
It’s unlikely the words of the Deputy Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police will deter bikecam commuter cyclists, especially as many of the motoring offences caught on camera are far from “trivial”. It’s also unlikely that any police force would ever make a blanket ban on video evidence submitted by members of the public.
Matt Stockdale, chairman of PoliceWitness.com (and a candidate for Independent Police Commissioner in Northamptonshire) said the 2011 advice from DCC Davenport was now dated:
“Northants police are leading the charge when co-operating with PoliceWitness.com and are currently pursuing a prosecution of dangerous driving. This follows the submission of video evidence captured by [one of our members). The Home Office is encouraging community policing: activists and social enterprise to help communities police themselves. This approach is alien to the police, who for years have not been accountable. The new powers of the Police Commissioner will include the hiring and firing of the Chief Constable, but more importantly can hold him or her to account. The objectives of PoliceWitness.com mirror that of the Home Office, that is to encourage and embrace public policing.”
“I was only informed last Thursday [about the driver appearing] before the courts. This follows the admission of the offences put before him. This is a massive milestone in public policing and is a clear indication that we, the public, can make a difference when the police are not around.”
The latest Contour cameras have built-in GPS chips so users can track locations as they film, useful extra information for use in any prosecutions. Cateye’s Inou is also GPS-enabled. The Q-Fisheye from Ciclosportshoots in full HD and, as the name suggests, has an extreme wide angle lens.
In the US, the Hindsight camera became available in June, after six years in development. It’s a handlebar-mounted monitor which doubles as a crash recorder and, via a VGA camera, a digital rear view mirror. It has ANT+ capability and can display power and HRM data as well as real-time rear views. The camera is produced by Cerebellum, a start-up company, and was soft-launched at Eurobike in 2011.
The Hindsight’s LCD screen affixes to the handlebars and there’s a HDMI cable to a camera/LED light fitting to the rear stays or seatpost. Crash recording is done by continuously recording loops of video behind the bicycle. With an integrated accelerometer, the Hindsight can detect large impacts and will cease recording 10-seconds after any major shock, leaving the cyclist with video evidence of whatever occurred leading up to the incident. The digital video tape is overwritten every ten minutes.
The latest add-ons for the 11-megapixel sensor GoPro HD Hero2 camera are the Wi-Fi Remote and the Wi-Fi BacPac. The Wi-Fi BacPac enables remote control via a smartphone, tablet or computer running a free GoPro app.
The wifi features will also deliver a live video or photo stream (visualantes could send their daily commutes, live, to their websites). Other new features include: a simpler LCD interface; a mini-HDMI port; an integrated battery warmer, to enable longer battery life in low temperatures; and a 3.5mm jack for an external microphone. The lens can be switched between a wide-angle 170º field-of-view, a medium 127º and a narrow 90º field of view in 1080p and 720p video, and between 170º and 127º for photos.