SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Smile at the windshield -- and say cheese?
California is giving the green light to allowing video cameras to be mounted onto vehicle windshields in an attempt to improve road safety.
The goal is to make participants aware of bad habits by recording their behavior seconds before and after a crash or erratic driving maneuver.
"It seemed like a common-sense approach" to permit but not require video recorders, said Nathan Fletcher, a California assemblyman.
Parents could place video cams in cars driven by their teenagers, but the prime market is expected to be truck, bus or other transportation companies with large fleets.
Critics question whether to expand workplace recordings. Cameras already are used for everything from monitoring department store aisles to detecting red-light violations.
"We have this fundamental right to privacy, and I don't think there was a case made for why we need to have continuous recording of drivers and traffic," said Valerie Small Navarro of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The issue comes at a time when the country is split on another matter pitting privacy concerns against public safety policy: full-body scans and aggressive pat-downs at airports.
California's new recording law, Assembly Bill 1942, will allow cameras to be mounted on windshields beginning Jan. 1, much as electronic GPS mapping and toll-paying devices are permitted now.
Fletcher, R-San Diego, carried the measure on behalf of DriveCam, a company in his district that produces vehicle cameras. Competing firms exist nationwide, he said.
DriveCam's camera simultaneously records the driver's or passengers' actions and any traffic movement in lanes directly in front of the windshield.
The camera continuously records audio and video but saves images only from eight seconds before and four seconds after a crash or erratic motion, such as a sudden stop, acceleration or swerve. Images are uploaded to DriveCam, analyzed and then posted to a secure website.
Recordings can be used as evidence in traffic collisions.
They also can help eliminate bad driving habits: By analyzing events leading up to a collision or near miss, fleet managers and parents can coach safer driving, said Eric Cohen of DriveCam.
DriveCam points to a study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It tested two groups of truck drivers and found that cameras reduced the number of collisions or risky maneuvers per miles driven by 37 percent and 52 percent, respectively.
A DriveCam windshield camera costs about $900, including one year of monitoring, Cohen said. The firm collects all recordings and provides clients with an analysis for coaching purposes.
Before the new legislation, California did not outlaw such cameras but barred their placement on windshields, the prime spot for recording.
Fletcher said he tried to narrow privacy concerns by amending the measure:
-- To allow retention of no more than 30 seconds of recordings per incident; -- To require a posted notice for passengers that talking may be recorded; -- And to ensure that owners of participating vehicles can disable cameras and employee drivers can obtain recordings.
"If you have a technology that's been demonstrated to reduce accidents, and you can allow its use in a way that safeguards privacy, you should do it," Fletcher said.
Because the measure allows recordings to be examined only in case of a crash or erratic motion, the cameras cannot be used to routinely check whether radios are blaring or drivers are talking on cell phones.
Nonetheless, the ACLU's Small Navarro expressed concerns about continuous on-the-job video recording of employees. "What is our reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace?" she asked.
For union employees, use of recording devices would be subject to collective bargaining, Fletcher noted.
But former Republican legislator Tim Leslie said allowing continuous video recording inside vehicles sets a sobering precedent.
"Are we going to be filmed all the time, in a few years, or what?" he asked.
"Big Brother does not need to land on my dashboard," added Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis.
Fletcher said the new law seeks to enhance traffic safety, not weaken privacy rights. "We made it very focused and very narrow for a specific purpose," he said.
Several truckers interviewed at a West Sacramento truck stop gave thumbs-up to cameras, saying their value in documenting collisions outweighs privacy concerns.
"Hopefully, it will save on the insurance," said Gordon Ohta, 52, of Sacramento.
"I always feel that it you don't have anything to hide and it improves safety, that's the way to go," said Hans Plesman, 48, of Atherton.
(Contact Jim Sanders in the Sacramento Bee's Capitol bureau at jsanders(at)sacbee.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)