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Originally published Friday, July 20, 2012 at 10:05 PM

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Cyclists' helmet cams collect evidence of conflicts with motorists

Small cameras that bicyclists wear are providing high-tech evidence in what is sometimes an ugly contest between people who ride the roads on two wheels and those who use four.

The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — When Evan Wilder went flying onto the pavement during his bicycle commute one morning, he didn't have time to notice the license plate of the blue pickup that had sideswiped him after its driver cursed at him. Nor did a witness driving another car.

But the video camera Wilder had strapped to his head caught the episode. After watching a recording of the incident, Wilder gave the license-plate number to the police and a suspect was eventually charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

"Without the video, we wouldn't know who did it," said Wilder, 33, who was bruised and scraped in the crash last summer.

Cyclists have long had a rocky coexistence with motorists and pedestrians, who often criticize bike riders for a confrontational attitude, and for blowing through stop signs or otherwise exempting themselves from the rules of the road. Now small cameras — the cycling equivalent of the black box on an airplane — are becoming an intermediary in the relationship, providing high-tech evidence in what is sometimes an ugly contest between people who ride the roads on two wheels and those who use four.

Footage from these cameras has begun to play an invaluable role in police investigations of a small number of hit-and-runs and other incidents nationwide, local authorities say. Lawyers who specialize in representing bicyclists say they expect the use of cameras for this purpose to increase as awareness of the devices goes up and their prices, now starting at about $200, go down.

Some riders said the technology also will encourage cyclists to keep themselves in check during dust-ups with drivers.

"I know my actions before and after some event are going to be recorded if I'm the one being a jerk," Wilder said. "It makes me want to be careful."

Bicyclists said cameras can also deter motorist harassment, a problem that many complain about and that cities such as Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., have sought to combat with new laws.

"It's a fact of life that on American roads ... you get punked, cut off purposely, harassed, not once, but on a regular basis," said Bob Mionske, a former Olympic cyclist who is now a lawyer representing bicyclists in Portland. "If motorists start to hear about bikes having cameras, they're going to think twice about running you off the road."

The new cameras are meant for shooting video and photos while skiing, surfing and doing other sports. Likewise, many cyclists use them to memorialize their rides.

GoPro and Contour make popular models; GoPro says sales through bike retailers have nearly doubled this year from the same period last year.

One of the most prominent bicycle-crash videos was recorded in April by two Brazilian riders who were climbing the hills of Berkeley, Calif., when a black car knocked them down and sped off. Neither bicyclist was seriously injured, according to the Berkeley police.

The Berkeley police identified the car's license plate and later found the man the vehicle was registered to. They believe he falsely reported his car stolen to cover up for the driver of the car and are still investigating, said Capt. Andrew Greenwood, a spokesman for the police.

The footage Wilder shot of his crash at first did not seem as if it would help track down the motorist who had struck him. But Wilder, who works in the photography department of National Geographic, examined the video frame by frame until he discovered a clear picture of the suspect's license plate.

The District of Columbia's office of the attorney general charged the suspect, John Diehl, with leaving the scene of an accident. Federal prosecutors, who handle felony cases in the district, are also looking into the case.

Diehl's lawyer, Adam Hunter, declined to comment. Diehl has pleaded not guilty, said a spokesman for the attorney general.

"Most cyclists don't use cameras, so Mr. Diehl may have assumed he could assault and drive away anonymously," Wilder said.

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