When fragments of a meteorite rained down on the Russian city of Chelyabinsk and the surrounding area, the most dramatic footage came from not from television news crews, but from cameras perched on car dashboards.
These small devices, known as dashcams, have been marketed around the world but nowhere have they become as popular as in Russia, where they cost around 2,300 roubles (£50). Their original purpose was as an extra precaution against the many dangers lurking on Russian roads: drunk drivers, corrupt traffic police or false allegations of causing a collision.
But a side product has been a series of clips which often go viral on the internet, such as a plane at one of Moscow’s airports skidding out of control and scattering debris across a nearby motorway, a would-be extortionist cutting up a driver and then braking hard to cause a crash, and a fighter jet buzzing down a quiet country road.
Courts have recently begun accepting video clips as evidence, said car journalist Aleksei Zakharov, because they can help determine the speed, position and context of accidents.
Traffic cameras installed across large cities in Russia often turn out not to be working or blocked by snow.
Many bloody, and fatal, accidents are also caught on film and have given rise to ghoulish web communities where the most stomach-turning footage is collected and picked over in discussion forums.
Cameras are most useful against Russia’s notoriously venal traffic police, said Aleksei Dozorov, an activist with the Blue Bucket Movement motorists’ rights group.
“The cameras are, above all, a defence against the traffic police,” he said. “Because they will think up an offence for you before they even stop you.”
Investing in a camera could save you thousands of pounds in fines and there have even been cases when dashcam footage has helped people escape prison terms, he added. When traffic police realise you have a camera recording everything their whole attitude changes, Dozorov said.