A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use

For additional information visit the LaserPointerForums.com safety forum

For additional information visit the
LaserPointerForums.com safety forum

Concerned about laser pointers? Want them used safely?

Welcome to LaserPointerSafety.com. We are an independent resource for users, regulators, pilots, media, law enforcement and others concerned with handheld portable lasers.

While laser pens are useful and fun, they are all too often misused. This website has details such as…
…and much more information. Check the menu at left or the sitemap page for a list of our many pages.

New U.K. act trying to stop laser pointer misuse

On May 10 2018, the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act gained Royal Assent. The new law makes it an an offense to shine or direct a laser beam towards a vehicle which dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract the person with control of the vehicle. The law applies to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The penalties for violations are up to five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine; these penalties take effect starting July 10 2018.

The law applies to laser beams aimed at aircraft, motor vehicles, trains, ships, hovercraft and other vehicles. A vehicle does not have to be moving at the time of offense; if the engine or motor is running then the law applies. Another provision makes it an offense to shine or direct a laser beam towards an air traffic facility, or a person providing air traffic services, under the condition where the beam dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract a person providing air traffic services.

The offense is a strict liability offense, meaning that prosecutors do not need to prove that the person shining the laser intended to endanger the vehicle or air traffic facility/controller. There are two defenses allowed: 1) the person had a reasonable excuse for shining the laser beam, or 2) the person did not intend to shine a laser at the vehicle/ATF/controller and exercised all due diligence to avoid doing so.

According to The Register, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) “has led the charge for stricter laws on laser abuse for many years.”

Since the U.K. peak of 2,278 incidents in 2011 (U.K. home + overseas), the number of illuminations has dropped 46% to 1,232 in 2017. It is unknown what factors may have caused the drop.

By comparison, the U.S. rate of reported illuminations rose 88% over the same period, from 3,591 incidents in 2011 to 6,753 in 2017. Again, it is unknown what caused the rise, and especially the almost-doubling from 3,894 in 2014 to 7,703 in 2015.
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2018 U.S. laser illumination reports thus far are about 5% lower than 2017 reports

The first chart below shows the total number of laser illuminations reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in the first three months of the years 2015 through 2018. The number of illuminations in 2018 has declined slightly compared to the same period last year.

The second chart has the same data with a different scale, to show the average number of illuminations each night.
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For the first three months of 2018, there were 1,513 laser illumination incidents reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. This is a 5% decrease compared with the same time period in 2017, a 24% decrease compared with 2016, and a 17% increase compared with 2015.

October 2016 FDA proposal to allow only sales of red laser pointers

On October 25 2016, the Food and Drug Administration proposed significant changes to U.S. federal laser pointer laws. Their intent is to designate all laser pointers that are not red as “defective.” This designation would prohibit U.S. sales of green, blue and other non-red pointers and would make it easier for FDA to control and seize imports of such lasers.
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For a detailed description of the proposal, and FDA’s rationale behind this move, see our October 26 2016 news story or this even more detailed 10-page paper presented at the 2017 International Laser Safety Conference.

Laser/aircraft illumination incident statistics

See the Laser/aircraft incident statistics page, for charts from various countries, plus links to additional statistics.

Informative charts and videos

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A helicopter being deliberately targeted by a laser pointer. The light is a distraction and, if bright enough, can cause temporary flashblindness. It is NOT likely to cause any permanent injury. A video of this incident is here.

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In most incidents, the beam only directly hits the aircraft windscreen a few times. That’s because it is almost impossible to hand-hold a laser onto a target hundreds or thousands of feet away. For example, these frames show 8 seconds of a laser illumination. Only in one of the frames — 1/2 second out of 8 — does a direct hit obscure the pilot’s vision. Of course, the waving beam is a distraction.

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Public domain photo from the U.S. FAA, showing how a laser beam spreads over long distances and can fill the windscreen. The FAA’s highest-resolution version is here.

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This diagram shows the hazard distances of a 5 mW green laser pointer. Click to enlarge.

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This diagram shows various ways to help reduce laser pointer incidents. Click to enlarge.

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Click for a 2015 video from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about the eye and bright light hazards of laser pointers. Includes tips about safe purchase and use.
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These colorful characters depict “Dumb Ways to Blind”, a 2014 public service video that warns the Internet generation about the many ways lasers can be misused. As of October 2017, this has had over 6.5 million views on YouTube.

Learn from his mistake — don’t aim lasers at aircraft

A California man wrote a letter apologizing for aiming a laser at a sheriff’s helicopter. He describes how it ruined his life:
     I was convicted of one count of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft and sentenced to 24 months in a federal penitentiary, then 36 more months of supervised release for a total of 60 months — five years — plus ordered to pay a special assessment fee of $10,000. I am very lucky the pilot was an expert and highly skilled at piloting the helicopter.

     I also want to educate anyone who owns a laser and might be inclined to use it the way I did: Learn from my mistake. I am now just getting out of prison. I have paid dearly, for I have lost my girlfriend, my dog, my home, my vehicle. Everything I owned, everything I have worked for 30 years of my life, is gone.

     For shining a laser at a helicopter for three seconds, I lost my entire life. I am now 54 years old and I have no one and nothing but the clothes I was given when I was released from prison.
More details on this unfortunate situation are in an in-depth December 2016 Ars Technica article by Cyrus Farivar, which is summarized here.

See how far lasers can be a hazard

Laser Hazard Distance Calculator
Eye hazard results
( 32.8 / [mrad] ) * ( sqrt ( 0.5 * [mw] ) )
The Nominal Ocular Hazard Distance is where laser light entering the eye is considered safe. Specifically, at this distance there is “a negligible probability of damage” according to the laser safety standard ANSI Z136.1.

The light level (irradiance) at the NOHD is the Maximum Permissible Exposure or MPE. Farther than the NOHD, the irradiance falls below the MPE.
( ( 32.8 / [mrad] ) * ( sqrt ( 0.5 * [mw] ) ) / 3.16 )
At the ED50 distance, there is roughly a 50-50 chance that a fixed laser beam aimed into an unmoving eye under laboratory conditions will cause the smallest medically detectable change to the retina.
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The ED50 distance is about 1/3 of the NOHD. The extra space between the ED50 distance and the NOHD gives an added “safety margin” or “reduction factor.” Beyond the NOHD, the laser light is considered unlikely to cause any eye injury.

Being exposed to laser light within the NOHD does NOT mean that a person will automatically receive an eye injury, or even is likely to have an injury. The NOHD is a “nominal” hazard distance, not an actual hazard distance. The closer the person is to the laser, the greater the chance of an injury, as indicated by the colors above.
Visual interference results
( ( 32.8 / [mrad] ) * ( sqrt ( 12.7 * [mw] * ( [vcf] / 1 ) ) ) )
( ( 32.8 / [mrad] ) * ( sqrt ( 12.7 * [mw] * [vcf] ) ) ) * 4.47
( ( 32.8 / [mrad] ) * ( sqrt ( 12.7 * [mw] * [vcf] ) ) ) * 44.7 0 0 0
For a full-featured laser hazard distance calculator which explains the inputs and the results in detail, click here.

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Why laser beams are less hazardous at greater distances

While laser beams may look thin, they do get wider and thus less hazardous with distance.

Take for example a laser pointer with a tight 1 milliradian beam. The beam is a millimeter or two in diameter at the exit aperture. At 50 feet (15 m) it has spread to over 1/2 inch (15 mm) in diameter. At 500 feet (150 m) — the height of a hovering helicopter — it has spread to 6 inches (150 mm) across.

A human pupil is about 0.16-0.28 inches (4-7 mm) across, depending on lighting conditions. If a beam is, say, 6 inches across, then clearly most of the beam power does not go through the pupil:

2017-08 laser diameter compared to 7mm pupil 600w

That’s why a laser beam that can pop balloons or light cigarettes up close, could be eye-safe hundreds of feet away.

Now, an eye-safe beam may still be very bright. It could cause temporary flashblindness, or vision-blocking glare, or be a distraction. This would be a hazard to persons such as pilots during critical phases of flight. The second part of the calculator above lists the distances for those visual interference hazards.    

A special message for laser pointer users

There are far too many incidents where airplanes, helicopters, vehicles, athletes and ordinary citizens are harassed by laser pointer beams. It is annoying, at best. It can be unsafe if the beam gets in someone’s eye or if it causes a driver or pilot to be distracted or flashblinded. You personally can get arrested and even jailed.

Plus, laser incidents create a bad image and can lead to laser pointers being banned. This has happened in a number of areas. (In New South Wales, you can be fined for possessing a laser pointer, and you can go to jail for up to 14 years for a laser assault.) There are strong calls in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to restrict or ban lasers.

It is really simple: NEVER aim a laser beam at an aircraft, a vehicle, or towards strangers. In other words, DON’T ANNOY PEOPLE WITH THE LASER BEAM.

For more specific information about laser pen hazards and safe use, see the various topics in the menu at left. For a quick summary aimed at consumers, check out the FDA’s December 2010 safety notification.