A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
About the New York Times article (1/22/2011)
If you’re coming to this website due to our mention in the January 22 2011 New York Times article “High-Powered Laser Pointers Pose Risk to Pilots”, welcome. We’d like to clarify a few points, then give you some tips and links for a fast understanding of this complex subject.
“Illegal lasers” The article implies that anyone can go online and buy an “illegal pointer”. It is true that some high-powered lasers sold online lack one or more U.S.-required safety features. In that sense, the lasers are illegal. However, lasers are not illegal to buy or sell in general, in the U.S.
Anyone may own a laser of any power. The confusion arises because when a laser is called a “pointer” or is sold for pointing-type applications, then it is illegal to sell if it is over 5 milliwatts. But if the exact same laser is advertised for non-pointing purposes (such as burning things) then it is perfectly legal to sell ANY power, assuming it has the U.S.-required safety features.
“Poor regulation” This brings us to the quote saying that the FDA is “not effectively monitoring the products”. While true, there are two larger issues. One is that the FDA laser division (CDRH) has not been allocated the resources to do effective monitoring. FDA/CDRH does not have the budget to monitor any but the very worst violators.
An even larger issue is that FDA does not have the regulatory authority to take on the new generation of low-cost, high-powered consumer lasers. This would require new Congressional legislation which would close loopholes such as FDA not being able to restrict handheld lasers unless they are advertised as “pointers”.
There are many more subtleties to the above issues, but the paragraphs above give a quick and broad clarification of the New York Times information.
Tips and links for New York Times readers
The #1 way to improve laser/aircraft safety is user education. Laser owners should know NEVER to point at or near an aircraft, or other vehicle, or a person’s head.
In fact, LaserPointerSafety.com believes that most owners already know that lasers are hazardous when pointed at eyes or cars. There is a very low rate of incidents involving lasers being aimed at drivers.
The problem with airplanes is that many users may not realize that their beams can reach all the way to the cockpit of a faraway aircraft, and is no longer a tiny dot of light but is a 2-3 foot “blob” of light that distracts or disrupts flying the plane. You can find out more about aviation hazards on the NEVER aim at aircraft page, and Tips for outdoor use page.
For the general (non-aviation) hazards of consumer lasers, see the Don’t aim at head & eyes page.
User education is certainly important. This website, the Times article, the FAA and FDA, some manufacturers, and many other groups are trying to get the word out to laser users. But for various reasons, there is no single magic solution (“Labels!”, “Pilot education!”, “A laser ban!”).
To reduce incidents and provide real aviation safety, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. You can read more about various ideas to improve safety on the How to reduce incidents page.
If you are interested in legislative and regulatory solutions, see our page If you are writing a laser law.
When control and education efforts fail, and an aircraft is illuminated by laser light, this makes the news. A sampling of notable laser safety events is included in our News pages. We have news about aviation incidents, non-aviation incidents, and all other laser pointer news (statistics, laws, etc.). You can also click on the links at the left hand side of any News page to find specific categories of news items such as persons fined or jailed, news from locations such as the U.S. or California, and many other classifications.
General questions are in our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page. For persons who don’t believe that laser pointers can annoy aircraft, we have a separate FAQ for Doubters page.
Finally, if you have questions or concerns that are not addressed by our many other pages (in the left-hand menu), please feel free to contact us using the link at the bottom of this page. Thank you for visiting LaserPointerSafety.com!