A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser useHow to reduce incidents:
We are sometimes asked for suggestions on how to reduce laser/aircraft incidents, and improve safety. Below, listed in red, are some recommended actions. Additional details are on the various How to reduce incidents webpages here at LaserPointerSafety.com. We also have a newer page from spring 2016 titled What should be done about laser pointers?
Extent of the problem
First, let's be clear that the main problem is when too-bright light is aimed at pilots during critical phases of flight.
- The issue is NOT harm to pilots' eyes. In general, consumer lasers are almost always too weak to cause permanent retinal damage (damage beyond the ED50 point) at aviation distances. That's why there have been no documented permanent eye injuries out of any of the over 16,000 laser illuminations reported to U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA, as of July 2012.
- The issue is NOT one of lasers harming the general public. There are only a handful of reports each year where there are claimed or suspected laser injuries to the general public. Proven consumer injuries are almost always from deliberate staring at a pointer, usually self-inflicted by teenagers. (Details: U.S. CPSC laser pointer injuries; Risks of pointers)
Experts agree that exposure to bright laser light is unlikely to cause an aviation accident. For example, there have been only a handful of known or suspected auto accidents caused by a laser being aimed at a driver.
However, aviation accidents can be caused by a number of unlikely events happening at once. Certainly a laser illumination is a surprising, distracting concern for pilots. If a pilot is also dealing with an emergency, laser distraction or temporary flashblindness could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
The diagram below shows various ways to help reduce laser pointer incidents.
Below are additional details about actions that can be taken to improve laser/aircraft safety.
CURRENT AND CONTINUING ACTIONS
1: Prosecutions and publicity
CURRENT ACTIONS: Beginning in 2011 and accelerating in 2012, officials from FAA, FBI and state attorneys’ offices began prosecuting individuals for laser misuse.
It is not clear whether the increased publicity worked. For a few years after 2011 when prosecutions and publicity started in earnest, the laser incident rate leveled off to about 3500-4000 per year. But then there was a large jump in 2015 which continued into 2016.
LaserPointerSafety.com is unaware of any particular factor that may have caused the increase, since most factors such as laser power, laser cost, pilot reporting requirements etc. remained essentially unchanged. It may be that increased publicity perhaps caused a “copycat” effect. If so, more work needs to be done to understand and counteract this.
ACTIONS THAT SHOULD BE TAKEN IMMEDIATELY
2: Warning labels on lasers
PROBLEM: Over and over, we read about laser illuminations where the perpetrator had no idea that aiming at aircraft was hazardous. Most people are aware that lasers can cause eye damage, due to FDA-mandated "CAUTION" and "DANGER" warning labels that have been on all lasers since 1976. But FDA currently does not have authority to require labels for secondary hazards such as bright light.
ACTION: The FDA should be given the power to mandate Aviation Safety Labels, warning against aiming a laser at or near aircraft. In addition, a warning statement or sheet should be included with each laser. A detailed draft proposal for Aviation Safety Labels is here. (Note that even without an FDA mandate, individual manufacturers and sellers should add labels and warning sheets on their own. Freely-available warning sheets are available here.)
Example of a proposed Aviation Safety Label
RATIONALE: Labeling on hazardous products gives additional details about the potential hazard. Although labels are not a complete solution, any effective safety campaign has to begin with informing the public. From cigarette boxes to automobile airbags to hot coffee cups, labeling on a product is an essential education method.
In addition, labeling may help in prosecuting laser misuse. It is harder to use a defense such as "I didn't know it was a hazard” if there is a label on the laser clearly stating “Do not aim at or near aircraft.”
UPDATE, December 2012: FDA has begun asking manufacturers of laser pointers and handheld lasers to voluntarily add a Caution label stating “CAUTION - LASER LIGHT IS BRIGHT AND BLINDING - DO NOT SHINE AT AIRCRAFT OR VEHICLES AT ANY DISTANCE.” More information on this recommendation is here.
3: Required education and training for pilots
PROBLEM: Many pilots are not informed about the realistic hazards of lasers. They don't understand how to react in a safe and positive manner. The needed information has already been developed but is not systematically available to pilots.
ACTION: FAA should require education and training of pilots. This should include mandatory viewing of an FAA/Air Force-produced video currently available online. If at all possible, pilots should also experience a few safe flashes from a real or simulated laser during their normally-scheduled simulator training. (Note that even without FAA-mandated training, airlines, pilot associations, and individual pilots are free to require/undertake education and training.)
Pilots training in a simulator could be exposed to real laser light (at eye-safe levels) or to intense green light such as from a conventional flash or strobe.
RATIONALE: FAA studies in a 737 simulator have shown that pilots often have trouble during their first exposure to laser light while simulating a tricky "short final" approach. However, success rates improve markedly after the second or third exposure. The pilots now know what to expect, and how to react.
In addition, it is important to note that pilots are the "last line of defense". As discussed below, even if consumer lasers were to be banned, there would continue to be illegal usage, potential accidents from authorized users, and deliberate usage by persons with ill intent.
If pilots and aviation groups really feel that a laser illumination could cause an accident, then they owe it to themselves and the flying public to mandate training and simulator sessions.
For demonstrations to pilots and others, it is easy to safely simulate a laser strike using an inexpensive, readily available LED flashlight.
4. Anti-laser pilot glasses for police and first-responder crews
PROBLEM: Most police and first-responder crews, who may have to fly in "laser attack" situations, do not carry simple, inexpensive anti-laser glasses designed for cockpits. The most cost-effective are glasses that severely reduce 532 nanometer green laser light, which is responsible for 93% of FAA incidents. These MUST be designed for cockpit use, so that they do not adversely reduce visibility of cockpit instruments and airport lights.
ACTION: Police and first-responder aircraft operators should equip all crew members with anti-laser glasses or goggles. These would NOT be routinely worn. However, the glasses can be donned after a laser illuminations, or if a crew is going into a known or suspected laser situation. Such glasses are available from a number of companies.
Anti-laser eyewear for pilots must be specially designed and tested, to ensure that cockpit and airport lighting is not adversely affected, while still reducing the intensity of laser light
RATIONALE: Anti-laser glasses greatly reduce the intensity of the laser light, yet it is still possible to identify where the laser is coming from. This is vital for police and other pilots who may need to fly in the face of an active laser illumination attack.
POSSIBLE FUTURE ACTIONS
The actions above should be given one to two years to work. Hopefully the number of incidents will decline and pilots will be safer.
But if this is not enough -- if there are still thousands of incidents per year, and pilots still feel they cannot control their aircraft -- then consideration should be given to restricting the general public's access to lasers.
Whether a ban, licensing, taxes or some other restriction, this is a complex issue that should be thoroughly discussed. At LaserPointerSafety.com, we believe the following actions would be effective without unduly restricting safe use of lasers.
5: Tax on consumer laser power?
POSSIBLE FUTURE ACTION: Tax laser pointers and handheld lasers at a rate significant enough to discourage casual purchases by the general public, without making them unaffordable for persons who might need or want a laser for work or useful personal purposes.
A suggested rate is $5.00 per milliwatt. For low-powered Class 2 laser pointers ("legal pointers") between 1 and 5 milliwatts, this adds $5 to $25 to the purchase price. It is not an onerous amount, especially for business people using a laser for presentations. For Class 3R lasers between 5 and 500 milliwatts, this will add $25 to $2,500 to the purchase price. Such an amount would greatly reduce impulse purchases, and thus the number of lasers that have this increased power.
More information about taxing lasers is here.
6: Ban sales of Class 4 consumer lasers?
POSSIBLE FUTURE ACTION: Consider a ban on sales of Class 4 consumer handheld lasers; those above 500 milliwatts. The goal is to keep these out of the hands of casual users, who would be most likely to misuse them or not to understand the hazards. Hobbyists and experiments would still be able to make their own lasers out of modules and diodes, as long as they are not sold to third parties as battery-powered handheld lasers.
It is important to note that the eye and skin hazards of Class 4 lasers is NOT the reason for this recommendation. As of July 2012, there have only been a couple of reported consumer injuries from handheld Class 4 lasers. However, such lasers have a longer range and greater effect on pilots. Also, it is only Class 4 lasers that could possibly damage pilots' eyes at close range.
Again, these two measures should be considered only AFTER other actions -- labeling, education, and anti-laser glasses -- have been tried and if they do not succeed in improving the situation.
No ban or restrictions will be perfect. For example, a ban does not account for accidents, or for deliberate misuse by criminals or evil persons wanting to cause harm. Pilots must understand that they will still need education and training, and police pilots still would need anti-laser glasses.
CAUTIONS BASED ON AUSTRALIA’S EXPERIENCE: Since 2008, imports of pointers over 1 mW have been banned nationwide, and many Australian states prohibit possession of battery-powered lasers over 1 mW.. But there are indications that 1) these restrictions have not stopped aircraft-pointing incidents and 2) these restrictions have made buying lasers online more dangerous. Here are details:
- 1) In 2011 there were 733 reported laser/aircraft incidents in Australia. Based on population size, this is 2.8 times MORE incidents than the U.S. rate (e.g., per capita). Details are here. So at first glance it appears that the Australian bans are not working. Certainly, more comprehensive studies need to be done of the Australian experience.
- 2) A researcher found that 95% of laser pointers he purchased online in 2012 were actually over the Australian limit of 1 mW. 78% were above even the U.S. limit of 5 mW. All of the tested laser pointers would be “prohibited weapons” under Australian law. He concluded that “…the prohibition laws may have detrimentally affected laser pointer safety within Australia without overtly impacting availability.” Details are here.
- 3) Laser incidents actually increased after restrictions were put in place in mid-2008:
In fact, if you adjust Australia’s laser incidents for the 2007-2009 period so they are roughly equal to FAA incidents (just multiply Australia’s numbers by 6), the result shows that Australian incidents closely track the U.S. numbers through 2012. Only in 2015 does the U.S. rate significantly outstrip the Australian rate.
The conclusion is that a ban on laser pointers, by itself, probably will not significantly bring down the number of laser incidents — at least not for many years. This is not to say it shouldn’t be considered. But a ban shouldn’t be relied on as the only way to reduce the number and severity of laser incidents.