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Australia: Ban on laser pointers has been a "detriment" to safety

A scientific paper published in March 2013, which analyzed laser pointers purchased in Australia, has concluded that the country's stringent laws against lasers may have backfired: "...the prohibition laws may have detrimentally affected laser pointer safety within Australia without overtly impacting availability....the one thing more hazardous than a correctly labelled high power laser pointer is a high power laser pointer labelled as safe."

The author, Trevor Wheatley, is chair of the Standards Australia SF-019 Committee on laser safety. He studied 41 lasers purchased online in 2012 that were claimed by the sellers to be legal -- lower than the Australian import limit of 1 milliwatt. Most cost less than AUS $20.

Wheatley found that 95% of these pointers were illegal under Australian law, with outputs above 1 mW. Of the 41, 78% were between 5 mW and 100 mW. (5 mW is generally taken to be the highest safe power for a general purpose laser pointer.)

Based on Wheatley's research, "...there would appear to be a greater than 50% chance that someone attempting to buy a 'safe' laser pointer would inadvertently get a hazardous laser." Further, 100% of the tested laser pointers below $20 "would represent prohibited weapons in most Australian states."

From other statistics, the paper states that "availability has not been significantly impacted." In 2007/2008 there were 648 incidents involving lasers pointed at aircraft. In 2010/2011, well after the import and possession restrictions, the number of incidents had increased to 828.
Wheatley estimates that "the actual number of laser pointers entering the country may have been as high as half a million last year [2012]. So whilst it is easy to suggest that without these controls the numbers would be much higher, it is hard to say that this approach has been a resounding success."

Wheatley summarizes the Australian experience as follows:

"The intent of this research was not to make the case against prohibition as more than likely it has discouraged a number of consumers from purchasing laser pointers. Moreover, it is fair to say that it has raised the profile of the hazards associated with high power laser pointers and their misuse. Unfortunately, this publicity may well have served as inspiration for some to perpetrate similar acts of misuse. It is also fair to say that those who are of the mindset to point lasers at aircraft are probably not deterred by the fact that their laser pointer is prohibited. One mechanism by which this legislation may have been effective is by restricting the access to such laser pointers. It is in this area where it seems that the prohibition and import restrictions have not appeared to have made a significant difference. The answer to the question of how to remedy this, if at all, is not obvious. However, what seems to be apparent from this case study is that a single pronged approach might be insufficient. A coordinated approach, additionally involving the manufacturers of these devices and the websites through which purchases are possible may provide a solution."

From the paper "Laser Pointer Prohibition -- Improving Safety or Driving Misclassification" by Trevor Wheatley, School of Engineering and Information Technology, University of New South Wales, Canberra. As published in the Proceedings of the 2013 International Laser Safety Conference (contact the Laser Institute of America to purchase a copy of the Proceedings), pp 48-54. Note: The printed paper states that 85% of the tested laser pointers below $20 would be prohibited weapons, but Wheatley told LaserPointerSafety.com that this was an error and the actual number was 100%.

A summary of the paper is at
MIT Technology Review.

LaserPointerSafety.com has additional stories on Australian
aviation and non-aviation incidents, and general news about pointers in Australia.