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 some of the webpages here at LaserPointerSafety.com. A list of these webpages, with suggestions on how to reduce incidents, is here.
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. Consumer lasers are too weak to cause permanent retinal damage 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 is even claimed or suspected laser injury. 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 highly unlikely to cause an aviation accident. For example, there have been no known or suspected auto accidents caused by lasers being aimed at drivers. 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 actions below are intended to significantly reduce the aiming of lasers at aircraft.
CURRENT AND CONTINUING ACTIONS
1: Prosecutions and publicity
CURRENT ACTIONS: Beginning in 2011, and accelerating in 2012, the FAA along with the FBI and state officials have begun prosecuting individuals for laser misuse.
As of June 28 2012, the number of laser incidents projected for 2012 is expected to be only slightly higher than in 2011.
The publicity may be having an effect. After years of double-digit growth, the number of incidents in 2012 is on track to be only 2.1% higher than the number in 2011. While this is a significant slowdown, more needs to be done.
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 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 the laser at or near aircraft. In addition, a warning statement or sheet should be included with each laser. A detailed 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: A label 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 the product is an essential education method.
In addition, labeling may help in prosecuting laser misuse. It is harder to use a defense that "I didn't know it was a hazard” if there is a label stating “Do not aim at or near aircraft.”
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.
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 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 purchase by the general public, without making them unaffordable for persons who might need or want a laser for work or personal purposes.
A suggested rate is $5 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.
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.
Finally it is important that legislators and pilots should understand that restrictions on lasers will NOT end the incidents. Based on the experience of New South Wales and other jurisdictions, there will still be incidents even if a strict ban is enacted. It is estimated that if laser pointers were banned in the U.S., there would still be about 150 U.S. incidents per year. While this is much better than the current rate of over 3,500 per year, it also means that pilots would still need education and training, and police pilots still would need anti-laser glasses. A ban does not account for accidents, or for deliberate misuse by criminals or persons wanting to harm pilots.