The incidence of lasers being pointed at aircraft is rising at an alarming rate, jumping by more than 1,000 percent since the FAA started tracking data in 2005. Last year, according to FAA data, so-called “lasing” incidents averaged 11 per day. With this proliferation comes greater potential for an aircraft accident, with injury and loss of life both to aircraft occupants and to people on the ground. The incidents that are particularly disturbing, of course, are those that target aircraft in critical phases of flight and helicopters operating at low altitudes–particularly on search-and-rescue or law-enforcement missions, when recovery from an unexpected flash of light is more challenging. Many, if not most, helicopter pilots operating their missions at night wear night-vision goggles that can magnify the light impact of a laser. What’s more, law-enforcement helicopter missions frequently operate over congested urban areas where an accident could take a heavy toll on the ground. The availability of high-powered lasers on the Internet compounds the threat.
While research is under way to develop lenses that can protect pilots’ eyes from laser attacks, none that I know of has been embraced by the pilot community yet. At least one police department in Florida reportedly has been trying lens caps on night-vision goggles. So while that research needs to continue, as well as studies of how to diffuse the laser light source, it’s clear that more could be done in the short term to reduce the risk of laser attacks bringing down an aircraft.
So far, government action seems to have taken a one-step-at-a-time approach. First, it tried to stiffen criminal penalties through passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Now, anyone intentionally aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft, or at the flight path of an aircraft, can be fined up to $250,000 as a criminal or imprisoned for up to five years. Or both. The FAA can also impose civil fines of up to $11,000 per incident. However, despite these harsher penalties and the sharpened focus on jail time for offenders, the rate of lasing incidents has continued to rise.
The government’s most recent tactic is the FBI’s bounty program, coupled with a targeted public education program. Noting in its press release that there were 3,960 reported laser incidents last year, with thousands more likely unreported, the FBI announced in February a 60-day trial program to deter people from pointing lasers at pilots. Its trial program will target the 12 cities where laser incidents against aircraft have been highest: Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio and San Juan. The program combines a public education campaign with a $10,000 bounty for information leading to the arrest of anyone intentionally aiming a laser at an aircraft.
It will be interesting to see whether 60 days is enough time to gather data on the deterrent effect of a bounty program, but the FAA and FBI can already look to the experience of Myrtle Beach, S.C., where local communities tightened their laws last year relating to the sale and possession of certain lasers, particularly the sale to and possession by minors. At least one of the local ordinances makes parents and guardians responsible if their children misuse laser pointers. In addition, the ordinance restricts the sale of laser pointers with more than one milliwatt of power. (Lasers below this power threshold have been deemed not strong enough to pose a threat to pilots.) These communities acted after the Coast Guard force in Charleston, responsible for saving distressed boaters off the South Carolina coast, threatened to discontinue rescue missions to Myrtle Beach because in 2012 there were several incidents when Coast Guard pilots were hit by lasers and forced to land or abort missions. These attacks were particularly debilitating to the pilots who were using night-vision goggles.
The Myrtle Beach restrictions seem to have made a big difference. In the first summer since the law was enacted, the summer of last year, the Coast Guard reported in a September 3 letter that “notable progress has been made….There were 68 laser incidents reported to the FAA in 2012 in the Greater Myrtle Beach area. So far in 2013, the Coast Guard has not had any of its aircraft illuminated by lasers in the area.” That’s an outcome worth noting.
With the continuing rise in laser attacks and the ease of buying even high-powered lasers on the Internet, regulating their sale may be the only way to curb their proliferation and misuse. While it galls many of us that an item that is not inherently dangerous and that has many beneficial educational and research applications needs regulating at all, that may, unfortunately, be the only way to curb their misuse.
While the potential for significant injury and loss of life is greatest with aircraft, laser pointers have been used not just against pilots, but also against drivers and even pedestrians. However, rather than have a patchwork of regulations around the country, it seems to me that a federal restriction would make the most sense, especially since aircraft move across state lines. Restricting the sale of lasers does not mean prohibiting their use altogether, even by minors. But regulation would make it harder for minors to get their hands on them. And restricting the strength of easily available laser pointers would make it harder for those with criminal intent to get hold of them.