Laser Pointer Debate

What should be done?

The fast growing accessibility of high power and high brightness laser pointers is great for responsible and knowledgeable amateurs, but a source of serious concern when they are so easily portable, and easily obtained by careless or irresponsible people.

What are the options for the authorities to ensure public safety?

  • do nothing – measures are already sufficient
  • label as a weapon
  • ban possession of high power laser pointers
  • license to possess or use

We will discuss some issues with each of these options below, but first some insight into why laser pointers are different to some other everyday, or more familiar, hazards.

What makes laser pointers different?

There are many things in life that can be hazardous, and we accept and take appropriate precautions to protect ourselves from these hazards. With most of these more familiar hazards you need to be very close to the hazard for it to have a chance of harming you, examples of hazards could be cars, power tools, highly inflammable materials or knives. These hazards are serious because they can not just injure people but could also kill people.

The key difference, however is that if somebody is driving a car or using a chain-saw, then most of us will hear and have a choice over how close we get.

Laser pointers are silent, they are compact and easily concealed in a hand or pocket, they require only a button push to activate, and they can have effects over long distances, with effects being:

  • irreversible eye damage at distances of several metres (tens of feet) or more
  • temporary blinding by ‘dazzle’ or ‘glare’ at night (or dusk) at distances of km or miles
  • skin burns at short distances or with longer exposures at long distances
  • set fire to materials (accidental house fires?) at shorter distances

More information on laser hazard distances is given in the Lucid Laser Pointer study.

Do Nothing?

This may not be quite as bad an option as it may sound to many people at first. To understand why, we have to look at the other options, and then consider the measures already in place in the UK as discussed below..

Also, we are considering here the options for new legislation to try to better control a hazard. We would still advise Authority bodies to consider ensuring they are up to speed on laser pointer issues, and where staff could be at risk consider some basic laser awareness training.

Label Powerful Laser Pointers as Weapons?

This could well prove counter-productive as evidence from Australia has suggested that labelling laser pointers as weapons drastically increases the demand. What might at first seem like a good idea for safety can backfire, although with such labelling it may be easier to prosecute people for misuse.

Ban Possession of Powerful Laser Pointers?

This could aid the ease of prosecution, but may not actually improve public safety. Banned things can become even more ‘cool’ for certain sectors of our society, and hence more desirable to the wrong people.

License Possession or Use of Laser Pointers

This can be done in a variety of ways, and can be one way to try to ensure that people using these lasers understand the basic safety issues with them. The problem is that to license people for something tends to require some processes and policing to be in place and this has a financial cost, with some devices still getting into the hands of ignorant and irresponsible people who are not licensed. There is a danger that the responsible people pay whilst other just operate outside the law.

What measures are currently in place in the UK?

Trading Standards have the power to remove from sale lasers of any class greater than Class 2 (as defined by IEC 60825-1 or BS EN 60825-1:2007) that are being offered to the general public. This power is available to them under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005.

As we understand it the regulations apply to the sale of goods, but do not make it illegal to own a powerful class of laser pointer.

The use of laser pointers against aircraft has increased steadily over the years, with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reporting an increase of 25% in 2 years. As a result the law in the UK was strengthened recently to enable irresponsible laser users to be prosecuted more easily. Previously it was required to prove that any exposure had ‘endangered an aircraft’, whereas now these people can be charged with ‘shining a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle the pilot’.

Who could be harmed by laser pointer exposure?

The most likely people to be harmed by these laser pointers are the user and those around them who will often be friends and family. Clearly, however, in the wrong hands they could be a hazard to many more people.

The question that is sometimes asked is whether these laser pointers could be used by terrorists, and whilst the answer is ‘yes’, the reality is that terrorists would most likely want a more reliable weapon. The main problem for a terrorist would be that in using a visible laser pointer the source of the laser light can be easily identified. Given that there have already been thousands of incidents of aircraft being exposed to lasers, and whilst this is hazardous, to date there is no evidence of any crashes being due to lasers. For terrorists it is likely that very many would be caught and prosecuted before they had any dire results.

The danger for the general public when driving or on aircraft, is that there are very many more idiots around than there are terrorists, hence the concern over the numbers of extremely bright laser pointers being purchased!

Good Points for Lasers?

Lasers are already used for many good and reasonable applications, and it can often require only a little expert attention to ensure a laser can be used safely without a significant risk of accidental injury. Applications include CD & DVD players and writers, bar-code scanners, communications transmitters and numerous sensing and industrial applications and so on.

Lasers are also very good when used as laser pointers in presentations, but there is no need for these to be anything more than 1 mW (never mind hundreds of mWs) Class 2 lasers. Green laser pointers are more easily seen than either red or blue laser pointers (especially the shorter wavelength violet shade) of the same power, so if it is a visible laser light you want then blue is an unecessarily hazardous option and a lower power green laser would most likely be preferable.

Some people have claimed that higher power laser pointers are good for pointing out stars and constellations at night. The light scattered from the particles in the atmosphere shows clearly the line of the laser beam and others can see clearly where they are being directed to look. This is a good and in many cases educational application, and one where a laser pointer of above Class 2 can be an advantage. Most experts would agree that a green laser pointer will work best and a power level of up to 20 mW would be more than enough for most people with such an application – certainly there is no need for hundreds of mWs!

New applications for lasers are being found all of the time, and it has been argued on some forums that high power laser pointers will be useful for experiments and new developments. The reality is that most experiments could probably be done with lower power devices or they should be done in a controlled environment where they will not put the experimenter and others at risk of accidental injury.

Comparing Laser Pointers with other Hazards

It is very difficult to make fair comparisons between the hazards posed by a high power laser pointers and most other things in life that we tend to regard as being hazardous. The reason is that there is nothing quite like a laser, because lasers have unique properties. To illustrate this it is perhaps worth using some examples that others have mentioned on blogs and then discussing how the high power laser pointer is different.

Plastic Forks: one blog suggested that a 1 W blue laser pointer was no more hazardous than a plastic fork, because a plastic fork could also damage your eye. This is a rather flippant example from an ill-informed blogger. Firstly the plastic fork could damage your eye, if thrust with sufficient force into the eyeball, but this would most likely damage the outer or front part of the eye where there is some possibility of repair and recovery. The laser pointer damages the retina (inside back of the eye) where there is little possibility of the damage being repaired by the body or surgery, and the damage is most likely permanent. The plastic fork would require the person holding the fork to be very close to the victim and acting with some force (whether malicious or accidental/unintentional) thus providing the victim with some indication of possible consequences and a short time to react. By contrast the laser pointer merely requires a button press and flashing accross the eyes of the victim, with the potential for serious eye injuries at some distance. There is no sound, and there may be no prior indication that a bright and potentially hazardous laser is being used.

Cars: by raising the attention of the public to the hazards of laser pointers, some have suggested that we must want laser pointers banned, and have then shouted about “Nanny states” and “cars are dangerous so would you ban those too”. The fact is that we have not asked for anything to be banned, but we would like responsible use of lasers encouraged in some way. The difference with cars is that they tend to be on roads and controlled by trained and assessed drivers, whereas a battery-powered, hand-held laser could be used anywhere with the victim (whether by accident or not) could be sitting in their house and not expecting to be at risk of any such hazard. Again there is no sound or warning of use. Additionally, cars are being used to transport people, whereas these laser pointers are being sold as toys with no practical purpose that can not be better performed by other means.

Chainsaws: clearly these are also hazardous devices, but the hazard is quite clear to most people as they are noisy, clearly powerful, and cut through things in a vicious manner. By contrast a laser pointer is a less obvious hazard that is unlikely to kill you accidently, but could easily and silently cause permanent blindness with no drama.

These considerations are provided for general information, and are believed accurate.

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