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Crackdown on lethal laser pens

By Mark Andrews | Shawbury | Crime | Published:

Squadron Leader Gary James is convinced it wouldn't happen if people realised the consequences.

Pilots being distracted and even blinded by lasers is a very real problem," says the flight safety officer at RAF Shawbury.

"Laser illumination has affected our own pilots on numerous occasions over the past few years.

"What may be seen as harmless fun by the laser operator can be debilitating and potentially fatal to the crew.

MPs will today vote on new legislation which could see people who point laser pens at aircraft – or other vehicles – facing up to five years in jail.

Flt Lt Jonathan Price, an RAF pilot of 36 years based at RAF Cosford,near Albrighton, was himself targeted while flying around the base about two years ago.

"I was just flying around the local area around Cosford when I became aware of this light being shone at me.

"While I wasn't blinded, it was distracting, I was thinking about it when I was trying to do other things."

He says pilots are trained to take certain steps to minimise the risks, which might include adjusting the pilot's seating position so that something is obstructing the view of the laser.

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"In the plane that I fly, I can adjust the angle I am flying at slightly, so that I can't see the beam, but a pilot trying to land an airliner at Birmingham airport cannot do that," he says.

It is not just pilots who are at risk. There have been reports of them being pointed at trains and other vehicles, and there are also concerns that some of the more powerful devices have been causing eye injuries.

Present legislation says that only laser pens that are "considered safe" can be sold in the UK, with the guidance being that they should not be stronger than one milliwatt. However, overseas retailers have been advertising devices online which are up to 2,000 times more powerful. One such advert claims its hand-held device is "strong enough to burn holes, pop balloons, and start fires from across the room", has a range of 50 miles, and "can be seen from outer space."

The danger that something like this could cause in the wrong hands does not bear thinking about.

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Margot James, the Stourbridge MP and Consumer Minister, says these devices are a real concern, and has promised tighter checks at UK ports to stop them getting into the country.

More than 150 incidents of eye injuries involving laser pointers have been reported since 2013, the vast majority of these involving children.

Miss James says in many of these cases neither children nor their parents have had any idea of how dangerous these devices can be. She says the Government would be working to raise awareness of the risks associated with laser pointers.

"The Government has listened to concerns from pilots, health professionals and safety experts, which is why we are going further than ever before to crack down on the sale of unsafe devices," she says.

"Public safety is of the utmost importance and we are working to increase the public's knowledge of the potential dangers associated with these devices and strengthening the penalties for when they are misused."

Miss James says the Government will increase support for local authority teams to carry out increased checks at the border, including testing products to ensure they are safe. She says the Government will also ensure local authority teams have access to the necessary scientific, technical and testing expertise.

The Government also says it will work with manufacturers and retailers to improve laser pointer labelling, indicating that they must not be pointed at eyes or at vehicles and must state the power level of the product. There is also a commitment to working more closely with online retailers such as eBay.

In 2016 the Civil Aviation Authority recorded a total of 1,258 incidents involving laser pens across the UK, with Birmingham Airport the second most targeted site in England with 73 reports.

The issue has been raised in the House of Commons by Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin, who said: “These incidents are increasing in number and endanger crew, passengers and aircraft.

“Action is needed before a serious accident occurs.”

The British Airline Pilots Association has called for laser pointers to be classed as “offensive weapons” after a plane flying from London Heathrow to New York was forced to turn back after a laser beam hit the cockpit after take off causing a “medical issue” for one of the pilots.

Under present legislation, it is an offence to direct or shine any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot, with a maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine. If intent to endanger an aircraft can be proved, a suspect can be tried under the Aviation and Safety Act 1982 which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. A number of people have been jailed for offences of this nature, including Craig Steventon, who received a 12-month sentence for shining a laser at a police helicopter from his garden in Ayrshire, and Philip Houghton, 25, from Hull, who was jailed for five months after shining a £9 Chinese-made laser pen at a police helicopter. In 2014 three men from Leicestershire were jailed for using laser pens to dazzle pilots coming in to land at East Midlands Airport.

In one case the pilots’ vision was so badly affected that they had to cover the cockpit and land using instruments alone.

Assuming it passes through Parliament, the proposed new law will remove the need to prove intent, making it easier to secure a conviction, and would also extend it to cover other vehicles, such as cars, buses and trains.

Ollie Dismore, a police helicopter pilot for more than 30 years, says he himself has been targeted 20 times with a laser.

Calling the issue of laser attacks a “growing problem”, especially with the powerful lasers that are now available, he said “you will not find a police pilot who has not been targeted multiple times”.

The tightening of the law has been backed by the British Airline Pilots Association, and Sqn Ldr James also says it is a step in the right direction.

"We welcome new legislation that protects aircrew and highlights to the general public the dangers of using a laser," he says.

But while the new laws should make it easier to secure a conviction, the hard work will be educating the public ­– and youngsters in particular – about the possible consequences of playing around with these seemingly innocuous devices.

Sqn Ldr James says this cannot be emphasised enough: "Lasers on their own are dangerous enough, but their effect can be multiplied if the pilots are wearing night vision goggles as light is amplified."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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