New Technology and the Law: Laser Pointers

As we consider new technologies coming into the mainstream, there are often unexpected legal issues to deal with. Here’s something I hadn’t really thought to much about before — the use of laser pointers as dangerous instruments.

These hand held lasers are commonly available these days and can be bought by anyone for a few dollars. Now law enforcement authorities are having to deal with them being used as potentially dangerous weapons.

An article from the UK’s Daily Express newspaper caught my attention tonight which explains that pilots landing planes at airports are having to deal with people from the ground shining laser pointers into the cockpit and causing severe problems with visibility.

From the article:

Britain’s largest pilots’ union is so concerned by a recent spate of incidents it has issued an emergency bulletin to members advising them how to avoid being blinded and losing control of their planes.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) now wants the law changed so anyone caught in possession of the higher powered lasers without a “legitimate reason” to be jailed.

“Slaps on wrists and £150 fines are not enough – custodial sentences should be the norm,” it said yesterday.

Most of the attacks are on large commercial jets, but even military planes carrying injured troops home from Afghanistan to hospitals in the Midlands have been targeted.

Police helicopters chasing criminals over densely populated areas are also regularly hit.

Other news stories from around the world bring up similar concerns about laser pointers.

Pilots on New Zealand have also had difficulties with these devices and in a law there has passed its first reading in Parliament which would criminalize having a hand-held laser pointer in a public place “without a reasonable excuse”. The bill sets a maximum penalty of imprisonment for three months or a $2000 fine.

In California, a man was arrested recently for pointing a laser pointer at a police helicopter.

When new technology enters the marketplace it is not always easy to predict the way it will be used, and it often takes lawmakers quite a while to decide how to deal with the potential trouble it can cause. In recent months there have been public debates over the use of such technologies as 3D-printed weapons and consumer grade drones. The debates usually revolve around the issue of personal liberties versus the what is in the public interest.

These debates will certainly continue as new products become available, and if and when new and improved energy sources come online I expect some of the same issues will be raised. Abundant energy can be put to use for good and bad purposes — how much control over it will governments want to have? How much freedom will citizens demand?

  • Mike

    Tom Clancy the writer used this general idea in one of his spy novels.

  • US_Citizen71

    Another fun and devious use is to make road crossing lights appear to be flashing. Any red one will do the trick from hundreds of metres away.

  • Pedro

    This issue was the plot of a CSI Miami episode in 2007 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFKQd5yYhng). Now reality is catching up. Wonder how many people got the idea from that TV-show?

  • Fortyniner

    I have a laser pointer strapped to my 10″ astronomical telescope, and live close to an airport flight path. I must admit I’d never really connected the two, so I suppose that in future I will need to consider the possible dangers to aircraft when using the ‘scope at low inclinations.

    As to people who deliberately try to bring planes down using these devices, 3 months and/or a fine doesn’t seem nearly enough, although proving such an intention is probably nearly impossible.