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Laser pointers have been a popular instructional tool for presentations for years. Their utility is fairly obvious -- the brightly colored dot draws attention to the spot an individual is hoping to highlight. As with many things, every use has an equal misuse. Although not considered dangerous when used in the aforementioned manner, abuse of a laser pointer is believed to cause damage to eyes (mainly in children) and there is a new growing concern relating to the use of high-powered laser strikes and aviation safety.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that when a laser pointer is aimed at an airplane in flight, it can have a blinding affect on the pilot and crew. One San Jose police officer commented, "This needs to be stopped. The majority of people who do this are not terrorists. They think of it as entertainment. They are not thinking of the consequences. My grandma, their grandmothers are flying in these planes." And the problem is growing. According the the FAA, with the increased availability, affordability, and power of laser pointers, in-air incidents are rising at an alarming rate.
The safety problem is simple...the laser light (usually green or red in color) floods the cockpit, creating almost impossible conditions to see, sometimes for minutes at a time. The closer this occurs to landing at an airport, the bigger the problem as pilots and co-pilots scramble to blindly stay on course. The top five airports with the most reported laser strikes: Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Oakland, and San Jose Mineta Airport.
There are state and federal laws in place that make this activity criminal, but catching the culprit is often an issue. Simply put, when the laser strikes an airplane, the priority is regaining vision and ensuring the safety of the passengers on the plane, reporting the incident and tracking down the individual behind the laser are secondary. For those individuals that do get caught, he or she could be facing up to three years in prison in addition to some heavy fines. To date, there have not been any laser-related deaths when it comes to airplanes, a record that will hopefully remain as authorities work to crack down on this growing problem, and get a handle on airplane safety.