Tough new laws were introduced 10 July 2018 to specifically address the issue of shining a laser at an aircraft or other vehicles.
This has been a growing problem over the past few years, with 989 laser incidents at UK Airports being report to the Civil Aviation Authority in 2017 alone. Heathrow was the worst affected with 107 incidents, followed by Gatwick (70), Manchester (63) and Birmingham (59).
Why lasers are harmful to aircraft and vehicles
The blinding effects of lasers are well known and it goes without saying that the act of shining a laser at an aircraft or other vehicle is extremely dangerous. As one pilot told the BBC:
“We noticed a sharp piercing green light coming into the cockpit. I was shocked, it was like looking at a camera flash because all I could see when I blinked was a white dot. It distracted me and if I had been about to land it could have been catastrophic.”
While shining a laser at an aircraft was already a criminal offence, the new law brings some clarity and tougher sentences of up to five years in prison if convicted.
The new law also lowers the threshold for criminality, as the Prosecution will no longer need to prove that the Defendant intended to endanger the vehicle (or was reckless in doing so).
The new law, which came into effect on 10 July 2018, reads as follows:
1 Offence of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle
(1) A person commits an offence if —
(a) the person shines or directs a laser beam towards a vehicle which is moving or ready to move, and
(b) the laser beam dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract, a person with control of the vehicle.
It is an either-way offence.
There are two defences provided for in the Act:
(2) It is a defence to show —
(a) that the person had a reasonable excuse for shining or directing the laser beam towards the vehicle, or
(b) that the person —
(i) did not intend to shine or direct the laser beam towards the vehicle, and
(ii) exercised all due diligence and took all reasonable precautions to avoid doing so.
In terms of the first defence, it is difficult to imagine any reasonable excuse that an ordinary person might have to shine a laser at a moving vehicle.
In terms of the second defence, this theoretically would encompass a person who says that they shone a laser at a vehicle by accident. However, it would then be on that person to provide evidence that they had exercised due diligence and taken all reasonable precautions to avoid doing so. Considering the limited legitimate purposes that laser pointers actually have, it is difficult to envisage many cases where this defence could be relied upon.
With tougher sentences available and a lower criminal threshold, we can expect to see swifter prosecutions in these cases and harsher punishments for those convicted.
It’s also worth pointing out that the law does not just protect aircraft pilots, but those in control of all vehicles and also air traffic controllers (section 2 of Act).
The best advice if you have a laser pointer that you do not need might be to simply take the batteries out and throw it away.