(Canadian OH&S News) — Recent criminal charges against a 16-year-old who shone a laser pointer at a police helicopter in Ontario have thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
Shortly after midnight on Aug. 1, the York Regional Police’s (YRP) Air2 helicopter was assisting police officers on the ground, who were conducting a traffic stop involving an impaired driver in the town of Richmond Hill, said YRP spokesperson Const. Laura Nicolle. During the operation, the pilot was allegedly struck by several beams from a laser pointer, but was able to land the helicopter safely. Both the pilot and tactical flight officer were treated in hospital and released.
Nicolle said that the pilot and flight officer were able to identify the location of the light source and direct ground officers to two suspects. One 16-year-old boy received seven charges, including two counts of assaulting a peace officer; one charge of obstructing police; two counts of mischief endangering life; one count of unlawfully engaging in behavior that endangers an aircraft, under the Aeronautics Act; and one charge of projecting a bright light source into navigable airspace, under the Canadian Aviation Regulations. He is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 28.
The incident was the latest in an increasingly common trend. In 2008, only 80 “laser strikes” on aircraft were reported to Transport Canada, but this had increased to 182 in 2010 and 229 in 2011. Last year, 461 incidents were reported.
In late June, a coalition of 14 pilot associations and airlines, representing nearly 9,000 pilots who fly commercial aircraft in Canada, wrote a letter to federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt and Minister of Justice Peter MacKay requesting that they enact legislation to make the act of knowingly pointing a laser at an aircraft in flight a criminal offence.
The coalition, which includes, among others, Air Canada, WestJet and their unions as well as the Northern Air Transport Association and the Canadian Owners & Pilots Association, also requested that the federal government limit possession of handheld laser pointers to those of five milliwatts or less, unless used for a specific purpose for which a permit is required, and mount a campaign to warn the public about using lasers illegally.
A Transport Canada spokesperson noted that aiming a directed bright light source into the cockpit of an aircraft is already a federal offence. If convicted, an offender could face a maximum of $100,000 under the Aeronautics Act, imprisonment of up to five years or both penalties.
“Currently, there are no Canadian laws prohibiting possession of a laser whose output is greater than five milliwatts; these lasers pose a risk to eye safety for even incidental exposure,” the letter noted. “The effects of these occurrences to flight crews have ranged from startle to glare and, in some instances, flash blindness, afterimage or even temporary eye injury.” Glare prevents the pilot from seeing past the light, while temporary flash blindness blocks vision during and after exposure, similar to a camera flash.
“We have worked with numerous Canadian law enforcement organizations over the past several years on this issue, and there is strong agreement that such dangerous actions should be addressed by federal statute and not be adjudicated solely by the Aeronautics Act or the [Canadian Aviation Regulations],” the letter concluded. “The consequences of this threat are too great to ignore.”