Laser pointers increasingly involved in incidents at sea

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Shining laser beams from laser pointers (see below) at other vessels while at sea have become rampant, according to the transport ministry. 

According to a survey, taken for the first time by the Japan Transport Safety Board of the transport ministry, nearly 30 cases of such acts have been confirmed in the past few years. While the acts were apparently intended to signal one vessel’s location to another in order to avoid a collision, in some instances, laser beams were shone directly in the eyes of crew members, impeding a vessel’s navigation.

 Unlike aircraft, however, there are no laws or regulations that prohibit the act of pointing lasers at vessels, prompting some to call for relevant rules to be set up.

Shining into binoculars

The survey was conducted after it was found that a laser pointer had been used when a cargo vessel and a fishing boat collided off Kitakyushu in June 2017. The survey, taken last year, queried nine domestic companies operating large passenger ferries and maritime pilots who board vessels to assist their navigation, among others.

 The safety board received reports of 25 cases of laser incidents that have occurred since 2015 — including those whose occurrence time was unknown — whereby a vessel was directly targeted by a laser pointer from another vessel or such an act was witnessed at sea.

 Among the reports were other serious incidents. In one case on the Seto Inland Sea in May 2018, a laser from a fishing vessel directly hit the binoculars of a ferry crew member on lookout in the pilothouse, causing discomfort in the crew member’s eyes and impeding their duties.

 In December 2016, a crew member of a vessel carrying vehicles was struck in the eyes by a laser beam from a container ship off Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture. The crew member later suffered dizziness, thus adversely affecting the ship’s operation.

 Also, there were three cases of maritime accidents involving laser pointers that the board investigated. At least two of these pointers are prohibited in Japan. Among them, in an accident whereby a cargo ship and a fishing vessel collided off Ishikawa Prefecture in October 2018, a Japanese captain of the cargo ship shined a beam from a high-powered laser pointer with a 50 milliwatt output, which he had bought in China, at the fishing vessel. And in the collision off Kitakyushu in 2017, a Chinese navigation officer was found to have used a laser pointer with an output of up to 5,000 milliwatts.

Lack of regulations

 Why are laser pointers being used at sea in such a way? In every one of the three cases that the board investigated, the laser was intended to let the other vessel know its location. There was also such an explanation that a pointer was used because the user hesitated to give a blast on a loud steam whistle at night. Shigeki Yoshida, an accident investigator at the board’s Kobe office who was in charge of investigating the incidents, said the users “have apparently used the laser pointer with a belief that it was all for the best.”

 According to the board, high-powered, foreign-made pointers seemed to have come into use among crew members a few years ago. It is believed that the pointers came to be used widely because they have a long range and are compact and easy to carry.

 In the accidents where high-powered pointers were used, including ones that occurred in the waters off Ishikawa Prefecture and off Kitakyushu, there fortunately were no crew members or others who were struck in the eyes or received injuries. But according to calculations made by the research institute that the board commissioned to conduct an examination, if a person is using binoculars and is hit with a 50 milliwatt laser, they could suffer optical impairment unless they are more than 380 meters away from the source of the laser which is  five times further than safe distance when looking with the naked eye. If a pointer has an output of 5,000 milliwatts, the potential hazard zone is within 3.8 kilometers.

 With regard to aircraft, pointing a laser pointer at the body of an aircraft flying in the vicinity of an airport is prohibited and violators will be punished. This came after a revision of a ministerial ordinance of the Civil Aeronautics Law made in 2016. When it comes to ships, however, there are no such regulations or laws that ban the possession or use of laser pointers at sea.

 Prof. Takahiro Takemoto of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, a scholar on sea traffic safety, pointed out: “Aboard a vessel where binoculars are used quite often, the risk from laser pointers is far greater, making it necessary to establish a certain system to ban the use of laser pointers. Yet, when it comes to the arrangement of rules that can be applicable uniformly even to foreign vessels, there is also be the hurdle of instituting an international agreement.”

He added, “What is needed, first of all, is to urgently inform crew members of vessels around the world of the danger of laser pointers, and to widely advise them to use signal lights to let other vessels know the location of their vessel.”

Laser pointer

A device that emits a beam of sharply focused light and is used at conferences in place of a pointing stick. If pointed at the eye, the retina and optic nerve could be damaged, and could result in the loss of eyesight. In 2001, the central government set limits on laser pointers that can be sold, banning the sale of pointers with an output exceeding 1 milliwatt. Arrests have been made over the suspicion of forcible obstruction of business after lasers were pointed at planes or buses.


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