The UK has announced plans to impose tougher sentences on people convicted of shining laser lights at aircraft.

Currently, penalties for someone found guilty of such an offence are limited, with the maximum fine being £2,500 ($3,350).

Under the proposed Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill, published Dec. 20 by the UK government, convicted offenders could face a prison sentence of up to five years, as well as a potentially unlimited fine.

The new bill is intended to apply to all forms of transport, not just aircraft as at present.

At present, dazzling or distracting a pilot is a “summary” offense, roughly analogous to a misdemeanor in US legal terms and which is tried before a magistrate, without a jury. The new offense will be more serious and thus able to be held before a jury.

One of the main aims of the proposed legislation will be to make it easier to prosecute offenders, by removing the need to prove an intention to endanger a vehicle.

The police will also be given additional powers to catch those responsible for the misuse of lasers. At present, they are unable to enter a property to make an arrest, or to search a person or property following an arrest. As many laser offences take place on private property, they are difficult to investigate.

If the new offence reaches the statute book, police will be given the powers to enter properties to arrest a suspect and to carry out searches for laser pens or pointers.

“Lasers can dazzle, distract or blind those in control of a vehicle, with serious and potentially even fatal consequences,” the UK’s aviation minister Baroness Sugg said.

“Officers will no longer need to establish proof of intention endanger to a vehicle, aircraft or vessel, making it easier to prosecute swiftly. It will be an offense to shine or direct a laser towards a vehicle if it dazzles or distracts the operator, if done deliberately or if reasonable precautions to avoid doing so are not taken.”

Laser pens have become a growing concern in recent years, particularly when aircraft are at low level and on their landing approaches. Incidents have escalated in several nations, partly because of the availability of cheap laser pointers.

Last year, the UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority received reports of 1,258 laser incidents, with Heathrow the most frequent location for reports of the devices being used recklessly.

“We are concerned about the high number of laser attacks in recent years and therefore welcome new measures that would see tougher penalties for those who act recklessly by endangering the safety of aircraft,” CAA chief executive Andrew Haines said.

The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) also welcomed the news of the proposed legislation: “This is good news for transport safety. BALPA pilots and other transport workers have raised the growing threat of laser attacks for some time,” BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton said.

“The government has listened to our concerns and is now looking to introduce these tougher laws.”

He added that the union would work with the UK department for Transport to ensure the legislation’s effective and swift implementation.

Alan Dron alandron@adepteditorial.com