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Tuesday, November 11, 1997 Published at 00:12 GMT


Laser pen abusers to get long prison terms

The pens look innocent but can cause serious eye damage

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has warned that people found guilty of using laser pens to cause injury, can expect up to five years in prison.

His statement comes after three Hampshire police officers were seriously injured when a beam temporarily blinded them.

They join many others who have fallen victim to a device that experts say is too dangerous to be used by the untrained.

The pens look innocuous but in the wrong hands they are dangerous weapons. Pressing a button releases a thin but powerful laser beam with a range of up to 200ft (61m).

The pens are intended as a replacement for the old-fashioned pointing sticks used by lecturers. But increasingly they are being abused.

When shone directly into the eyes, the effect is temporary blindness or even more permanent eye damage.

[ image: Patrick Rafter recovers after being hit by a laser]
Patrick Rafter recovers after being hit by a laser
At the Paris Indoor Tennis Open two weeks ago, the Australian Patrick Rafter became a victim. A laser beam shone by a spectator was directed at the player's face. The game had to be halted while he recovered.

Other sportsmen and pop stars have been targetted too.

In South Yorkshire one bus company has recorded 32 separate incidents in the past month. Drivers say they have been picked out by people intent on causing an accident.

Dr Ajoy Kar, a physicist from Heriott-Watt University who specialises in lasers, has tested those on sale in Britain - some for as little as £15.

Of 43 studied, only five met safety standards with beams of less than one milliwatt. But even those which conform to standard could still cause serious harm.

"A laser pen is a hundred million times brighter than a television screen, it's like staring at the sun," he said.

Trading standards officers have been told to remove from sale laser pens which do not meet safety standards but there is to be no complete ban. The Home Office says people who use lasers as weapons or intend to cause injury can already be imprisoned.

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