I’m not sure what happened to make the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying so insecure, but whatever it was, it must have been bad. That’s the only way that the board’s reaction to a man’s study of yellow traffic light timing makes any sense at all. Maybe the board was bullied by bigger zoning boards when they were young.
The man who studied the traffic signal timing is Mats Järlström, a Swedish electrical engineer who now lives in Beaverton, Oregon with his wife. Järlström was inspired to delve into the science of traffic light timing after his wife received a ticket for running a red light.
Oregon Live reports that Järlström’s research found that most of the yellow light timing formulae were developed in the 1950s, and that they’re in need of updating. According to Järlström:
“The original formula is limited to only straight through lanes, however today it’s misapplied to turning lanes, where we need to slow down to maneuver safely.”
He suggests that the vehicles in turning lanes need a little extra time for the yellow light period, and he’s presented his findings and his supporting evidence to the Institute of Transportation Engineers and other organizations.
However, when Järlström contacted the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying in a 2014 letter asking to present his findings “for your review and comment,” Järlström’s request was met not with any sort of interest or curiosity—but rather with threats and a $500 fine.
The Board cited laws against practicing engineering without a license, and cited his references that he is an electrical engineer as evidence. The board actually launched a two-year investigation into Järlström, where they decided that Järlström’s public critiquing of traffic light timing could be considered illegal and practicing engineering without a license.
This, of course, is a precise, well-engineered mound of bullshit. I bet everyone who’s been on a public road has critiqued the timing of traffic lights. From a First Amendment perspective, what Järlström did is the exact same as you yelling “Why is this light taking so freaking long!” at a red light, except he actually did all the research and math.
Making informed criticisms of anything is free speech, red light, full stop. Järlström can call himself an engineer because that is his profession, and it in no way suggests that he’s “practicing” unlicensed traffic engineering.
Hell, a good chunk of my job involves critiquing engineering I’m not licensed (or remotely qualified) to do, and people read Jalopnik in the state of Oregon. By the board’s standards, I should be guilty of the same crime.
Järlström’s case has been taken up by the Institute for Justice, and one of the Institute’s lawyers working on the case described it like this:
“Criticizing the government’s engineering isn’t a crime; it’s a constitutional right. Under the First Amendment, you don’t need to be a licensed lawyer to write an article critical of a Supreme Court decision, you don’t need to be a licensed landscape architect to create a gardening blog, and you don’t need to be a licensed engineer to talk about traffic lights. Whether or not you use math, criticizing the government is a core constitutional right that cannot be hampered by onerous licensing requirements.”
Järlström’s paid his fine, and the board has closed its actions against him, but there’s still a First Amendment issue here, so this isn’t over. Järlström has filed a civil lawsuit against the board to be sure the State of Oregon can’t contort the use of the word “engineer” into a tool to quiet people who say things they don’t like.
Just make the yellow lights longer by a few seconds, already. How hard would that really be?