Portland, OR – Mats Järlström, an Oregon resident who trained in engineering in Sweden tried to tell officials in Oregon that he developed a safer method for timing traffic lights in 2014. Instead of listening, however, the state engineering board fined him for criticizing them. Seriously. Now, after refusing to back down against these tyrants for years, Järlström has finally been vindicated.
Last week, the official Journal of the Institute of Transportation Engineers said he was right. The ITE sets traffic policy recommendations for the United States — and they said cities should be using his formula, according to KOIN.
“It is a big deal,” Järlström told KOIN 6 News. “It’s the top.”
Järlström says Oregon laws make it illegal for anyone who isn’t a licensed engineer to criticize the state’s methods for timing traffic lights. Järlström calls that an unconstitutional prohibition on free speech. So he sued them.
In a federal lawsuit, Järlström claimed Oregon’s Professional Engineer Registration Act illegally restricts discussion of public engineering projects to state-licensed engineers and creates a “government-run monopoly on engineering concepts.”
The act, and the board that enforces it, keep people from discussing the safety and fairness of traffic lights and the formulas engineers use to coordinate their timing, Järlström claimed in his suit.
To be clear, Järlström was trying to make the town safer and because they are apparently drunk on authority, officials wanted nothing of it and in fact, moved to silence him. The lawsuit was filed so he could continue his research to prove drivers making turns at intersections often get caught in a dilemma when they’re slowing down to make a turn and the yellow light isn’t long enough.
In 2014, however, Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying fined Järlström after finding his public discussion of the formula for traffic-light timing was “clearly not protected speech.”
As the Institute for Justice reported at the time:
After a two-year investigation, the board fined Mats $500 and said that he could not talk about traffic lights in public until he obtained a state-issued professional-engineer license. If Mats continued to “critique” traffic lights, he would face thousands of dollars in fines and up to one year in jail for the unlicensed practice of engineering. The board also said that Mats could not call himself an “engineer,” even though he has a degree in electrical engineering and decades of engineering experience. Like most engineers in Oregon, Mats is not a state-licensed “professional engineer,” and state law provided that only licensed professional engineers could legally use the title “engineer.”
But Järlström says his critique is exactly the kind of speech protected by the First Amendment. What's more, is the fact that it's not rocket science and he says he used 8th-grade math skills to prove drivers have been getting tickets they can’t avoid.
Recommended for You
Finally, on December 28, 2018, Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon entered a judgment largely ruling for Mats Järlström in his First Amendment lawsuit against Oregon’s engineering board.
Järlström was born in Sweden, where he graduated with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He says he worked in technical fields with the Swedish Air Force and Luxor Electronics before moving to Beaverton, Oregon, 20 years ago.
In 2013, Järlström’s wife got a traffic ticket after a city camera recorded her running a red light. That sparked Järlström’s fascination with the mathematical formulas behind the timing of traffic lights. Järlström says he dedicated his free time to researching the formulas before concluding they were unsafe and resulted in unfair traffic tickets.
The next year, Järlström sued Beaverton, claiming the Portland suburb programmed its yellow lights to be so brief that drivers didn’t have time to make it through an intersection before the lights turned red. Järlström claimed the lights put drivers in danger of wrecks and said extending the length of yellow lights would dramatically reduce the number of tickets the city issued for running red lights.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon tossed that lawsuit in October 2014, after U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta found Järlström didn’t show that he faced imminent harm from the city’s policy on yellow light length.
“The problem is if you have a system in place and they have done something for a long time, and you say that’s wrong, it’s pretty hard for someone within that system then to admit they have done something wrong for such a long time.”
“It’s very emotional,” he said. “It’s been a long battle.”
Järlström is not alone in his battle. Other brave citizens have been railroaded and even arrested for calling out the dangerous yellow light timing employed by local municipalities to boost revenue with red light cameras. Just last month, TFTP talked to Stephen Ruth, aka, Red Light Robin Hood.
Ruth was exposing the deaths of several people, including children who were killed as a result of these shortened yellow lights. In May 2015, sixteen-year-old John Luke was killed crossing the street when an SUV hit him. Less than a year later, a 64-year-old legally blind man named Warren Karstendick was killed in a hit-and-run when an SUV struck him. After visiting the scenes of their deaths and several others, Ruth concluded that these innocent pedestrians were losing their lives due to cars speeding up to avoid red light tickets.
Although the New York City’s Department of Transportation claims that all of its traffic signals provide a minimum of three seconds per yellow light, the AAA of New York released a 2012 report that found every tested traffic camera had a yellow light shorter than three seconds. Despite the fact that governments claim red light cameras are solely used to prevent accidents while modifying driver behavior, the revenue generated from traffic cameras can grow exponentially if yellow lights are shortened.
Like Järlström, Ruth has devoted years of his life to fighting to expose this dangerous practice. Now that the ITE has adopted Järlström's formula, perhaps some positive change it coming.