Traffic lights are an often overlooked part of modern life. They’re there. Most of us obey their colored commands most of the time. Yet very few understand why they’re timed the way they are. One man in Oregon studied the timing, and presented his findings to the State, which promptly fined him $500.
Just what exactly is Mats Järlström, a Swedish immigrant, guilty of doing that required a $500 fine? Järlström is an electrical engineer who lives with his wife in Beaverton. He suggested to the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying that the yellow lights on turn lanes needed to be longer, becasue cars were slowing to turn.
Seems innocent enough. Jalopnik wrote up this curious case and noted that Järlström began looking at the timing of lights when his wife got a ticket for running a red light. He didn’t think it was fair. When he looked into the rational for timing of yellow lights, he found that the formula for timing hadn’t changed since its inception in the 1950s.
“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 wrote in his message to the state board.
Yet the Institute of Transportation Engineers weren’t keen on Järlström’s efforts. He presented them in 2014. Shortly after, he received the fine. It seems Järlström was cited for practicing engineering without a license.
Publicly questioning the timing of a traffic light is hardly practicing engineering without a license. If it were, then the state of Oregon would be awash in cash. Cops could simply stand on street corners and hand tickets to every driver frustrated about the length of time they have to wait at lights.
The Institute for Justice sees Järlström’s argument in a similar fashion and they’ve stepped in to defend him. They released a statement in support of their client:
“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.”
The state received their money. Järlström paid the fine. But he’s suing over the whole incident in civil court.