When Doing the Math Meant Breaking the Law

In 2013, an Oregon man named Mats Järlström and his wife got an unexpected and unwelcome piece of mail — a fine for $150. Mrs. Järlström, while driving in the town of Beaverton early that month, apparently ran a red light. She hadn’t been pulled over, though; it was technology that caught her, as the town had previously equipped that traffic signal with a camera system. The camera snapped a picture of Järlström running the red light, triggering an automated system to send a ticket to the couple. They paid the fine, but that’s not where the story ends.

Mr. Järlström was, by most reasonable measures, an engineer. According to a profile in the Washington Post from 2017, Järlström “graduated from engineering school in Sweden, served as an airplane-camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force and worked in research and development at an electronics manufacturer,” and then spent two decades “designing and repairing audio equipment.” He was a tinkerer who knew his way around math and machines, and he was frustrated that the red light cameras, without much if any human oversight, determined that his wife had done something wrong. She wasn’t one who often, if ever, ran red lights; perhaps something was amiss with the technology. And besides, it seemed like a nice little challenge.

And he found a problem.

The summary, for us non-engineers, is that the traffic signals weren’t showing a yellow light for as long as they should have. As Digital Trends explains, “the length of a yellow light is determined by the speed limit on the road. If you’re driving the speed limit, the yellow light time is roughly the amount of time it will take most drivers to make a decision to stop or go through, plus the time it will take those drivers to stop from the posted speed limit.” Oregon law requires that yellow lights be no less than a certain duration, given those conditions. Järlström’s models determined that the yellow lights in Beaverton were hitting up against those regulations and, in some cases — especially those involving right turns — the lights were simply not providing enough warning before going red.

The local governments didn’t really care though. So, Järlström starting writing about the problem, hoping to catch the attention of others who could make change — voters, opinion-makers, or even state-level government agencies.

And that’s where he went wrong. Beyond the blog posts, op-eds, and the rest, Järlström also wrote some emails to  the Oregon Board of Engineers, sharing his findings and noting that he, too, was an “engineer.” The Board of Engineers replied — with another fine. Motherboard explains:

Rather than looking into whether traffic light timing should be changed, however, the board sent Järlström a warning—and then a $500 fine for the crime of “practicing engineering without being registered.” Järlström had violated one of Oregon’s “Title Laws,” which states that “no persons may … hold themselves out as an ‘engineer’” unless they are an “individual who is registered in this state and holds a valid certificate to practice engineering in this state.”

That probably wasn’t the outcome Järlström was after. But it did give him a new cause — to fight for his right to share his research. In April of 2017, the New York Times reported, “Järlström filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, charging the state’s licensing panel with violating his First Amendment rights.” By fining him for speaking, Järlström argued, Oregon violated his constitutional rights.

And he won. That December, the state dropped the $500 fine and asked the courts to dismiss Järlström’s case against it. But the courts declined to do so; instead, they ruled for Järlström, finding that the restrictions which ensnared the unofficial engineer were overbroad.

Unfortunately, Järlström’s victory ended there — his objections about the traffic lights have, to date, still gone nowhere, as the Board of Engineers (and others) haven’t cared to investigate them further.


Bonus fact: If you think getting a traffic ticket from an automated system is annoying, what about getting one from your neighbors? In Oregon, as of a few years ago at least, citizens can write tickets to one another. The process is somewhat arduous — probably by design, to prevent frivolous tickets (and to stop personal feuds from getting the weight of the law behind them). You’ll have to get the license plate of the car you want to bust, pick the offender’s photo out of a photo book, and show up more than a few times to make sure justice is served. Whether the system works or not is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure: it’s not a popular policy, at least not enough to get other states to do the same. Only Oregon has a citizen citation program for traffic violations.

From the Archives: Green Light, Red Light: America’s backward traffic signal.