Occupational Licensing

Oregon Man Fined for Doing Math Without a License Speaks Out

Free speech and traffic lights


Mats Järlström
Institute for Justice

Meet Mats Järlström, the man who was fined for doing math without a license.

As Reason reported earlier this year, Järlström's wife was issued a citation in May 2013 after a red light camera in Beaverton, Oregon, caught her clearing an intersection a tenth of a second late. That small amount of time made Järlström—an electrical engineer by training—curious. He started researching traffic light timing in the city.

What he found suggested to him that there was a problem with the mathematical formula that Beaverton was using to time its yellow lights. He tried to bring his research to the city council but was repeatedly rebuffed. Next he brought it to the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. Instead of investigating his claims, the board investigated Järlström. In 2016 the state fined him for daring to call himself an engineer. (Järlström had formal engineering training in his native Sweden and runs his own equipment calibration business, but he does not hold an Oregon engineering license.)

A lengthy (and ongoing) court battle ensued between Järlström, who believes he has a First Amendment right to promote his theory, and the Board of Engineering, which believes Järlström has the rights they say he does. Throughout this process, the board has used the threat of further fines to keep Järlström from publicly discussing his research. But on Tuesday, a federal judge granted an injunction against the board, preventing them from fining Järlström for talking while his court case grinds on.

In an interview with Reason, Järlström discussed his research, his yellow light theory, and how he managed to turn his wife's $260 ticket into a federal court case.

Järlström's work started with the simple filming and timing of the yellow lights at the intersection where his wife was ticketed.

"I shot different cycles of yellow lights," he tells Reason, "and it turned out that the lights were shorter than what the city of Beaverton said on their website."

Järlström hoped these findings might convince the court to let his wife's ticket slide. They didn't, and his wife ended up having to pay the fine. For many people, that would have been the end of it. But Järlström kept researching the issue, and he found what he thinks is a fundamental flaw in how traffic lights function not just in Beaverton but across the country.

In the United States, two types of laws govern how motorists should treat yellow lights. "Restrictive" laws require a driver to enter and clear an entire intersection before the light turns red. "Permissive" laws merely state that a driver must enter an intersection while the light is yellow. Most states take the permissive approach, but Oregon is one of 12 that have adopted restrictive rules.

Järlström says these different policies require different formulas for calculating how long lights should stay yellow. Under restrictive laws, yellow lights need both "warning time and the clearing time…you have the warning that you can enter, but the yellow is long enough so that you can travel through and exit the intersection." Permissive yellow lights can be shorter, because the driver doesn't have to clear the intersection before they change.

Beaverton, Järlström found, was using that shorter timing, even though it was enforcing a restrictive rather than permissive regulation. Drivers thus were not getting enough time to clear an intersection without being ticketed.

At that point, Järlström's recalls, "I started to look into the theory of the timing of the lights, digging into handbooks I could find, bought them on eBay and Amazon." He even reached out to Alexei Maradudin, one of the three scientists who came up with the modern yellow light formula back in 1959. (One of Maradudin's co-authors is Robert Herman, who also wrote the first paper on the big bang theory.) Järlström became convinced that Maradudin's formula was incomplete—that it failed to properly time lights for everything from right-hand turns to inclement weather conditions.

This, says Järlström, means that drivers are being ticketed by red light cameras—not just in Beaverton, but around the country—for traffic violations that were effectively outside of their control. "It's a physics problem. It's not anything to do with driver behavior….It's something we need to do on the engineering side."

His findings were strong enough to win him a speaking gig at the 2015 Institute of Traffic Engineers' national conference and a spot on 60 Minutes. He even won over Alexei Maradudin—the very man whose theory he was criticizing.

But he didn't win over the Beaverton city council. Järlström went before them 13 times, but he made little headway. He suspects that wasn't because there was a problem with his equations. "If I come in there and tell them that something is wrong and has been wrong for a long time, you see liability issues, paying back fines, etc.," he says. "So obviously they are fighting with their teeth to get me out of there."

Järlström sued the city of Beaverton for refusing to listen to his theory, but his case was dismissed on the grounds that he didn't have standing. So Järlström turned to Oregon's State Board of Engineering, asking them in September 2014 to look into the City of Beaverton's yellow light timings. Because he referred to himself as an engineer in his letter to the board, it launched a two-year investigation that ended with it issuing a $500 fine.

"They wanted to kill the messenger," Järlström says. "They just wanted to shut me up."

Järlström paid the fine. But rather than let the matter end there, he then sued the State Board of Engineering for violating his First Amendment rights. The board, Järlström notes, has yet to substantively dispute any of his findings. Instead it's challenging his right to publicize them.

Järlström may well be wrong in the claims he is making about the nation's yellow lights. I am certainly in no position to judge his arguments on the mathematical merits. But he has presented a plausible hypothesis, supported it with credible evidence, and enthusiastically engaged both his engineering peers and the general public on an issue of civic importance.

In a different world, the engineering community would be engaging Järlström right back, probing his findings for their merits and deficiencies. That's what science looks like. That's what a free society looks like. Instead, Järlström is locked in a legal battle over whether he even has the legal right to present his research.

NEXT: Montana Supreme Court Cites Biggie Smalls, N.W.A., Scarface

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  1. Go IJ! Go IJ!
    The Institute for Justice ROCKS!
    Go IJ!

  2. They should just fine him for bogarting all the umlauts.

  3. What are the 12 states with restrictive yellow lights? Asking for a friend.

    1. According to some guy named Mats J?rlstr?m, they are: IA, MI, MS, NE, NJ, OR, VA, and WI. He had four others that he thought were restrictive but he has since updated.

      Fortunately they are all states that you wouldn’t be caught dead in anyway.

      1. The problem is, people in other states aren’t told about this. When I learned to drive in New York, I was told it was legal to enter an intersection on a yellow light, and no one said “But in New Jersey, you have to be able to clear the intersection before the light turns red.” And there are no signs posted at the state line informing people of that fact. So how can people be expected to know this? I wonder how many New Yorkers get tickets in Jersey for being in an intersection when the light turns red. Actually, I’ve never heard of any, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

      2. I grew up in WI, and I had a friend who got a ticket for a red line violation for being in the intersection when the light turned red. It seems the only reason the law would be this way is to make it easier to fine people.

      3. In VA, i am regularly still in the intersection when the light turns red, because i gun it through yellow lights. My wife hates it but i’ve never gotten a ticket.

      4. Huh — didn’t know that about MI, and I’ve been driving here a long time. But it doesn’t really matter since there are no red light cameras. I’ve never been ticketed and don’t know anyone else who has either.

        1. In Atlanta, the unofficial rule is that once the light turns red, the next five cars can go through the intersection. If you’re some jackass from out of town who doesn’t know the rule and you’re fourth in line and step on the brakes the guy who rear-ends you as he’s punching it to make the light is liable to beat the shit out of you for being dumb enough to stop just because the light turned red. Also, if you’re a dumbass from out of town and you think you can go just because your light turned green, you’re getting t-boned by five cars and all of them are going to beat your ass.

  4. I suppose it’s a cliche, but I firmly believe that in scenarios like this one, derision, ridicule, and plain old laughter go a long way in fighting those who oppose freedom. It’s a catalyst to getting fence sitters to think.

  5. The fault in Jarlstrom’s argument isn’t in his reasoning, his research, or his conclusions. The fault is in the assumption that the powers who make these decisions are the least bit interested in fairness or public safety. The point of traffic cameras is to raise money for local governments. And they’re only profitable if they catch people.

    1. Absolutely! It may be under the guise of public safety, but drivers are to local governments what banks were to Willie Sutton. If you have a car, you have enough money to pay a fine. That’s also why they spend so little time rounding up the homeless for their numerous infractions, it’s unprofitable.

    2. Mats hasn’t yet learned that the point of government–at least, if you ask government–is to shake down its customers for money to support itself.

      1. Yes, he’s very naive. Let’s hope and pray there are many more like him, and that they stay the honest fine people that they are.

    3. Exactly

  6. Beaverton, J?rlstr?m found, was using that shorter timing, even though it was enforcing a restrictive rather than permissive regulation. Drivers thus were not getting enough time to clear an intersection without being ticketed.

    Heads they win, tails you lose, but I’m sure it didn’t get that way on purpose.

    1. That’s why when I approach an intersection with a green, I just stop and wait for the next cycle. It’s the only way to be sure.

      1. But even then you cannot be sure. It may well be that the light feels it is still red, even though you feel it is green.

      2. I am sure that they have some law where they can fine you for doing that.

        1. There are usually laws on the books that they can charge you with if you stop at a green light as well. At the very least, you would be in the wrong if an accident occurred. Super!

        2. A fine is too light a punishment for that.

      3. I got a ride from a guy who apparently thought that…approaching every green light he would slow way down, the way the fuck down, and stopped on yellows. Drove. Me. Mad.

        He was an ex-meth head, probably emphasizing the difference in his behavior from those days.

  7. So how does a camera ticket not violate your 5th amendment right to face your accuser?

    1. It does. No question.

      You: Mr. Camera, please describe for the court the date, time, weather at the time of the alleged violation.
      Mr. Camera: (silence)
      You: Your honor, I request that the witness be declared a hostile witness, as it refuses to answer questions.
      Judge: Granted.
      You: So, Mr. Camera, it is not true that there is financial benefit to your employer, and thus indirectly to yourself in an algorithm that shortens the legally required time delay before taking a picture that results in a summons?
      Mr. Camera: (silence)
      You: Your honor, seeing as the witness can not or will not testify to the accuracy of the process leading to my clients’ summons, I move for dismissal of all charges, and for repayment of all associated costs incurred by the defense. Thank you.
      Judge: Denied, we need the money, so shut up and pay up. Next case.

      1. Longtobefree, this is a very clever post. Thanks for the humor you’ve provided on this beautiful Spring day.

    2. Because someone somewhere said that it doesn’t. What more proof do you need??? KULAK! WRECKER!

    3. It is typically treated the same way as a parking ticket.

      It is a civil penalty against the registered owner of the vehicle. Not a moving violation against the driver.

    4. Fifth only applies to criminal charges, traffic fines are civil. Well, unless you’re a lawyer with some spare time who wants to see what’s at the bottom of the rabbit hole. You don’t want to see what’s at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

    5. If I get a ticket with a photo of my car running a red light, I send in a photo of my money.

    6. From another forum:

      “… “the right to witnesses” is only granted to you by the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution if your case is a “criminal” case.

      Many states, including my own North Carolina, treat a red light camera violation as a civil case, not criminal case, in order to avoid the need for “witnesses”, “public trial”, and “impartial jury” required by the 6th Amendment.

      See http://redlightrobber.com for an explanation of the problem.”
      (from: answers.yahoo.com/question/index? qid=20100207001939AA7N2kQ)

  8. The over-ticketing is a feature, not a bug, so yeah they probably don’t want anyone taking a close look at it.

    1. Dallas was able to unwind their yellow light errors. They only refunded the people who pled not guilty. Since most plead guilty it didn’t cost them much.

  9. In a different world, the engineering community would be engaging J?rlstr?m right back, probing his findings for their merits and deficiencies.

    The engineering community would engage him in this world, too. Unfortunately for J?rlstr?m, he’s engaging a bureaucracy with a vested interest in the outcome.

    1. Everything about Oregon says I would never want to live there.

      1. Something I discovered while visiting there. You are not allowed to pump your own gas. And the certified pumper has to stop the first time the auto shut-off engages. He/she cannot top it off or round it up.

        1. Same in the People’s Republic of New Jersey.

    2. In fact the engineering community did engage him by inviting him to their relevant conference.

  10. He is being punished for living in Oregon.

    As he should.

  11. The ‘he’s not an engineer’ thing is a red herring, really just an ad hominem to distract. If you got a degree in an engineering disciple then you are an engineer. The fact that he isn’t licensed doesn’t matter and the fact that his degree is from another country doesn’t matter. I work in Silicon Valley and half of them have degrees from other countries, they’re still qualified engineers. And really, it sounds like all he did was some math

    1. But it was engineering math, and Oregon requires money to do that.

    2. I’d also add if you’ve been working as an engineer for a sufficient amount of time and have sufficient mastery of the field you are one, with or without a degree.

      Biased because one of the best engineers I know has no degree, and many of the degree holders I know are brain dead children.

  12. Longer yellow lights means more people end up running the red lights. They think they have longer to gun it, and the overall light cycle is longer so the cost to stopping and waiting is higher.

    1. Observe, this is the Argument From Prophesy. It identifies the scribbler as a yearning looter of one faction or other of the mystical Klepticracy. The same argument underlies all opposition to relegalization of enjoyable drugs, nuclear power plants or fuel of any kind used to generate electric power.

    2. So ?. if I understand you argument, it’s contributing to climate change and global warming to have shorter yellow light cycles? Doing so causes people to be more cautious and spend more time at yellow lights?

    3. No! Shorter yellow traps people before they can get through. It “appears” they ran a red, when in fact they could not have stopped when the yellow came on. A longer yellow light allows them to clear the intersection. You got it backwards.

  13. Are you really writing about this crap. It is impossible to set a traffic yellow that would prevent some fool from rushing through at the last minute. A yellow light is to warn a red light is coming. You are suppose to stop when it turn yellow unless you are already in the intersection. I don’t like paying tickets either but this article is bull.

    1. Good to know that you’d lock up your brakes if a light turned yellow and your were 5 feet from the intersection.

    2. Your missing the point of the article. It doesn’t advocate for changing traffic policy, it shows how Oregon’s engineering licensing board is a bunch of thin skin assholes and how this mans right to lawfully address his grievances with the government is being violated.

  14. I applaud J?rlstr?m’s efforts and feel the OR public “servants” owe him gratitude, not greif. That said, I’m all for red light cameras. About 8 years ago we got struck by a pick up driver who ran a red light in Seattle. The driver took off, and as far as we know, didn’t suffer consequences for nearly totalling our car. (Thankfully, we were not injured.) A red light camera would have helped keep this jerk, and others like him, off the roads.

    1. All across the US Empire people like you assume, in spite of cases like these where all branches of govt. conspire to extort, that thugs who call themselves “officials”, are servants (they hate that label).

      Excusing your willful ignorance, you claim: “They should…”. What the hell does that mean? Muggers “should” respect your right to property. If your robbery complaint to the police was turned down because the cop told you, “He should have let you go about your business”, would you thank him and say, “Next time I’m tell him that.” Are you going to stop the muggers by nagging them into moral conduct? No, and you are not going to stop the bureaucratic thugs by granting them the power to initiate violence and commit fraud. When they abuse “we the people” systematically, it’s no mistake. They won’t thank you for pointing it out, as Jaristrom found out. Wake up and smell the exploitation.

    2. Nearly all intersections in my state have a camera, but it is illegal to fine people running a red light using only the camera. Be careful what you wish for.

  15. This seems like kind of a superficial story, but it’s a sign of a fundamental flaw with the HUGE business of revenue generation through traffic violations: there is virtually no real oversight, and worst of all, there is no separation of powers.

    In many states, the state congress defers to the sheriff’s departments to establish and ultimately oversee most traffic regulations. For example, the speed limit on your road is probably determined by the executive branch. They probably do not conduct speed studies as they may be required to do, and when they do, they often ignore the results. They set the speed limits arbitrarily low (far less than the recommended 85th percentile as established by scientific means) so that they can increase revenue or have an excuse to sniff around in black people’s cars.

    In some cities and states, some of these activities are actually privatized, which is utterly absurd. In Philadelphia, for example, a private organization polices the parking situation throughout the city. Appealing tickets means that you present your case to a desk jockey with no formal training so that they can decide against you while pretending to mimic the justice system. Only problem is there’s no “innocent until proven guilty” not even by company policy.

    1. In Michigan, a couple of years ago the DOT did the speed studies and required cities to set speed limits using the 85th percentile standard for any road that had a state route designation (like a business loop). Nice! Got rid of some of our worst local speed traps.

    2. Your “fundamental flaw” is created by a bigger, more basic flaw, seen in every society worldwide. It is the forfeit of personal sovereignty to a ruling elite, who naturally use their power to exploit the fools who want so badly to be protected that they renounce their responsibility to self govern. They justify this by declaring they just want to be safe, as if enslavement is safe. But they would deny they are slaves, even as they grovel before an army of control freaks called “the authorities”. Every stop by a cop is life threatening. How is that safe? I would rather be stopped by a mugger. He will be satisfied with my money. The authority wants your obedience, your dignity, and you die if he doesn’t like your attitude, or your look or he’s in a bad mood or nervous (“I though he was reaching for a gun”).

      In NV they like to pick a remote desert area for a 6 lane highway/large divider and put up speed signs the vary every quarter mile, 65, 55, 60, 50, 65, 45. Nothing else changes, just the limits. You could go 80 safely. Why would the limits vary so irrationally? For revenue. But hey, if it makes you feel safe, isn’t it worth it?

  16. He will not convince looter politicians–unable to find the square root of nine–of subtle vector differences between rectilinear and circular motion. As for the entrenched Board of Chair-Warmers, once their censorship tactic fails, the looters will go back to Plan A: Pretend There’s Nothing Wrong and keep Looting the Suckers. The Suckers, after all, begged for those traffic fines when they voted for the looter kleptocracy with its initiation of force. They voted to lose, and sure enough lost! Q.E.D.

  17. Engineers have been quite successful in protecting their titles and credentials. In Pennsylvania, you need to have “certified” professional engineers (you need to pass a test to get the certificate) in your firm to use “engineering” in the name of the company. Doesn’t matter what kind of engineering you do – even software.

  18. Considering the number of public officials who apparently can’t understand math, this doesn’t surprise me that much. And while advanced math is difficult, ordinary grade school math should be understood by everyone who is elected to office.

    How difficult is it to determine how far an automobile will travel in a measured amount of seconds. The number of seconds the traffic light goes from green through yellow to red? Apparently doing these calculations is something that our elected officials believe is beyond the understanding of anyone except for licensed engineers to calculate. Perhaps we need to require those who wish to run for public office to take a test proving their competence before they are allowed to run for office.

    1. Just like the competency tests for teachers in NY, these tests would likely be deemed “racist” the first time a minority politician failed them.

  19. I’m a betting man. I would bet a bunch that Jaristrom’s math/hypothesis is correct. I have had this suspicion for years. Any driver paying attention should have noticed the light turns red before clearing, but it didn’t in the past. The yellow is shorter, so short in fact that a driver gets trapped by the quickness. With no time to stop, and no time to clear, the authorities collect greater revenue.

    And “we the people” are once again, served up as sacrifice to bureaucracy who are obtuse, corrupt, thugs. When caught “in the act” of robbery they could let that one victim off the hook and go on stealing, but no, they dare not admit their immoral conduct for fear it might become common knowledge. So, they double down on their dirty deed, and try to distract with the fallacious argument ad hominem. No refutation of the facts, just a continued attack on the victim.

    Note: He is extorted by a conspiracy of both the Beaverton City Council and the Oregon State Board of Engineering.

    How is this not a violation under the RICO Act? But can govt. be trusted to charge/prosecute govt.? If not, who will protect us for them? Should we reconsider our support for this monopoly on the use of violence? Is this delegation of power wise?

  20. Jim Villanucci, once a popular host of the afternoon drive time on Albuquerque radio, PROVED the city was lying back in 2007 by having listeners time the yellow lights at intersections where red light cameras were installed.

    A guy even had a professional camera with a chronograph clocking them at just over 3 seconds.

    They will lie, absolutely, in the face of evidence.

  21. Explain the difference between governments and mobsters.

    Someone, explain it to me.

    1. In Chicago, No difference, Never Ever has been.
      I’m sure those sub 3 second yellow lights at camera intersections were set to save electricity – http://www.chicagotribune.com/…..story.html

    2. You ARE the government. If you don’t like it, organize your neighbors and vote out the city councilors.

  22. Moral of the story: Never use logic to get between a bureaucrat and a rule. Maybe he should have brought along a comfort animal, such as a ferret or an iguana swaddled in a blankie…

  23. Wouldn’t this recalcitrance to change policy be a display of racism or elitism because it is always the poor who suffer draconian laws? (draconian: small offenses with heavy punishments)

  24. What will the State do in the era of the driverless car?

  25. All roads will be converted to toll roads, or you will pay fines in advance via registration fees.

  26. There’s a well know scam involving Red Light Camera’s. These cameras are operated by private business who’s goal is to make a profit, and not to promote public safety. Many cities and towns that install these Red Light cameras, reduce the time of the yellow light, so that your probability of being caught when the light turns red increases. This increases the profits of those red light camera companies. For those libertarians among you, this is yet another example of free markets gone awry, and it’s very old news. It’s a scam. The only thing to do is to organize to vote the politicians out of office. Googling I found this from 2008:

    6 Cities That Were Caught Shortening Yellow Light Times For Profit
    March 26, 2008 ? 0 Comments ? Yellow Light Duration
    Short yellow light times at intersections have been shown to increase the number of traffic violations and accidents. Conversely, increasing the yellow light duration can dramatically reduce red-light violations at an intersection.

  27. You see, people in the physical evidence business cater to findings, whereas the public bureaucracy do not–all he needed to do was to get a gang of goons, a twitter account, and a slogan on how traffic lights are racist, sexist, anti-gay, and they would have caved instantly.
    Silly engineers.

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