Occupational Licensing

Oregon Tried To Silence This Engineer's Red Light Camera Research. Now Experts Say He Was Right All Along.

Mats Järlström's research never would have seen the light of day if the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying had its way. 


More than five years after Mats Järlström was threatened with fines for presenting data that challenged Oregon's red light camera program, his research has changed the way traffic engineers will calculate the timing of yellow lights.

The Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE), an international group that publishes guidelines and best practices with an eye towards safety and mobility, published an update to its guidance for traffic signal timing last week. The new standard takes into account a wide variety of factors, including vehicle approach speeds, deceleration rates, intersection width, vehicle length, and more, according to an ITE statement announcing the changes. But Järlström's research—specifically, his "extended kinematic equation"—is cited as playing a key role in the ITE's updated yellow light timing formula.

That research never would have seen the light of day if the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying had its way.

Järlström got on the board's bad side because he tried to challenge a traffic ticket given to his wife by a red light camera in Beaverton, Oregon, in 2013. He challenged the ticket by questioning the timing of the yellow lights at intersections where the cameras had been installed, using knowledge from his degree in electrical engineering and his experience working the Swedish Air Force and various technical jobs since immigrating to the United States in 1992. His research landed him in the media spotlight—in 2014, he presented his evidence on an episode of 60 Minutes—and earned him an invitation to present his findings to the ITE.

But the Oregon board said Järlström's research amounted to practicing engineering without a license. In a 2014 letter, the board told Järlström that even calling himself an "electronics engineer" and the use of the phrase "I am an engineer" were enough to "create violations" that could result in a $500 fine.

Järlström fought back. With the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that often challenges ridiculous licensing laws, Järlström took his case to federal court. The trial was a disaster for the licensing board, which was forced to concede that its attempt to silence Järlström "was not narrowly tailored to any compelling state interests." The board refunded the $500 fine, was prohibited from targeting Järlström again "for his speech about traffic lights and his description of himself as an engineer except in the context of professional or commercial speech," and got a public dressing-down from Judge Stacie F. Beckerman.

Beckerman's ruling ordered the Oregon board to restrict its policing of licensing issues exclusively to individuals who are working as professional engineers—that is, being hired to do engineering work—rather than simply practicing engineering skills. That seems like a necessary restriction, considering the board's history of investigating everyone from amateur engineers like Järlström to political candidates who promised to "engineer solutions" and even a Portland magazine that credited a local leader for being the engineer, metaphorically, of a new bridge project in the city.

Free to work without overzealous licensing boards breathing down his neck, Järlström has now made an important change to how traffic light timing will work. Specifically, his formula takes into account the time required for drivers to slow down if they are turning at an intersection. It has the potential to improve safety and to cut down on erroneous tickets at intersections with automated red light cameras like the one that nabbed Järlström's wife in 2013.

"It didn't take an engineering license to realize that the formula for traffic light timing was flawed," Järlström said in an Institute for Justice press release. "Hopefully this change will give everyone a little more time to get through an intersection safely."

So the next time you narrowly skip through an intersection before the light turns red, you can thank Järlström—and the attorneys and judges who stood up for his right to do math without a license.

"The First Amendment protects Americans' right to speak regardless of whether they are right or wrong," Sam Gedge, an Institute for Justice attorney, said in the press release. "In Mats's case, the ITE committee's decision suggests that he not only has a right to speak, but also, that he was right all along."

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  1. Now if the government would only admit that these tickets are about revenue, not safety.

    1. Several governments have tacitly admitted just that, by discontinuing Red Light Camera programs where they have been ruled unenforceable. No revenue, no cameras.

    2. For decades now, many municipalities have kept yellow light intervals artificially short in pursuit of more ticket revenue. Car & Driver magazine. Has been doing stories like this for decades.

      Here’s one from 2001……


    3. If you are ever given a ticket by camera for any offense, send in an affidavit that you were not driving the vehicle. Washington state tried to send both me and my wife a ticket for one offense, since the vehicle was registered to both of us. I sent the ticket back, without payment. And that was the end of it. They know they cannot issue a traffic citation to two people for the same instance. They count on you being ignorant or intimidated enough to pay.

      1. Round here they revoke the registration of the vehicle that committed the crime. I challenged a ticket and the judge literally said “Everyone in this room will be found guilty. Now lets start wasting my time.”

        1. Interesting…

          I had that experience in an Atlanta traffic court. The judge listed the reasons you could contest a ticket at the beginning. “I didn’t do it” is not among the approved reasons. No, your video proof that they pulled over the wrong car is not admissible. No, your 10 eyewitnesses will not get to speak.

          You can ask the officer if he is certified. You can ask if the equipment is properly calibrated. You can ask if he was at the bottom of a grade that is too steep – of which there is only 1 in the entire state – and that’s pretty much it.

          There were still lots of people who came prepared to fight with all sorts of evidence to present, including witnesses. They all got shuffled off really quick with a judgment in favor of the state.

          1. I outdone petition for the judge to recuse and a possible change of venue

    4. Tennessee state HoR Andy Holt, guy burns his ticket on camera and then explains to his constituents how you get out of them, namely by just not paying.

    5. California and its west coast partner states are essentially facist and not free. Praise God for the Midwest (Minus MN) and other logical, non-fascist states. I wouldn’t live in CA or Oregon if you paid me handsomely to do so. I prefer to be free, and there is no such thing in CA, Oregon, etc., as the government is your master not the other way around.

  2. Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying
    I would like to propose their next budget to be zero dollars, followed by an eviction notice, followed by a hearty “Fuck right off you useless bastards”.

    1. Too harsh. Much better to change the name of the organization to ‘Oregon Board of Prodnoses, Stuffed-Shirts, and Swine’. And then require the current crop of parasites to serve out their complete terms.

    2. Agree 100% Aloysious, except I would include a shove off a cliff for these commie shits. If we keep putting Eliz. Warren and the like in office, we will have about as much freedom as was available in Soviet Russia.

  3. Of course he was right, that’s why he had to be silenced.

  4. The link to the “ITE statement” is just a press release, with no more details than copied here. The actual changes are apparently available only for a fee.

    1. True, but it does show some references a little bit further down. Two of those refer to Järlström’s work, with one being Järlström’s paper.

  5. So what was the actual change? There are two types of red light laws- “In the Intersection” and “Out of Intersection”. I could see this impacting the latter- those laws require that your car be completely out of the intersection when the light turns red. The former requires only that your car be “across the line” (i.e. in the intersection) before the light turns red. I don’t see how this would change things, but they never really explain what he identified.

    1. I don’t know the complete list, but Oregon and Jersey both require that you be out of the intersection before it turns red.

    2. No laws were changed. At this point, it might be that no lights have even been changed. The only thing that has actually happened is the ITE has used the gentlemen’s formula to update its guidelines for the timing of yellow lights. This doesn’t mean that all the lights in a district have suddenly been reprogrammed with the updated recommendations.

    3. He merely provided scientific measurements and analyses for the proposition that yellow lights are long enough for people going straight through the intersection, but too short if you are turning left through the intersection. His analysis was incorporated into the standards of an international professional society (ITE), but nobody is required to pay any attention to ITE standards.

  6. It would be handy to have the names of the members of the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying at the time, so we can publicly shame them.

  7. “Mats Järlström’s research never would have seen the light of day if the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying had its way” does not observe the rules of subjunctive mood and sequence of tenses in English. Proper grammar requires, “Mats Järlström’s research never would have seen the light of day if the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying had had its way.”

    1. You sound like some kind of unlicensed lecturer in English Grammer. No doubt the Oregon Board of Examiners for Talking and Big Words will be preparing to fine you for that.

  8. Well I’m sure they will take your grammar Police recommendations right away,Get a life

  9. Texas dumped red light cameras last year.

  10. Some states require that the vehicle be CLEAR of the intersection before the light turns read. Others prohibit ENTERING the intersection once the red =is showing. What happens, in the first class above, when road conditions, or perhaps a pedestrian suddeny starts jaywalking, and a car is trapped in the intersection when the red shows? When there is snow on the roads, and most folks are traveling slower, does the camera “adjust” the time of the yellow light cycle to comensate for the lower speed necessary for safety? Of COURSE not. Its only a machine, and has no clue or present conditions.
    ALL states that require the car to be clear before the red shows need to change to not entering once the red shows. I expect a solid case could be made to force those states to change to not entering after red.

  11. How can Bureaucratic Boards be so ill equipped to handle the very subject of their concern???? Oh yeah; I remember now – because we’re FORCED to pay them whether they are worth a penny or not.

  12. “Specifically, his formula takes into account the time required for drivers to slow down if they are turning at an intersection. It has the potential to improve safety and to cut down on erroneous tickets at intersections with automated red light cameras like the one that nabbed Järlström’s wife in 2013.”

    And it will be completely ignored by the vast majority of state and local officials, much like these officials ignore practically every recommendation of the ITE.

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