File this one under “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”
Beaverton, Oregon, resident Mats Järlström – a Swedish-born electronics engineer by training and previous work experience – is $500 poorer after being fined by an Oregon agency following his attempt to point out a problem in the state’s traffic lights that “puts the public at risk.”
Specifically, Järlström – after spending a year investigating the timing of yellow lights and red-light camera statistics – found people were being electronically captured running yellow lights because of misapplication of a timing formula developed in 1959 and still used internationally.
“They only looked at a vehicle traveling safely directly through an intersection, however the equation they developed is not used for turning lanes,” Järlström told Motherboard. “When you make a turn you slow down, but that’s not accounted for in their solution, so people are getting caught in red-light cameras for making safe turns.”
Armed with a year’s worth of data, Järlström presented his findings to various groups, including the local sheriff – his wife’s earlier red-light ticket having sparked his quest – “60 Minutes” and Alexei Maradudin, the last surviving author of the 1959 paper still used to time traffic lights.
“He wants me to continue with this, it’s amazing that I have his support,” Järlström said.
Järlström was even invited to make a presentation to the Institute of Transportation Engineers in Anaheim, California.
So, confident he had found a problem that needed to be addressed, Järlström bundled up his research and contacted Oregon’s engineering board.
“I would like to present these facts for your review and comments,” he wrote in a September 2014 letter. Järlström also noted his technical background in the letter, saying, “I’m an engineer.”
That proved to be a big mistake.
It wasn’t his research that interested the state – it was his referencing himself as an “engineer.”
“Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics are Disguised as Science” exposes the frightening prospect of a society led into intellectual complacency by relying on the bureaucratization of knowledge and its negative influence on society.
“ORS 672.020(1) prohibits the practice of engineering in Oregon without registration … at a minimum, your use of the title ‘electronics engineer’ and the statement ‘I’m an engineer’ … create violations,” read the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying response.
In the two years that followed, Järlström – who is not licensed as an engineer in Oregon – was accused of misrepresenting himself, and his year of collecting data – on his own time, free of charge – characterized as possibly having “engaged in unlicensed engineering work in Oregon.”
According to the National Council of Examiners of Engineering and Surveying, there were 481,717 licensed engineers in the U.S. in 2016, but about 2 million people actually practice engineering, according to the National Society of Professional Engineers. Even Oregon State University’s 45 faculty members of the Civil and Construction Engineering department only has 13 members who have engineering licenses, reported KOIN News.
“I’m not practicing engineering, I’m just using basic mathematics and physics, Newtonian laws of motion, to make calculations and talk about what I found,” Järlström said.
The board insisted the citizen-engineer was legally prohibited from publishing or presenting his findings.
“I have stated I was a Swedish electronics engineer, but I based all the things from freedom of speech. I was just talking. That’s literally what I did,” Järlström said.
The board’s Law Enforcement Committee assessed Järlström a fine of $500, which he paid in November. But this week Järlström struck back, filing suit with the help of the Institute for Justice, arguing Oregon cannot own the word engineer.
“Anyone should be able to talk about the traffic signals – if they’re too long or too short or anything – without being penalized,” said Järlström.
“People like Mats aren’t designing bridges. They’re talking, and the state is punishing them for that,” said attorney Sam Gedge.
“And it’s not just Mats. Oregon’s engineering board fined an activist for publicly criticizing a power plant. They fined a retired guy who wrote to complain about home water damage. It’s even launched an investigation based on a political ad. This is a major First Amendment problem,” Gedge added.
“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 legal group is representing Järlström at no charge and seeking no monetary damages.