Illegal to Talk about Yellow Traffic Lights in Oregon

Sunday, April 30, 2017
Mats Järlström (photo: Institute for Justice)

By Karina Brown, Courthouse News Service


PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – An Oregon resident trained in engineering in Sweden says he’s developed a safer method for timing traffic lights, and the state engineering board fined him for talking about it.


Mats Jarlstrom says Oregon laws make it illegal for anyone who isn’t a licensed engineer to criticize the state’s methods for timing traffic lights. Jarlstrom calls that an unconstitutional prohibition on free speech.


In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, Jarlstrom claims Oregon’s Professional Engineer Registration Act illegally restricts discussion of public engineering projects to state-licensed engineers and creates a “government-run monopoly on engineering concepts.”


The act, and the board that enforces it, keep people from discussing the safety and fairness of traffic lights and the formulas engineers use to coordinate their timing, Jarlstrom claims.


Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying fined Jarlstrom after finding his public discussion of the formula for traffic-light timing was “clearly not protected speech.”


But Jarlstrom says his critique is exactly the kind of speech protected by the First Amendment.


Jarlstrom was born in Sweden, where he graduated with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He says he worked in technical fields with the Swedish Air Force and Luxor Electronics before moving to Beaverton, Oregon, 20 years ago.


In 2013, Jarlstrom’s wife got a traffic ticket after a city camera recorded her running a red light. That sparked Jarlstrom’s fascination with the mathematical formulas behind the timing of traffic lights. Jarlstrom says he dedicated his free time to researching the formulas before concluding they were unsafe and resulted in unfair traffic tickets.


The next year, Jarlstrom sued (pdf) Beaverton, claiming the Portland suburb programmed its yellow lights to be so brief that drivers didn’t have time to make it through an intersection before the lights turned red. Jarlstrom claimed the lights put drivers in danger of wrecks and said extending the length of yellow lights would dramatically reduce the number of tickets the city issued for running red lights.


U.S. District Judge Michael Simon tossed (pdf) that lawsuit in October 2014, after U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta found Jarlstrom didn’t show that he faced imminent harm from the city’s policy on yellow light length.


Any driver entering an intersection under a yellow light is already breaking the law, Acosta reasoned, because Oregon is one of a handful of states that effectively treats a yellow light as a signal to stop rather than a warning that the light will soon turn red.


Three months after the ruling, the state Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying launched a two-year investigation of Jarlstrom, ultimately issuing a $500 fine for publicly critiquing the mathematical formulas behind traffic light cameras without an engineering license, according to the complaint.


On April 25, Jarlstrom filed a new federal lawsuit (pdf). This time, he says the board not only regulates professional engineers, it also “restricts and punishes ordinary people for their most basic acts of civic engagement and political speech.”


A representative for the board declined to comment on the lawsuit.


In the lawsuit, Jarlstrom describes his crusade to lengthen the duration of yellow lights, saying he approached local and national news outlets, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying and even Dr. Alexei Maradudin, one of the physicists who in 1959 helped develop the formula for traffic-light timing that is still used today. Jarlstrom says he told them all that he believed the formula was dangerously flawed. Specifically, he said, the formula does not allow enough time for a driver to begin a right turn at the last moment of a green light and complete it before the light turns red.


Jarlstrom says he sent the groups copies of the new formula he had developed and got good reviews from a presentation he gave at the 2016 meeting of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.


He says he is almost finished writing a paper about his theories for the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal, but can’t publish it because the board is illegally restricting his free speech.


Jarlstrom says he should be able to call himself an engineer in the journal’s biographical blurb and promotional materials without fearing another investigation and more fines.


His lawyer, Sam Gedge with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, said in an interview that while the state may have the right to regulate who practices engineering, it doesn’t get to regulate the discussion of public safety.


“All Mats wants to do is talk,” Gedge said. “The state of Oregon investigated him for nearly two years and fined him for doing that. And that raises profound legal concerns. It’s unconstitutional. You don’t need a license to talk about the Supreme Court, for example. You don’t need a license to run a blog and you don’t need to be a licensed engineer to talk about traffic lights.


“The government doesn’t have any legitimate interest in deciding who gets to talk about anything,” Gedge added. “Even if a state bar licenses who gets to practice law, you don’t need a license to criticize a court ruling. Here, Mats was trying to talk to the media about a legitimate issue of public safety. And you don’t need a permission slip from the government to do that.”


To Learn More:

Jarlstrom v. Beaverton Federal Lawsuit (by Mats Järlström)

Revenue Opportunity: Shortening Yellow Traffic Lights (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Kevin 6 years ago
Under most DMV rules, drivers are SUPPOSED TO STOP on a yellow traffic light if possible.
DJ3 7 years ago
The real problem is that tickets are NOT about public safety when they are camera related. They are ONLY about income. If you really want to end red light running, then have cops there and stop the offenders. Take them in and book them and tow their vehicles. I guaranty that EVERYONE will stop running red lights. This story is NOT the first regarding length of yellow lights. Some cities in Florida have been changing the length of yellow lights in an attempt to gain income from red light cameras. The MOST interesting and telling of the issues is that in many cases the companies that "joint venture" the red light cameras have been convincing the city bureaucrats to make the changes FOR PROFIT MOTIVES involved. This suit needs to not just end the issue or whistle blower recrimination in Oregon, but it needs to resolve two things specifically. 1. That all traffic lights must be reprogrammed to newly engineered standards that meet state and federal as well as industry and SAFETY standards..this includes safety MARGINS as required in any engineering setting 2. If I have a degree in engineering then I am an engineer, PERIOD, I have been bestowed that title by CONTRACT with the government! As long as my degree is recognized by other states I am an engineer in those as well. (As a matter of fact, I personally was a manufacturing engineer by trade and never had a degree in engineering!) The real issue is that the state of Oregon is confusing a Professional Engineer (P.E) with the legal use of the title Engineer. The state may be able to control SPECIFIC kinds of engineering titles but not the title Engineer, That is NOT the state's right at all. In fact Oregon Universities confer the title engineer when the give a degree in engineering. That dos not make the person a P.E and using Engineer as a title does NOT imply P.E. status!
Kadri Walcott 7 years ago
Just maybe, the orange could be replaced with a 7 second countdown like some pedestrian lights
Joe Elder 7 years ago
Electronic tickets have become a source of big money so state governments want to protect the income. I to have been trapped in a yellow light turn with too short a time to get through. By slamming on the brakes to avoid entering a yellow light the risk creating an accident is increased. Makes little sense not to rethink the method of slowing traffic especially in light of the fact that new technology is being employed rather than human perception and judgement.

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