Remember all those times in algebra class you asked when you would be using any of this in real life? Your teacher may have fumbled for an answer that would somehow compute your 13-year-old mind, but she would never have told you that doing so might get you in trouble.
He Was Just Trying to Be a Good Husband
Oregon resident Mats Järlström was just trying to defend his wife’s honor (and maybe save himself a buck or two) when he began to investigate the ticket she had received for a red light camera violation. He knew his wife driving habits and the fact that the city he lives in, Beaverton, generates these violations at an alarming pace. Järlström is a Swedish-born electronics expert with a natural curiosity as to how the world works. He wanted to understand better how the red light camera system operated, so he set up an experiment.
He did some research on the timing of traffic lights and found that the Department of Transportation recommends that, for maximum safety, yellow lights should be activated a little sooner and be left on a little longer. This only makes sense. The longer a yellow light is activated, the more time drivers have to react and stop giving the intersection time to clear and thus reduce opportunities for collision. The DOT developed a mathematical formula to aid in setting light timings decades ago. Järlström devised experiments using cameras mounted in his car and discovered that the traffic lights in Beaverton changed far more quickly than the DOT recommends. Not only does the situation make driving less safe in the city, but it also generates a huge amount of revenue.
Järlström was given the opportunity to communicate his findings to a meeting of the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. After he had voiced his concerns, he was not prepared for what happened next.
What’s in a Name?
What happened next was a bit of a surprise. The Board did not respond with reactions to his concerns but rather fined him for discussing issues of an engineering nature without being a licensed engineer. Beyond the $500 penalty, the Board threatened additional fines and possible jail time if he continued his campaign without the proper licensing.
Startled by the response, Järlström turned to an organization known as the Institute for Justice and has filed a lawsuit against the board. The Institute is a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the rights of citizens to speak up against their governments. Institute attorney Sam Gedge contends that “Criticizing the government’s engineering isn’t a crime; it’s a constitutional right. 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.”
Learn more about Mr. Järlström and this curious case by watching this video produced by the Institute for Justice.