A man who was fined $500 by the state of Oregon for warning officials about a problem with local red-light traffic cameras has been vindicated, with the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) validating and recommending the mathematical formula he developed.
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The endorsement marks the end of a nearly seven-year saga for Mats Järlström, which began when his wife received a red-light camera ticket.
That got him thinking about how traffic lights are timed.
He did some research and discovered the formula that sets yellow light schedules is from the 1950s. Järlström argued it’s incomplete because it doesn’t account for the behaviours of drivers making right-hand turns — meaning some people are ticketed for unavoidable situations.
Mats modified the formula with simple, “eighth-grade math” and shared it with scientists, the government — including his city council in Beaverton — and the media.
Met with hostility
When Järlström e-mailed the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying it initiated a two-year investigation, ruling he had practiced engineering without a license.
In Oregon, only state-licensed professionals can assume the “engineer” title.
Mats’ penalty was a $500 fine and a warning not to refer to himself as an engineer, despite holding an electrical engineering degree from Sweden.
He sued the board and filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the state had “no right” to grant licensed experts a monopoly on ideas. He also questioned the ban on qualified individuals calling themselves an engineer.
Judges ruled in his favour and agreed his free speech had been violated. The court determined Oregon had no right to punish individuals who truthfully describe themselves as an engineer and granted Mats the freedom to discuss his findings.
Last month, the ITE released the results of an independent, multi-year study and announced it will adopt Järlström’s formula. The ITE says the changes will make traffic light timing fairer and could improve public safety.
“It’s very emotional,” Mats said in an interview with KOIN6. “It’s been a long battle.”
“The problem is if you have a system in place and they have done something for a long time, and you say that’s wrong, it’s pretty hard for someone within that system then to admit they have done something wrong for such a long time.”
ITE plans to release a more detailed report in the weeks to come with its updated recommendations.
The guidelines are voluntary and municipalities aren’t obligated to follow them, but it’s suspected many localities around the world will.
Mats says his next step is to work toward a national standard that will help keep drivers and pedestrians safe.
“I wish that the federal government will issue a uniform standard across the United States, and I am working towards an international standard, which makes it easier for us drivers to know how to behave when we encounter a yellow traffic signal anywhere in the world,” he told Motherboard.