Engineering and yellow lights

Did you see this story in the New York Times over the weekend? Or this story at Motherboard a week ago? They’re both about Mats Järlström, a resident of Beaverton, Oregon who became deeply invested in studying the timing of traffic lights after his wife got a ticket for running a red light in 2013. He was fined $500 a few months ago by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering & Land Surveying and is now suing the Board for violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Both articles present the Board’s action as bureaucratic overreach, and there was certainly some of that, but they don’t explore the Järlström’s motivations, which I think are more interesting.

You should read both articles, but the gist of the story is that Järlström came to the conclusion that yellow lights were too short and were a risk to the public. He sued the City of Beaverton, but the case was thrown out because he lacked standing to sue. He then wrote an email to the Board about his study and referred to himself as an engineer. They wrote back telling him they have no jurisdiction over traffic lights and advised him to lay off presenting himself as an engineer because he isn’t licensed. He replied, once again calling himself an engineer, and they responded with the fine.

When I read the Motherboard article, my first thought was that Järlström was deliberately baiting the Board in order to get fined and give him reason for suing. After all, anyone who knows anything about state engineering licensing boards knows they have nothing to do with traffic but everything to do with enforcing the state’s laws on the practice of engineering. Every state I’m familiar with is very particular about unlicensed people suggesting through words or deeds that they’re practicing engineering, and apparently Oregon is no exception.

After reading the source documents (correspondence and Board rulings) included in the Motherboard article, I had second thoughts. Maybe Järlström was just a doofus who didn’t know he was waving a red flag in front of a bull. The source documents support both views, baiting and doofus.

In Järlström’s initial email, he said that two Beaverton transportation engineers were misreading the Oregon Vehicle Code and putting the public at risk by “misapplying engineering practices.” So that sounds like he understands very well what the Board does, and he’s dropping a dime on the Beaverton engineers. But there’s this bizarre coda to his message:

If you are looking for a Board member I might be interested since I’m already doing this kind of work and it would be nice to get paid. My Swedish engineering degree is in electronics and I’m an expert in motional feedback (displacement, velocity and acceleration feedback) of powered speakers which includes the full understanding of motion of an object such as a loudspeaker cone (or a vehicle stopping or traveling through an intersection as in ORS811.260(4)).

Which definitely supports the doofus theory.

The Board wrote back, telling Järlström that it had no jurisdiction over the Vehicle Code but wanted more information about the two transportation engineers. That’s in keeping with the Board’s jurisdiction over those who violate Oregon’s statutes regarding the practice of engineering. They also gave him this pointed hint:

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” are examples where the definitions of engineering under ORS 672.007(1)(a) create violations under ORS 672.020(1) and ORS 672.045(2). You should stop any further references until you become registered with the Board.

Järlström didn’t take the hint and began presenting himself as an engineer to news outlets and in further correspondence with the Board, saying “you should understand why I am exempt from needing to be a licensed Professional Engineer, PE in the State of Oregon and why I can call myself an ‘Engineer.’” This seems like strong evidence for baiting, although I suppose you could make a case for “massive, massive doofus.”

The Times article included this nugget in support of baiting: Järlström’s lawsuit is being driven by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian outfit that styles itself as “the National Law Firm for Liberty.” It’s a sad state of affairs that I find myself suspicious whenever I see the words justice and liberty being self-applied to a privately funded organization.

Järlström had an opportunity to dispute the fine at a hearing, but he didn’t appear and paid the fine in full. Was he already in contact with the Institute, preparing his lawsuit? With a strong defense at his hearing, he might have avoided the fine, but then he wouldn’t have standing for his lawsuit, would he?

This backstory on Järlström’s motivations wasn’t explored by Motherboard or the Times, as they preferred to put their efforts into writing clever headlines. Motherboard’s was “Man Fined $500 for Crime of Writing ‘I Am An Engineer’ in an Email to the Government.”1 The Times went with “Yellow-Light Crusader Fined for Doing Math Without a License.” Funny.

Here’s the thing: the licensing of engineers who do work that affects the public is a social good.2 I suspect, though, that the Institute for Justice doesn’t believe that. To them minimum standards of competence are “barriers to entrepreneurship,” entrepreneurship—economic liberty—being the highest social good in the Institute’s eyes.

So if Järlström and the Institute win the lawsuit, will Oregon’s statutes concerning engineering licensure be slightly adjusted to permit more use of the word engineer or will they be gutted? I wouldn’t mind the former—Järlström’s casual use of the word wasn’t the same as if his business was called “Järlström Engineering”—but I worry about the latter. Unfettered entrepreneurship has never been good for public safety.3

  1. In Motherboard’s defense, their inclusion of the source documents allowed careful readers to get more out of the story than they would reading Motherboard’s words alone. 

  2. It’s not a panacea—there are no panaceas—but it does enforce a baseline of competence in those who design our factories, roads, bridges, and buildings. 

  3. Yes, I am a licensed engineer, which means I’m dedicated to the guild and spend much of my time squelching competition through regulation and preventing others from jumping on the engineering gravy train. Full disclosure.