Don't Question Yellow Lights in Oregon

Mats Jarsltom has a degree in electrical engineering from a Swedish university.  He lives in Oregon.  His troubles started when his wife was issued a ticket for running a red light when she was making a right hand turn.  Apparently, according to Mrs. Jarsltom, the light was yellow.  Being an electrical engineer, this piqued the interest of Mats.  He wanted to know exactly how yellow lights were timed.

So, he did what any good engineer would do and he researched the phenomena of the yellow light on that great tool of all scientists- Google.  Lo and behold, he found the formula used to time yellow lights.  It would appear that the formula is a simple algorithm developed in 1959.  And we all know that traffic patterns today are similar to those in 1959, right?  However, Mats discovered- much to his surprise- that the actual formula from 1959 was incomplete because it failed to capture a driver’s behavior when making right hand turns.

Mats did the next best thing; he modified the formula to take into account driver behavior when making right hand turns.  He even managed to locate, reach out to and correspond with the people who devised the original algorithm who, admittedly, noted the error of their ways.  Mats reached out to others in the scientific community and the media.  Unfortunately, he made a fatal mistake- he reached out to government officials.

His work was generally met with both interest and praise among those he reached out to…all except the government of Oregon.  In fact, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineers and Land Surveyors (yes…there is such an entity) had no interest in listening to or reading any of Mats’ ideas.  Instead, they decided to investigate Mats and let the case linger for about 18 months.  Note: Mats was never informed of any investigation.

That investigation came back with an astounding finding when they determined that Mats had engaged in the unlicensed “practice of engineering.”  To add insult to injury, they fined him $500 for this transgression.  He received the penalty notice which explained what he had done wrong.

The Board determined that he illegally practiced engineering without a license each and every time he critiqued the traffic light problems and that even reaching out to the original person who devised the algorithm was an illegal act as was his correspondence with the media.  It should be noted at this point that they did not necessarily disagree with Mats, only that they did not want to hear it from Mats because he did not have the vaunted Oregon engineering license.

The Board further said that the word “engineer” was off-limits to people like Mats.  He could not talk about technical problems (even though he was correct), but he could not even use the word engineer despite his degree in engineering from a university in Sweden.  That is, Mats was an engineer but simply lacked the certification from the state of Oregon.

Usually laws that target words that people use to describe themselves target fraud or false commercial advertising.  But, Mats was neither a fraud, nor was he engaged in false advertisement.  According to the Board, Mats broke the law when he told a local television station that he was “a Swedish engineer” (he WAS).  When Mats questioned the Board, in a fitting piece of Orwellian logic, they declared that even disagreeing with them constituted a violation of the law.

While one can understand in certain cases the state of Oregon wanting to regulate in some areas, this seems a little draconian.  One does not want someone calling themselves a doctor if they are not licensed in the state to practice medicine.  But, this smacks of a pure money-making effort on the part of Oregon.  For Mats to officially claim the title of “engineer” in the state- despite his work experience and degree in electrical engineering from a university in Sweden- he must take a series of tests costing almost $1,000.

However, there is a world of difference between someone who makes sure skyscrapers and airplanes are structurally safe and someone who expresses an opinion about a traffic light.  But Oregon doesn’t.  They lump them all under one category and fine you if you violate these strictures.  Ironically, the Oregon Professional Engineer Registration Act restricts and punishes people for civic protest, political speech, or questioning the timing of a yellow light.

No matter how technical the topic, the state cannot give state-licensed “experts” a monopoly on the conversation or the exchange of ideas.  Mats is in no way claiming the right to change the timing of traffic lights.  He simply started a conversation about them and wants to continue that conversation.  Does or should a state have a monopoly on engineering concepts, or on words?  Can one imagine how a Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison would have been treated in Oregon?  Most of the greatest technological achievements of mankind were the result of people who were not licensed engineers.

The irony in the whole saga is that Mats Jarlstrom is right.  Thankfully, Mats wants his $500 back and suing to do just that.  Let us hope he prevails and that Oregon learns they do not have a monopoly on ideas or words.