This is a story that I heard about last year and is another example of red tape and civil servants getting in the way of someone who is trying to make an improvement to everyones lives – and reducing discretionary revenue from Government coffers at the same time.
The story centres on the length of the yellow light on a traffic light pole. In some countries they are quite long – certainly I’ve noticed a difference in length between the UK and Sydney with the Sydney lights remaining on for much longer, allowing a car to complete a manoeuvre. It seems that in Oregon in the US, where the story originates from, the length was considered too short by one driver.
Laurie Jarlstrom was driving in her home town of Beaverton in Oregon and completing a lawful right hand turn, when the traffic lights turned to red as she completed the manoeuvre. The camera triggered and she was sent a fine of $260 for running a red. Her husband, Mats, disputed the fine.
He did a load of analysis and research and concluded that the light system used did not accomodate enough time for a vehicle to leave the junction after the yellow changed to red – in fact he worked it out to be 12 one-thousandths of a second to short.
He went to City Hall and suggested that they adjust the timings. They told hime to leave – presumably because they knew that they were making good revenue from fines and also that they didn’t want to spend the money to make the change to all the traffic lights in the city. Jarlstrom had discovered many drivers had been fined at the same junction for doing what his wife had done – legally complete a manoeuvre. He found records of 25,000 fines being issued in the two years leading up to his wife’s ticket – if the fine was always $260, that’s $6.5M!
With repeated rejections by the City Hall, he ratcheted up the momentum by launching a federal lawsuit against the city claiming that they were endangering lives by not making the changes that he had designed to improve the timing of the lights. A judge threw it out citing that the court was not convinced of his argument around safety.
City Hall then had a go, fining Jarlstrom $500 for the offence of “unlicenced practice of engineering” brought on they say by Jarlstrom saying he was an engineer in some emails to the Oregon State Board of Examiner and Engineers.
Jarlstrom retaliated to that with a civil suit against the Board that charged that his Freedom of Speech as per the First Amendment was violated. He had been talking publicly about the need to lengthen the timings of the lights and how to accomplish it.
Jarlstrom, is in fact, an electrical engineer with qualifications in his native Sweden to prove it – and a career designing audio equipment. He is not a “professional engineer” under Oregon’s description of what an engineer is!
In December, the courts found that the Oregon State Board of Examiners and Engineers had indeed violated Jarlstrom’s freedom of speech. In preparing for this case, Jarlstrom and his lawyers found many other cases where people had been fined for commenting on engineering issues in the State. They are now campaigning to have the State’s “narrow interpretation” (the judge’s words) of what an engineer is, expanded to prevent further fines being levied. As expected, the State is pushing back – they do not want to reduce their income from not being able to fine their citizens.