As It Happens

'I felt violated,' says U.S. man fined $500 for talking about traffic lights

An Oregon man has launched a civil rights lawsuit after he got hit with a $500 fine for promoting his research about traffic lights without a state engineering license.
Mats Jarlstrom was fined $500 for billing himself as an engineer while promoting his research on traffic lights. (Institute For Justice)

Read Story Transcript

An Oregon man has launched a civil rights lawsuit after he got slapped with a $500 fine for speaking about his research on traffic lights.

After his wife got a ticket from an automated traffic camera in Beaverton, Ore., Mats Jarlstrom decided to investigate how traffic lights are timed.

Jarlstrom — who has a bachelor's degree in electronics engineering in Sweden, where he was born —  concluded that yellow lights should last longer to give people enough time to make right turns.

He came to that conclusion after reaching out to the people who wrote the original 1959 formula used to time traffic lights and learned it only accounts for people driving straight through an intersection. 

They are actually hampering my right to speak.- Mats Jarlstrom

But when he started to discuss his new, modified traffic formula with public officials and the media, the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying launched a two-year investigation into his activities and fined him $500 US for practising engineering without a state licence.

"I was shocked. I felt violated, not only for being fined for that, but also for stating who I am," Jarlstrom told As It Happens host Carol Off.

He said he was punished for "talking freely about language, universal language, which is mathematics and physics."

Mats Jarlstrom looked at the data behind traffic light signals and concluded that yellow lights should last longer to accommodate cars making right turns. (Institute For Justice )

The board declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation. 

In its notice of civil penalty, the board cites numerous emails Jarlstrom wrote to the board, the local government and the media in which he described himself as an engineer.

Jarlstrom stands by that assertion. He  studied engineering in school and worked as an electronics engineer in Sweden, where the profession does not require licensing and registration. 

He is not licensed to practice engineering in Oregon, where he works as as a self-employed consultant testing audio products.

"In Sweden, I am definitely an electronics engineer. I have been working as such for over 30 years. So I am not misrepresenting myself at all," Jalstrom said. 

In Canada it is similarly illegal to practise engineering or call yourself an engineer without a provincial or territorial licence

Who can publicly discuss traffic light design? In Oregon, only licensed and registered engineers. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With the help of the libertarian Institute for Justice, Jalstrom fired back with a lawsuit alleging his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

"The government does not have the power to take speech that is objectively true, declare it false, and then punish speakers who—wittingly or unwittingly— deviate from the government's idiosyncratic definition," the lawsuit reads.

Jalstrom's case is one of many ongoing battles in the U.S. between individuals and licensing boards clamping down on people working outside the system. According to the New York Times,  30 per cent of the U.S. work force needs a license to work, up from about 10 per cent in the 1970.

As It Happens earlier this year profiled a Tennessee woman who faced jail time for massaging horses without a veterinary licence — something she called "an extreme case of government overreaching."

For Jalstrom — who wants to have his work peer-reviewed and published —  it's a matter of free speech. 

"They are actually hampering my right to speak today. I can get fined, I can even get jail time here in Beaverton, for addressing these issues," he said. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?