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Oregon Engineer Makes History With New Traffic Light Timing Formula

Mats Järlström was fined $500 for criticizing the timing of traffic lights. He sued, won, and now his formula will help traffic engineers around the world

Today, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) formally announced that it voted to adopt a new formula for determining the timing of traffic lights. The vote vindicates the theory of Mats Järlström, who was fined $500 by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for publicly criticizing traffic light timing without first obtaining a professional engineering license.

The ITE’s vote updates a 55-year-old equation with Mats’s formula, which takes into account the time drivers need to slow down when making a turn in an intersection.

The vote could have wide-ranging, international ramifications by giving drivers a little more time to get through intersections (and in some cases, avoid frustrating red light tickets).

“It didn’t take an engineering license to realize that the formula for traffic light timing was flawed,” said Järlström. “I’m just glad that the ITE and the professional engineering community were willing to listen to an outsider, consider my work, and finally update their formula.”

Järlström continued: “We will never know how many Americans have received red light tickets for making perfectly safe right-hand turns. Hopefully this change will give everyone a little more time to get through an intersection safely.”

Convincing the ITE to update its 55-year-old formula was an uphill battle. It started in 2013, when Mats’s wife received a red light camera ticket, which sparked Mats’s interest in how exactly yellow lights are timed. Mats, who is an electrical engineer by training, looked up the formula used to time traffic lights and realized it didn’t take into account that drivers making turns need to slow down to safely navigate the intersection. Mats then set to work reworking the formula to account for right-hand turns.

Mats’s work was generally met with interest, but when he e-mailed the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying, things took an abrupt illegal U-turn. The Board told Mats it had no interest in hearing about his ideas. Fair enough. But the Board didn’t stop there. After a two-year investigation, it fined him $500 for publicly criticizing the timing of traffic lights without having a Professional Engineer license. The Board also forbid him from continuing to discuss his research.

With the Institute for Justice beside him, Mats fought back. In a First Amendment lawsuit against the Board, he argued that, no matter how technical the topic, the government cannot give state-licensed experts a monopoly on exchanging ideas. He also challenged Oregon’s ban on people truthfully calling themselves “engineers.” In December 2018, the federal court ruled almost entirely in Mats’s favor.

With that injunction in place, Mats continued to research, write and talk about his theory that yellow lights are too short for drivers to safely make turns through an intersection (and avoid getting red light camera tickets). This year, Mats teamed up with a group of drivers advocates, engineers, and others to formally challenge the ITE’s guidance. This summer, the ITE agreed to convene an expert panel where Mats and others testified. The panel found that the current equation for yellow light timing should be reconsidered and as of today, the Institute has voted to recommend Mats’s formula as a recommended practice.

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to speak regardless of whether they are right or wrong,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented Mats. “But in Mats’s case, the ITE committee’s decision suggests that he not only has a right to speak, but also, that he was right all along.”

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