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Citizen engineers, beware the Beaver State. If you want to discuss engineering in a public setting, you’d better have a license. If you don’t, you could end up like Oregon resident Mats Järlström — paying a $500 fine and being threatened with even larger civil penalties and jail time.
The story of how Järlström became ensnared in this unfortunate series of events begins innocently enough, and it’s a story that any Hackaday reader can probably relate to. After his wife received a traffic ticket in the mail from a red-light camera in the town of Beaverton, Järlström began pondering the math of traffic signal timing. After a little digging, he found the formula used for calculating the time traffic signals stay in the yellow stage. Moreover, he found a flaw in the formula, which dates back to 1959, that could lead to incorrect violations issued by automated traffic cameras.
Järlström began communicating his findings far and wide, as any of us might do in an attempt to right an injustice. But the first rule of engineering in Oregon is apparently not to talk about engineering in Oregon if you’re not a licensed professional engineer (PE), which Järlström is not. With a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from his native Sweden, the twenty-year resident of Oregon is not qualified to practice engineering in that state, at least by the lights of the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. We’ve looked at unlicensed engineering issues before and it’s interesting now to take a look at an example in practice.
That Board got wind of Järlström’s nefarious unlicensed engineering activities through a pretty direct route: he told them about it. He asked the Board to look into the traffic engineering practices in Beaverton, insisting that the city engineers were misusing traffic light timing formulas. They responded with a request that he stop practicing engineering without a license, and to stop referring to himself as an engineer without proper accreditation, lest fines and other actions be taken.
Although Järlström agreed to comply with the Board’s request, he continued to press the issue, this time on a much larger stage. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, local TV news, and even 60 Minutes were all contacted with his findings. At that point, the Board swept in with a criminal investigation and issued the $500 fine, which Järlström paid.