What started out as one man's personal investigation into how long traffic lights should take to change has turned into a debate about what it means to “practice engineering”, and whether scientific research should be reserved for professionals.
Mats Jalstrom's wife was fined for running a red light when turning right. Jalstrom thought the problem might have been that the light wasn't yellow long enough to allow her to clear the junction. He investigated and found that traffic lights use a formula created in the 1950s to determine how long they should be yellow.
Jalstrom thought there was a flaw, however, He noted that cars slow down to turn, forcing them to spend more time in the intersection, and he started lobbying for a change to a different formula that he invented.
What seemed like a perfectly normal case of a citizen seeing something they consider to be a problem and working to fix it, shifted when Jalstrom contacted the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying (OSBEELS) to try to get the formula changed. OSBEELS eventually fined him $500 for practicing engineering without a license, which he's now challenging.
Engineers need to be registered in many places, Oregon included, to prevent someone who isn't qualified signing off on an unsafe building or tool. Jalstrom, however, argues that he wasn't charging money or making anything that could be dangerous, just doing some lobbying as a private citizen. His legal team describe what happened as Jalstrom being fined “for having the audacity to practice math in public view.”
Much of OSBEEL's judgment makes the case against Jalstrom one of false representation, pointing to the fact he described himself as an engineer in his letters, based on his degree in electrical engineering from his native Sweden. OSBEEL previously warned two election candidates for calling themselves engineers. Both hold degrees in the field, but were unregistered in Oregon.
However, the Institute for Justice, who are defending Jalstrom pro-bono, see this as a far wider attack on freedom of speech. “Even if he never said he is an engineer... he would still have been sanctioned,” Institute for Justice's Director of Communications Justin Wilson told IFLScience. OSBEEL's statement refers to Jalstrom having “applied special knowledge of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences” as part of his allegedly having “engaged in traffic engineering.”
Hyperbolically, the Institute compared the case in a media release to Galileo's.
IFLScience asked OSBEELS for their side of the case, but they said: “At this time we are not providing comment on the current open litigations.”
It's frustrating when people claim to have “done the research” on the safety of vaccines or the existence of climate change after a couple of hours reading websites, and false claims of qualifications need to be prevented, but surely it is also important for citizens to be able to "apply special knowledge" when they think they see a problem.