How an Oregon man’s fight for traffic camera fairness reached a federal court

Mats Jarlstrom
Mats Jarlstrom

Mats Järlström didn’t set out to argue a freedom of speech case in front of a federal judge, but it looks like that’s where he’s headed. His case matters because he’s trying to protect everyone from unfair ticketing by predatory red light camera corporations.

The story started when Järlström’s wife received a red light violation ticket in the mail. The ticket said that she ran a red light near the couple’s home in Beaverton, Oregon. Neither she nor Mats disputes what happened, and they paid the ticket. But the incident got Mats thinking about how traffic lights work and how red light tickets are issued.

“These inconsistencies are hampering public safety and civil rights.”

“There’s no law in Oregon or at the federal level that says what the yellow light [times] must be,” Järlström told Digital Trends. “There’s no consistent timing policy in the whole country, and these inconsistencies are hampering public safety and civil rights, in my opinion.”

Once he started digging, Järlström found there’s a science behind calculating how long a yellow light should last for any given intersection. Traffic engineers developed the initial formula in the late 1950s.

To make a long series of equations short, the length of a yellow light is determined by the speed limit on the road. If you’re driving the speed limit, the yellow light time is roughly the amount of time it will take most drivers to make a decision to stop or go through, plus the time it will take those drivers to stop from the posted speed limit.

Why use red light cameras?

Red light cameras are a politician’s dream. No one likes people who run red lights. It’s dangerous when someone blows through a light, and it violates basic fairness when a chain of cars runs through an intersection after their light turns red, stealing others’ green light time. So municipal officials get to make a big show of cracking down on violators.

red light cameras header
GLJones/Getty Images
GLJones/Getty Images

Plus the robot nature of the camera means the city doesn’t have to pay a police officer to stand out on the street corner writing tickets. The camera can record dozens of violations in an hour, which means more ticket revenue coming in. Insurance companies like the cameras because issuing more tickets means motorists paying higher premiums.

The companies that operate red light camera systems take a big chunk of the revenue, too. The red light companies have been working with municipalities to expand their reach by any means possible. Redflex, the Australian company that sent the Järlströms their ticket, received a $20 million penalty in 2017 for bribing elected officials in Chicago to install their systems.

Pointing out a simple problem

As Järlström looked into the red light camera situation in his hometown, he noticed the yellow light times had been shortened to the bare minimum for the roads they were monitoring, and sometimes were even a little short of the times required by state regulations. However, the city traffic judges had ruled that the light times were within legal limits, so there wasn’t much to be done except elect new politicians.

The yellow light times had been shortened to the bare minimum for the roads they were monitoring.

“You have this perverse interaction between profit and safety and they obviously counteract each other,” Järlström insisted. “I’m fighting this with science and I think I will pull it off.”

Järlström also noticed the formula for calculating yellow light times was developed for cars driving straight through an intersection, but if you have a right-turn lane controlled by the same light, there was not enough time allowed for a car that is already slowing to make the right turn before getting caught by the light and the camera.

“When you’re making a turn you need to slow down before you enter the intersection, and that’s not accounted for today in the red light cameras,” Järlström explained.

Statistics bear out Järlström’s observation. The number of right-turn violations resulting in tickets in his hometown is about 10 times the number of tickets for straight-through violations.

Institute for Justice

“I want to get this information out to the public because people are getting caught in this dilemma,” Järlström said. “You know, the $260 citation given out is not everything. It also hits the insurance premiums for three years for some people.”

No good deed goes unpunished

Järlström is an electrical engineer by training, so he double-checked his math and wrote up an analysis with a simple suggestion: Take the right-turn scenario into account when setting yellow light times. Then he sent his suggestion and supporting work to the State of Oregon’s Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying.

He never imagined what happened next.

“They wanted to shut me up. That’s the bottom line.”

Instead of looking into the issues Järlström raised, the state board began investigating the man personally, and then issued him a $500 fine for “practicing engineering without a license.” The same board had previously fined many other people under the same regulation. They had even fined a candidate for city council and a candidate for governor of Oregon for using the word “engineer” in their campaign statements.

“They wanted to shut me up. That’s the bottom line,” Järlström said.

Fighting back

Initially, Järlström paid the state’s fine, but the injustice didn’t sit well with him. He ended up contacting The Institute for Justice, a non-profit law firm based in Washington D.C. that specializes in first amendment cases. They took his case on a pro bono basis, and sued the state of Oregon.

When the case arrived on the state attorney general’s desk, the government lawyers did the only thing that makes sense: they pre-emptively surrendered, returned the money, and apologized to Järlström.

“We have admitted to violating Mr. Järlström’s rights,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Christina L. Beatty-Walters stated in court.

red light cameras Mats Jarlstrom
Institute for Justice
Institute for Justice

But the situation still wasn’t quite right. The state’s offer was to reverse the fine and rescind the allegations against Järlström, but the judgment would apply only to his case, leaving the board free to pursue the same tactics against others in the future.

“We have a chance to change the law for all Oregonians,” Järlström said. “I feel this is the right thing to do because the board is censoring individuals’ free speech.”

As a result, Järlström and his attorneys are taking his case forward.

“You don’t need a permission slip to criticize the government.”

“You don’t need a permission slip to criticize the government,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Wesley Hottot, who represents Järlström. “This board, and licensing boards across the country, think the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them. They couldn’t be more wrong.”

On December 14, Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, denied the state’s request to close Järlström’s case. The lawsuit will proceed to trial in federal court.

In the midst of all the legal battling, Järlström’s work has been noticed by people who can help make real changes.

“I had an opportunity last year to do a presentation before the Institute for Transportation Engineers,” Järlström revealed. “They were jumping up and down after that meeting to embrace what I presented.”

Now that he’s been heard, the result of Järlström’s persistence could well be a change in the way traffic engineers calculate yellow light times across America, sparing thousands of drivers from unfair traffic citations annually. That’s something to cheer about.