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.
There’s much more to this story, including the appeals process that Järlström is going through now. The popular media has picked up the story, to the point where a Google search of “Mats Järlström” brings up nothing but first-page hits on this specific story. But for Hackaday readers, the pressing issue is: could such apparent bureaucratic overreach affect me?
Degree Versus License
Like I pointed out, the analysis that Järlström did was something that any of us might have done. But despite my snarky “Fight Club” reference before, I don’t think his problems began with talking about his findings, which any of us would likely do in one way or another. I think he ran afoul of the system by challenging the Board of Examiners to investigate one of their own.
It’s cliche to joke about rules and limitations placed on the “blue collar” fields by trade unions, snickering at rules that say which apprentice can carry what material across the job site or the like. But don’t fool yourself — the rules that are put in place by august bodies such as the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying are designed to protect the jobs of dues paying members, just like any trade union’s rules.
To a certain extent, that’s a good thing — none of us want ersatz engineers building bridges or wannabe electricians wiring homes. But recall Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy and realize that eventually, the whole point of a bureaucracy becomes protecting itself. In Järlström’s case, his challenge to the Board to investigate the city engineers was an affront to the bureaucracy, and they responded as bureaucrats often do: with a vengeance. Järlström is an engineer by degree but not by license. That distinction is at loggerheads in this affair.
So yes, dear Hackaday readers and fellow citizens scientists and engineers, you too might one day find yourself slapped with a cease and desist order pursuant to your non-accredited activities. Hack carefully, know your limits, and know the legality of how you represent yourself to the public. And above all, when you tug on a tiger’s tail you should have a plan to deal with the teeth.