America needs a hero, and though Mats Järlström hails from Sweden, he might be it. He won’t reverse climate change or close the wealth gap, but he may help unmake another injustice: that of the ticket-slinging red light camera.
Järlström waded into this fight in May 2013, when authorities ticketed his wife, Laurie, after a camera recorded her turning through a red light in Beaverton, Oregon, where they live. Järlström, who earned a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden’s Ebersteinska gymnasium in 1980, but now works on audio products, saw more than an annoyance. He saw a math problem, one that might reveal whether the traffic signal gave his wife enough time to safely stop before the light turned from yellow to red.
He claims it did not, that Laurie didn’t deserve the ticket, and that Beaverton didn’t deserve her money. If correct, his argument calls into question at least some of the red light cameras monitoring intersections nationwide, because the same flawed traffic signal timing that caught Laurie Järlström could be trapping others, and handing out unfair tickets as a result.
Järlström isn’t the only one who says the equation is flawed. “This formula, which we derived, cannot be applied to turning lanes or to any situation where the driver must decelerate within the critical distance,” Alexei Maradudin, the only surviving physicist of the three who created it, wrote in a 2015 letter to the ITE.
After Laurie Järlström received her ticket for running a light back in 2013, her husband recorded a video of the traffic signal in question and analyzed it frame-by-frame, stopwatch in hand. He discovered, first, that the yellow signal was 0.3 seconds shorter than Beaverton authorities claimed it to be. But he also found the same formula flaws Maradudin suggested—that a driver in the turning lane who hits a yellow might not have enough time to notice, react, and navigate safely out the intersection before the light turns red. They’re stuck in the dilemma zone, he alleges, with no good options.
Järlström emailed this information to Oregon’s Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying in 2014, and that’s when things got ugly. According to a lawsuit Järlström filed last week, the board responded by opening an investigation into the Beaverton resident. He had improperly identified himself as an “engineer’ when he has no license to practice in Oregon, the board said, and fined him $500 in 2016 after a two-year investigation. This infringes on his first amendment rights, Järlström says. “I want to be able to describe myself as who I am, to be able to talk about myself freely,” he says.
None of that speaks to the validity of his findings, of course. According to Hesham Rakha, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute engineer, Järlström’s works makes some assumptions about human behavior. But he and other researchers have found similar flaws in the recommended traffic light timing.
In a 2012 study, Rakha’s research team found that drivers who hit yellow lights designed according to that ITE formula will be trapped in that pesky dilemma zone as much as 15 percent of the time. The team has also found the current signal timing formula doesn’t sufficiently account for longer vehicles like trucks and buses, or for very wet weather. “Based on our study, there are people getting tickets for the wrong reasons,” Rakha says. “They were in the dilemma zone. They had no choice.”