Man Finds Most Traffic Lights Work Using Rule From 1959, Gets Fined

Traffic lights are an apparently simple thing, which can make or break your commute.
Traffic light in intersection 6 photos
Photo: Tim Gouw on
Calculations on the optimal duration of the yellow light on a traffic lightNew traffic light figures for pedestrians in Victoria, Australia (a temporary trial)New traffic light figures for pedestrians in Victoria, Australia (a temporary trial)New traffic light figures for pedestrians in Victoria, Australia (a temporary trial)New traffic light figures for pedestrians in Victoria, Australia (a temporary trial)
In the worst case possible, a traffic light may fail as you are entering the intersection where it is operational, and you end up in a crash caused by a defective light. The described instance is exceedingly rare, while running red lights is not that uncommon in the real world.

Some local administrations have been accused of using red light fines as a cash cow that never stops working, especially since the times on the lamps can be adjusted.

A recent article on Vice presented a curious case that focuses on a Swedish man who moved to the United States of America two decades ago.

His wife got a ticket for running a red light in 2013, which made Mr. Jarlstrom curious about how things work with American traffic lights. He is an electronics engineer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. About a year of research led him to discover that all traffic lights in most countries operated under a law from 1959.

He figured out that the situation is not longer applicable to modern standards, and the system is possibly exploited to gain revenue. Instead of criticizing the state of Oregon, the Swede wrote an e-mail to the state’s engineering board. He told them that the yellow on the state’s traffic lights does not last as long as it should, and that people are at risk.

Mats Jarlstrom claims that his wife was fined because she spent too much time in the intersection while waiting to make a left turn. The latter cannot be done until drivers from oncoming traffic pass, which takes some time. That amount of time was too short for a safe turn, which led to red light fines for many drivers.

The most concerning fact about his discovery is that the paper written in 1959, currently used to determine the timing of the duration of yellow on a traffic light, is employed in many countries across the world. Needless to say, it is not an ideal situation.

In an ironic twist of events, Mr. Jarlstrom was fined by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for his use of the title “engineer” without having a registration with the OSBEELS. His violation of the Oregon Revised Statute brought him a $500 fine, which he showed everyone in the media interested in the topic.

Jarlstrom worked in his time, for free, and hopes that he will make a difference. The last surviving member of the authors of the original paper from 1959 pledged his support for the Swedish engineer.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
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Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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