Many of you have asked me to comment on the case of Mats Järlström, an electrical engineer living in Beaverton, Oregon who was recently fined $500 by the state licensing board for calling himself an engineer (he actually is an engineer, just not a civil engineer) and for providing a critique of the timing of yellow lights in an antiquated signalized intersection. I’m not sure what to add to the conversation Järlström’s legal team is brilliantly putting forth.

This is similar to my case from a couple of years ago ("Can you be an engineer and speak out for reform?") but also different is some important ways. The attempt to silence me was to threaten my license, something worth far more than $500. As a licensed engineer in the state of Minnesota, I’m bound by the following from Minnesota Rules 1805.0200:

A licensee shall avoid any act which may diminish public confidence in the profession and shall, at all times, conduct himself or herself, in all relations with clients and the public, so as to maintain its reputation for professional integrity.

The allegation against me was that my writings here for Strong Towns diminished public confidence in the profession and, in doing so, undermined the reputation for professional integrity engineers (should) benefit from.

At the time, several lawyers stepped forward and offered to assist me – some generous pro bono offers that should give the public some faith in the legal profession – should the case move forward. Their arguments would have been on first amendment grounds: holding a license does not mean I relinquish my right to speak my opinions, especially when those opinions don’t slander any individual.

I was always careful in the early days, when I was still running my own planning firm and Strong Towns was just my personal blog, not to discuss projects I had any financial interest in or even a relationship with anyone who did.

The ethics of the profession do suggest that an engineer not be critical of the work of another engineer as a basis for undermining their credibility with their client (and thus stealing their work). I’ve been critical of many an engineering project, organization and industry-accepted approach, but I’ve never even approached those kinds of ethical lines. Today I don’t do any consulting so it’s not an issue.

My work here has been more along the lines of whistleblower and, in a non-legal sense, expert witness for the public. I’m a firm believer in rhetorical sunshine being the greatest force for boosting confidence in nearly every undertaking, especially public policy. My actions in questioning standard engineering practice are wholly consistent with Minnesota Rule 1805.0200, as uncomfortable as that may make some of my colleagues.

None of this applies to Järlström, which for me makes his case as embarrassing as it is bizarre. Let’s review some of the facts.

  1. He stated he is an engineer, which is a true statement. He didn’t say he was an Engineer, a licensed engineer or a Professional Engineer (PE). How can someone be fined for making a true statement about their own credentials?
  2. He didn’t sign any plans. Credentialing should never be about who is able to speak – who is able to have an idea – but about who is ultimately responsible. We require engineers to sign certain documents indicating that they are competent to make a decision where a certain level of competence is required. Don’t we want anyone with a good idea to come forward?
  3. His analysis was correct. He correctly identified a flaw in how yellow lights were being timed – one that created a safety problem (but a revenue enhancement where red light cameras were used) – and brought that forward, data included. He even used his data to suggest a simple solution. This guy is a hero.

I suggest this is embarrassing for a couple of reasons. First, there is such groupthink within the engineering profession and we place such a high value on not questioning conventional wisdom that an error like this could persist for decades. Once again, this demonstrates my fundamental frustration with my profession; instead of actually practicing engineering – providing unique solutions to complicated problems – the practice is far too often merely the dogmatic application of rote standards.

What does it say about these people that their reaction is to fine someone who brings important information to their attention?

Maybe it’s because of liability law (blame the lawyers) or maybe it’s because engineers are conservative by nature. Either way, there is no internal ethic of systematically questioning standard approaches as we see in other professions such as medicine. It’s embarrassing that an outsider had to point out this flaw. There are many others awaiting sunshine.

More importantly, however, this is embarrassing because of the reaction. The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying is made up of engineering professionals. These are my colleagues, albeit in a different state. What does it say about these people that their reaction is to fine someone who brings important information to their attention?

I don’t know the answer to that. It could mean that they’re so myopically bureaucratic that they saw this case on the docket and, instead of digging into it, tried to settle it for what they felt was a slap on the wrist. If that’s the case – and I hope it is because it’s better than the alternatives – I’m thankful they ran into Järlström, a seemingly affable and intelligent do-gooder. The contrast between the two sides in this case should be a wakeup call to the comfortable on that licensing board: You’re there trying to uphold the credibility of the profession and, clearly, you’re not doing your job.

The other alternatives are far more nefarious and have been floated as conspiracy theories by those now (rightfully) questioning the credibility (and ethics) of the engineering profession. Is the state trying to hush critiques of red light cameras because they want the revenue, safety be damned? Are the engineers trying to silence Järlström because they fear liability for all the dangerously designed intersections? Is the licensing board trying to make an example out of anyone who dare question them?

I don’t think any of these alternate theories are plausible, but I’m kind of an insider here. I don’t blame those who are not from being conspiratorial, especially for behavior by the licensing board that is bizarre.

While my case and Järlström’s are different, the way to avoid their repeat is the same. Engineers need forums for open dialogue and critique. Where this happens at all today, it is behind closed doors or in closed chat rooms where sharing comments (copy/paste/email) is a violation of policy. These must be opened up.

Civil engineers need to adopt introspective practices like the medical profession. When there is a traffic incident, especially a fatality, we need to perform an after-action review that doesn’t just blame the victim but instead, asks hard questions about how the design influenced the outcome.

Civil engineers need to adopt introspective practices like the medical profession. When there is a traffic incident, especially a fatality, we need to perform an after-action review that doesn’t just blame the victim but instead, asks hard questions about how the design influenced the outcome. This is so glaringly obvious – tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year – yet nothing.

There needs to be an expectation that engineers actually do the work of engineering – we should be defending that – instead of hiding behind industry standards that, while they collectively protect us from liability, are dangerous and unethical.

Our engineering societies need to stop being lobbyists for more money for the profession and instead couch their analysis and recommendations in the reverse. Instead of, “Here’s how much more money we need” we must start saying, “Here’s what we can do with the money we have.” That’s a more dignified and ethical conversation, one that encapsulates the notion of a tradeoff, the central hallmark of why we need engineers.

Finally, state licensing boards should be limited to enforcing the requirement of licensure when state law requires the review or approval of a licensed professional. It’s not in the public’s interest – and therefore it should not be in the state’s interest – for such boards to act as guilds with police powers.

What an embarrassing mess.

(Top photo from Wikimedia.)


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