A call to legalise distance signage in metres on UK roads

Road signs in Britain closely follow international norms as laid out in the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals. Where possible, language-independent symbolic signs are used so as to be as universally understood as possible. (Article contributed by Martin Ward).

Road signs in Wales are bilingual, but, because there is no international symbol for “yard”, simple distance signs have to be spelled out in two languages.

yards and llath

Signs like these would be clearer to everyone if distances were given in metres (using the internationally recognised “m” symbol) e.g. “100 m” instead of “110 yds / 110 llath”.

Britain is the only country in the world that uses yards on road signs – our American cousins show distances in feet. Britain is also the only country not to authorise the use of metres for distance signs on public roads, yet we are all familiar with 100 m races in athletics.

The fact that one metre is approximately equal to one yard is universally understood by the public. The Department for Transport uses this fact when it specifies that temporary road works signs be set up at multiples of 100 metres, yet, because metres are not on the list of authorised units, instructs that the distances be shown as multiples of 100 yards.

Location markers at the sides of motorways and major A-roads have been placed at intervals of 100 metres for decades. Yet, more than 30 years after metres were introduced to road signs in the form of height and width restrictions, the Government has still not taken the simple obvious step of allowing the metre to replace the yard on distance road signs.

Allowing all new and replacement signs, that would have used yards, to show distances in metres instead would cause no confusion and would cost nothing. Indeed, taxpayers money would be saved in Wales where the signs would not need to be so large. Costs will also be saved when the inevitable switchover to completely metric road signs finally arrives, as there will be fewer signs needing to be upgraded.

17 thoughts on “A call to legalise distance signage in metres on UK roads”

  1. This article comes just 48 hours after I drove to Cardiff and back… and the thing that stuck me then was that one of the excuses we get from the anti-metric lobby and the government is that people would get confused by signs showing metric units, but clearly it’s considered ok to have signs in multiple languages! This in itself is a good indication of how intelligent those whom we elect think we are.

    I noticed a long time ago that when roadworks are placed on roads with 100 metre markers that the signs on approach which read “x yards” are usually placed level with the markers. I don’t recall anybody ever complaining about this, so why not just tell the truth and give us distances in metres instead. It’s not as if there’s anything on our speedometers that we can use to measure the distance anyhow so does it really make any difference?


  2. This is another example of the “Very British Mess� that successive governments have caused by failing to come to grips with the metric system. The country is faced with two conflicting laws – The Welsh Language Act of 1993 put Welsh on an equal footing with English within the public sector in Wales. On the other hand, the EU directive on metrication (Directive 80/181/EEC) only permits the symbol “yd� to be used to denote yards. Thus, on the one hand, it seems that the law requires that “yards� be translated into Welsh, yet on the other, it prohibits the translation.

    How do other minority language communities in Europe cope? Two communities come to mind – the Fries community in the Netherlands (my name comes from Friesland) and the Basque community in Spain and in France. The solution is easy – they write “100 mâ€? which is international. Even the Greeks write “100 mâ€? (in Latin script), even though the Greek word for “metreâ€? is “μέτÏ?οâ€?.


  3. Does your MP support metric road signage?
    I was sad to read the views of the MP for Redditch, Inkberrow and Cookhill, Ms Jacqui Smith.

    Her comment: “I do not think that measures like changing road signs to reflect speed limits in kilometres per hour should be a high priority for the government.”


  4. I received a reply from my MP, Mr Edward Leigh, in response to my request that road signs in the UK be converted to metric. His reply was: “I have not seen compelling evidence to suggest that changing road signs to metric would improve highway safety. I am afraid I cannot, therefore, share your view that road signs should be altered to metric.”

    Very sad again, and I wonder what the real agenda is when so many MPs seem to be against the move.


  5. In response to John’s question I would say the main problem is that Mr Leigh (like many others) is looking at the issue in too narrow a context.

    UKMA do not claim that the change-over to the metric system will dramatically improve safety, at least not in a manner that will be immediately obvious.

    We do claim though that it stands to reason that if motorists are having to absorb information in a mixture of incompatible units it is likely to make life more difficult than it need be. Safety implications could well flow from that.

    The case for change is well made on the UKMA web site which involves taking a broader perspective than that shown by Mr Leigh.

    If politicians resolve to make the change based on common sense reasoning then they will have to exercise proper leadership and be prepared to make the case on its merits instead of being driven by the shallow, ill-informed and reactive nonsense such as we got from the media last February, fueled by disinformation about cost published by the DfT.

    The real agenda I’m afraid is populism and the lack of courage to stand up for what is right for Britain.


  6. I grew up educated in metric units but thankfully had a primary school teacher who explained imperial measurements to us as well. Imperial measurements are part of the everyday culture of this country – I see no incongruity whatsoever in using and being allowed to use both systems. I have no problem using imperial measurements and find them much more pleasing to speak than metric units – we should never overlook the power of poetry. What I will not do is allow other people to force me to think differently about the physical world in which I live – if I choose to visualise the world in feet and inches, gallons and miles and write these words into any documents I create then it is my business and not anyone else’s. Live and let live. I am quite happy to say that my old bike is 500cc, has a 29 inch seat height and does 75 miles per gallon. Confused? Not really. Just individual.


  7. Chris Alchin may well be quite happy to describe his motorcycle in those terms. However, when his American aquaintance says that his engine is 24 cubic inches, and his Asian aquaintance says that his seat height is 75 cm, and his African aquaintance says that his vehicle consumes 5 litres per 100km, will the conversation have served any real purpose? (Of course Chris will be the only one who has had to use a calculator to compute his miles per gallon figure, as he buys his petrol in litres.)


  8. Chris Alchin’s comment doesn’t really relate to the article he is commenting on, but we let it go because it gives an opportunity to refute a viewpoint which we sometimes come across.

    Anybody brought up in the UK has to cope with two incompatible systems of measurement. Some, like Chris Alchin, may think they cope perfectly well, but many others, including many journalists, struggle to cope. This particularly disadvantages people with minimal education, limited ability to calculate, or poor eyesight. They are vulnerable to being misled and ripped off by unscrupulous traders. Why make it difficult when it would be so much simpler to standardise on a single system?

    Every country needs a system of weights and measures. Nobody needs two systems.

    For further discussion see UKMA’s website at this link


  9. The majority of Britons like the yard and mile. We are used to mph. Why change something that isn’t broken? It doesn’t make sense, seeing as many people object to the kilometre. The UKMA’s absurd idea that the kilometre is known by everyone is absolute rubbish. The UKMA should interview people all around the country, then think about what they are saying.


  10. Tabitha, the article you have commented on is about metres, not kilometres. Having said that, are you really saying that you think people in this country don’t know that a kilometre is 1000 metres?

    “Why change something that isn’t broken?”, you ask. Well, the article tells me that the use of the yard on road signs in Wales is, if not broken, certainly in need of change.


  11. Dave Brown alleges I use a calculator to work out my mpg as I buy my petrol in litres. Poppycock, sir! I buy my petrol in multiples of 4.5 litres (approx 1 imperial gallon) so it’s easy enough to work out. I have also known that 250cc = approx 15 cubic inches since I was a teenager.


  12. I buy my petrol in multiples of 4.5 litres (approx 1 imperial gallon) so it’s easy enough to work out.

    I thought the vast majority of people in Britain bought their petrol in units of pounds sterling


  13. Surely the system IS broken! Everyone under the age of about 40 has been educated in metric. It is ludicrous to begin the changeover and give up halfway through!

    The problem is that metrication has long-term benefits and short-term cost. The politicians only care about the short-term.


  14. Leave our welsh signs alone. Plus if we switch to metric we lose the translation on the signs. And there is nothing wrong with using yards or miles per hour. And even Feet. I don’t mind if we use centimetres and Celsius cause they are simple. But on the roads there is no problem with MPH and yards. If we change over to km/h its just not going to benefit us. And btw yards and meters are very similar to each other. To some it up using both is great 🙂


  15. Thomas wrote: “And btw yards and meters are very similar to each other”

    So what is the problem with signs showing metres? After all, that is the metric system that children learn in school. You say yourself that centimetres are simple, so you basically support the use of metric. Extending the use of metric across the roads would reinforce what children learn at school and contribute to their general numerical skills. There is often a problem with these skills precisely because we do not have a proper single system of measurement in the UK. I would urgently ask you to consider this. You write that you “lose the translation” with metric signs. I don’t think road signs are the best way to promote the Welsh language (or any language, come to that). Do you really need thousands of signs just to promote the word “llath”? I am actually a linguist myself, so I think I can have a view on this. There are better ways to promote the use of regional languages, but road signs should be kept simple and are best with pictograms and internationally understood symbols. The only solution in that respect is metric.


  16. @Thomas:

    If you see a sign that says, for example, ‘No Hard Shoulder for 300 yards’, tell me how you measure 300 yards on an odometer that shows only miles and tenths of a mile? At least with a metric odometer, if such sign said 300 m instead of yards, then it’s simply three increments of the tenths digit.

    As for switching to km/h not benefitting us, I disagree. Multi-million pound contracts with countries all around the world have been lost because imperial signs give the perception that the UK is not metric, even when industry actually is. Perception is everything, and our imperial road signs give out entirely the wrong message.


  17. @Thomas:

    Who is this `we’, paleface?

    If you take off your blinkers and look throughout this ‘blog then you shall see that there are indeed problems with imperial miles and imperial yards, let alone arc-minutes and arc-seconds. Fortunately, imperial feet have never really featured on UK roads except at fords—so as not to compound those problems.

    You don’t `lose the translation’, you gain smaller/ less cluttered/ cheaper/ easier to comprehend signs which can be readily understood by those who speak neither English nor Welsh plus the illiterate and everyone under the age of 137 (or WHY). If translations are so desirable, you’d do better to campaign for the Scottish model… If it’s promotion of the language, then I suggest ditching the English version altogether on road signs: experience already shows that people just ignore the Welsh on dual signs (or the whole sign if they are interleaved)!


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