A view from across the pond

Metric Views has received a contribution from a reader in the USA. “Just off-the-cuff ramblings” he says, “but no less interesting for that”, we reply. With upwards of 30,000 people crossing the Atlantic each day, other readers may be able to add their own observations. (Article contributed by Jeff Gross)

For US metrication, most progress is happening below the line – out of view of the average American. Metric is a necessary part of functioning in a global economy, but that doesn’t mean it’s in view of most Americans. More rationally metric sized goods are appearing in shops, but they’re dual labelled – sometimes with the ‘US customary’ measurement first.

I’d say metric in the US is a “whatever happened to..” type of thing. It’s not front of mind. The mid-1970s era voluntary conversion attempt put it front of mind, but because the effort was voluntary and without the political will to sustain it, it failed. Unlike in Canada, there’s no legacy of metric road signs, metric weather forecasts or metric consumer goods to keep in place any metric progress that there was.

Despite what many in the US Metric Association say, and I’m not a member, we would need an Australian-style conversion program here to make metric stick. We have the (mis)fortune of having a large enough economy to hide metric from the vast majority of Americans.

The average American has some awareness of metric units – metres from athletics (track and field), litres from the standard 2-litre soda bottle and grams from nutrition. But metric generally seems foreign to most. Which is sad and illogical, given that US customary measures weren’t invented here either.

We’ve also squandered a recent success with the conversion of the federal and state highway agencies to metric. The idea was to induce demand for metric construction throughout the US economy. Many states had or were in the process of converting, but some language, which slid in to a highway appropriations bill (federal transportation funding mechanism) back in 2000, disabled mandatory metric. So, US-based construction companies not wanting to work in two sets of units lobbied the states to deconvert and have been largely successful. California (where I live), which was one of the last all-metric holdouts, presently has an active deconversion program. Be aware this metrication was only in the design and construction of roads – signs remained in miles and feet.

One way I can see compulsory metrication make it back on the radar in the US in the next few years is actually through construction. There’s a huge backlog of infrastructure projects needed here. If the next US President is named Obama or Clinton, there may be a federal push towards rebuilding infrastructure as part of rebuilding the US economy. It’s an opportunity – might as well rebuild the infrastructure right (using metric) the first time. If the next President is McCain or (shudder) Huckabee, we’ll continue to spend way too much money on defence.

2 thoughts on “A view from across the pond”

  1. I tend to agree. Without a coordinated program and political will, metrication will be a hodge-podge of some metric here and there with most things still in US Customary units.

    The USA is getting closer at least to allowing voluntary metric-only labelling. Two more states need to adopt one set of regulations and the US Congress needs to pass (and the President sign) a bill that amends another law in order to reach that goal for all products sold in the USA and its territories and possessions. How different this is from the UK, which is clearly predominantly metric in its labelling and advertising of goods.

    If the UKMA and supporters and allies manage to convince the UK government to convert road signs to metric, I am convinced that the tipping point for the disappearance of nearly all Imperial in the UK will be achieved.

    At that point, metric supporters in the USA will have yet another strong argument to make to advance metrication over here since we will be able to point to the conversion to metric of our former “mother country” and originator of our existing set of units. We might then say to our fellow countrymen over here that, if metric is good enough for the country that gave us our language and our customary units, then by Jove it ought to be good enough for us!


  2. Re: The 30,000 people crossing the Atlantic each day, plus some flying over the Pacific, Mexico, and Canada.
    The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for carry-on luggage are:
    3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3 ounce bottle or less (by volume) ; one quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; one bag per passenger placed in screening bin. The one-quart bag per person limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring. The 3 ounce container size is a security measure.
    Question 1. What is the volume of a 3 ounce bottle; doesn’t density apply here?
    Question 2. How do you measure the volume of a flat plastic bag, even if you know what a US quart is?
    Question 3. How do you expect a foreigner from an SI country to obey these rules, when they don’t make sense to a US citizen?
    Question 4. Section 205b of the US Metric Conversion Act of 1973 states that it is the declared policy of the US government to limit ‘traditional units’ to non-business activities. Does the TSA regard international aviation as a non-business activity, or is it just ignoring the 1973 Act?


    (Metric Views notes that this comment is off-topic, but is pleased to draw the issue to readers’ attention) 


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