Police and Network Rail call for metric signs

An incident on 17 June 2008, in which a foreign lorry struck a low bridge near Cannock, the third such incident since April, has prompted the police and Network Rail to call for metric signs to be shown on all bridges in the area.


PC Michael Percival, of Watling Street police station in Cannock, was reported to have said: “We are making recommendations, as are Network Rail, to have metric signs put up in the area. This will hopefully alleviate the problems.”

Despite metric height restriction signs being legal since 1981, many bridges in the UK still have height warning signs in feet and inches only – units that are unfamiliar to most drivers from outside the UK, and probably many UK drivers too.

The Department for Transport Traffic Signs Manual has the following to say on the subject, “Metric heights may be shown in addition to imperial heights at any bridge. This is recommended for all bridges on main routes and on roads used frequently by foreign drivers”.

The cost of a bridge inspection resulting from a bridge bashing incident can be very expensive, hundred thousand-pound figures are not unheard of, and bridge repairs can run into costs approaching millions of pounds.

On their website, Network Rail states that, for the year to 31 March 2007, there were over 2000 reported bridge strikes, and that this number continues to rise. On average about 6 bridge strikes are reported each day.

19 thoughts on “Police and Network Rail call for metric signs”

  1. I see from the photos on the article that money has already been spent by the authorities on trying to alleviate the problem… unfortunately all they have done is follow the current (and often pointless) trend of installing lots of dayglo yellow backed signs. In my mind this is no different to the old stereotypical approach of us Brits talking slowly and loudly to “foreigners” in the hope that they will somehow understand what we’re saying!


  2. This is a perfect opportunity for the UKMA to assert itself and use the momentum being gained from these accidents to push for changes in the laws to allow metric measurements or to require them on all road signs.

    The opportunity is presenting itself as there are people and organizations that can be available to support the UKMA in a push for a wider change beyond a few bridge signs.

    I would hope that local community leaders, police, industry, the rail network, etc, can be called upon and organized to present a call to national government to bring about a quick and swift change before the momentum of the present situation fades. With the help of the local communities there is a means to convince members of parliament that a change of the WMA to require road sign metrication is in everyone’s best interest.

    How many foreign vehicles drive on UK roads that don’t have a means to indicate speeds in miles per hour and thus go as fast as they wish? How many UK citizens have been charged with speeding on the continent because they misunderstood the signs? How much has the completion of metrication in Ireland made it worse for the UK?

    Having a different measurement standard from your neighbours may seem charming to some, but in reality it is dangerous and costly. Action should be taken before a life is lost? Under the present situation it is just a matter of time.

    Those who claim the cost of road sign conversion would be too high need only ask how much damage has already been done to the infrastructure that has already exceeded the cost of sign metrication?

    I hope the UKMA doesn’t blow this opportunity to bring about sign metrication. These road accidents are a godsend.


  3. In a letter dated 12 June 2008 the Rt Hon Rosie Winterton MP (Minister of State for Transport and Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber) wrote that:

    “in addition to imperial only signs, the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 prescribes regulatory signs and warning signs containing both imperial only, and dual imperial/metric units of measurement. While the use of the dual signs is voluntary, we are aware that these are often used to replace life-expired imperial signs.”

    “This Department is currently revising Chapter 3 of the Traffic Signs Manual, which provides advice to local authorities on the appropriate use of regulatory signs. This latest advice recommends the use of the dual signs in preference to the imperial only versions. Furthermore, we would expect to repeat this advice, in respect of warning signs in any future revision to Chapter 4 of the Traffic Signs Manual.”

    “In addition, the Department has authorised a non-prescribed sign type to advise large/heavy vehicles not to take an unsuitable route. The design uses a truck pictogram with a red diagonal line through it to indicate “not for heavy goods vehicles”. (This symbol is already in use on service signs.) Local highways authorities may now apply to the DfT for authorisation to use this sign, which we hope will help overcome difficulties caused by foreign drivers who claim not to understand written “not suitable for HGV” signs.”

    This raises questions, including: How many local highways authorities have applied to the DfT for authorisation to use this new non-prescribed sign?

    SI Metric-Matters


  4. I went to the web site where the story was posted and left a comment in support of adding metric-only signs for height restrictions.

    Most of the other comments supported metric signage (even in general). However, one person wrote that “some years ago they changed the dimension signs in London to metric. Almost overnight the number of claims for damaged vehicles went up.”

    Is there any evidence that this is true? What might this person actually be referring to? It doesn’t seem like this would actually happen (since it is currently not legal to have metric-only height, width, or length restriction signs in the UK).


  5. Ezra wrote, “However, one person wrote that “some years ago they changed the dimension signs in London to metric. Almost overnight the number of claims for damaged vehicles went up””

    This is quite possibly true; changes of this nature cannot take place without firstly the public being educated about the change and secondly measures being put in place to ensure a safe transition. The approach that I favour is as follows:

    1. The transition period would last one year. By the end of the transition period all road signs showing height or width restrictions would be in metric units.

    2. During this period all existing height and width signs that are not already in dual units would be converted with priority being given to those that are nearing the ends of their useful lives or those on major routes.

    3. Transition signs would be standard “metric” signs with a yellow plate below the sign giving the imperial equivalent. The imperial text on signs converted during the first six months would be 90% of the height of the metric text, dropping to 60% for signs converted during the second half-year period. The imperial equivalent signs would be made to a lower quality than the principal metric sign.

    4. In parallel with this, the regulations requiring drivers of high vehicles to have the vehicle height displayed in the cab of their vehicle would be modified to make it mandatory to show both metric and imperial units until the end of the transition period when the imperial display would become optional. This would be policed during the annual MoT tests.

    5. After the transition period the imperial signs would remain but would not be replaced. Since they would be of a lower quality, they would deteriorate more rapidly than the main sign.

    I believe that this approach would not jeopardize safety in respect of British drivers and at the same time would allow a fairly fast conversion.


  6. I drove under a similarly signed low bridge in Hemel Hempstead yesterday, this particular road (Three Cherry Trees Lane for anybody who lives in the area) also has a width restriction and both are signed only in imperial units.

    However what makes this particular location special is that it is on a back road into a major industrial estate. This was the first time I’d driven up that particular road for many years but I did work in the area in the early 90’s and recall that on many occasions this particular road had been closed due to over-sized vehicles getting stuck and on one occasion the box section from a Transit box van had actually come off of the chassis and was sitting on the road some distance behind the cab!

    It beggars belief that after so many years and so many incidents that nobody has thought to put up metric signs at that particular location, even just to see what difference it might make!


  7. The claim by John Hemming that metric signs were deployed in London doesn’t sound very likely. Metric only for height and width restrictions have never been authorised by the Traffic Signs regulations. If it did happen and there was a sudden increase in compensation claims it could have been because the signs didn’t comply with the regulations and rendered the authorities liable, rather than the implied increase in accidents.
    A known incident did occur about five years ago involving a London tube train driver where he damaged his car under a very low bridge. The warning sign was metric-only and an anti-metric group picked up on it, advising him to make a claim for damages which he did successfully (out if court).
    If there were any such widespread deployment of metric signs within the last 6 – 7 years at least we would have heard about it from the leader of that group.


  8. Drivers in the Republic of Ireland are used to seeing dual height and width signage, however I note that metric only signs are now appearing, the final phase of a very successful shift of their road signs from imperial to metric. I note the Irish have not had any kind of national nervous breakdown which papers like the Daily Mail seem to predict! Problem we have now is that thousands of Irish drivers who cross the border daily are faced with imperial only signs and having to guess if they are driving within the speed limit! In my view Northern Ireland is the key in achieving the completion of the metric process in the UK, the population there seems to be less resistant to change and perhaps more intelligent than people in GB. Metric is not seen as foreign to the Irish like it seems to be to elderly people in Britain.


  9. I learnt metric at school back in the 1970s (in this country), it is so easy, we should totally adopt it in this country and put metric on all our road signs as soon as possible. Otherwise we risk yet more lorries being trashed as the drivers have not been educated in ancient imperial measurements (and neither have I).

    Metric signage on roads should have been put into place in the 1970s. We need to go fully metric asap, especially as those of us age 40 or under only really understand metric. I have no idea how high 14 feet is, for example, but I can picture 4.7 metres, which I have seen on some height restriction signs.

    The metric measurements must be added to all the other signs as well. And get rid of the stupid imperial ones, we do not need those any more.


  10. The claim by John Hemming that “…some years ago they changed the dimension signs in London to metric. Almost overnight the number of claims for damaged vehicles went up…” does not make sense.

    The majority of people who travel in their small cars travel the same routes routinely and blindly travel without even paying attention to the signs. If they hadn’t had a problem before why all of a sudden because the a sign changed?

    If it was due to a driver of a larger vehicle on an unknown road, I could see this happening but on the other hand, if all of these UK drivers learned metric in school since the ’70s and have experience in metric in other areas, then how could they pretend not to know metres? If they approach the sign and don’t know if their vehicle will clear, why don’t they stop and look at their car manual to check the height of the vehicle and then compare it to the sign?

    If the metre and the yard are suppose to be taken as equal now, then the person can simply change the word metre to yards mentally and then pretend to understand the sign. There really is no excuse for causing an accident from pretending not to understand the sign.

    If every person who strikes a bridge and claims they did not know metric was heavily prosecuted for damages and word got out, one would see those type of accidents become reduced to zero overnight. After 40 years of metric exposure from school, work and shopping, there should be no excuse for not knowing it and punishment when you cause damage from pretending not to know it.


  11. I am 16 years old and yet I find it easier to picture 14 feet rather than 4.7 metres in my head. Imperial should be kept, as it is understood by a majority of the public. Why should we change to suit foreign drivers?


  12. If a lorry driver is confronted with a height warning sign his ability to judge whether he can safely pass beneath it depends on knowing the height of the vehicle in the units shown on the sign.
    Drivers are required to know the height of their vehicles it shouldn’t be left to guess work. Regulations prescribe that this information is displayed inside the cab. The trouble is that those regulations favour imperial with metric as an option – the same as current traffic sign regulations.
    Even if the driver does know metric as well as imperial it is not safe to rely on mental conversions – mistakes are too easliy made.
    The only sensible answer is a single system that eveyone can understand and use for all purposes. The international metric system is the perfect and unrivalled candidate to fulfill that need.


  13. In answer to Matthew Plato:

    Firstly thank you for your contribution. The Metric Views team are keen to hear from young people whatever your opinions may be.

    You may be right about the overall popularity of imperial measures although I happen to know of young people who favour metric and find imperial difficult.

    However that’s not really the point. Shouldn’t we in Britian be thinking about which is the better system? Do you appreciate that metric is more logical and easier to work with than imperial? For example if you were asked to calculate an area with the dimensions given in feet and inches how would you compare that with doing the same in metres?

    As to the question you pose about foreign drivers, is it fair to say we are really being required to change just for their benefit? Wouldn’t we all benefit both us and them? You must be aware of the predominence of metric in your school lessons. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to make use of that instead of having to adapt to imperial outside of lessons?

    Please do come back on this we’d like to know what you think.


  14. That’s an interesting comment you give, Matthew Plato. I’m 28 and yet I find the reverse to be true. I know how long a metre is – we had metre rule sticks all the time at school, and so I can remember the height of one. I think we had one lesson on imperial conversions, and I remember thinking that I was glad I don’t have to use those measures!

    I think the answer to this problem is simple – mandate dual imperial/metric signs and then phase out the imperial signs by a fixed date. All new high vehicles should show their height & width in the cab in metres only. In the unlikely event a driver doesn’t understand the measure, the company can teach him/her. Shouldn’t take long! This should pay for itself very quickly by the sounds of it!

    I also believe we should complete the conversion to metric on the roads and get the public on board through an information campaign. I don’t believe that people would find it difficult. I’m living in Germany now and after driving around for a few weeks, I have no trouble with thinking in km and km/h. Previously I could only think in miles and mph.

    I feel much more comfortable using a simple system that I was taught in school, and it also means I can compare more things with each other, which ironically means I feel more at home here. I really don’t understand this emotional attachment towards and old system of measurement.


  15. In response to Matthew Plato, we should not change our measurement system so that foreigners can understand us. We should change our measurement system so that we can understand foreigners. If we travel outside the UK we will be faced with metric-only signage wherever we go, except in the USA. In a globalising world it makes no sense to keep producing generation after generation of drivers who are not conversant with international traffic signs (and thousands of cars with confusing dual-unit speedometers). I will repeat – completion of the UK metrication programme is not for the benefit of the rest of the world; it is for the benefit of the 1% of the world’s population who live in the UK.


  16. Mathew Plato wrote:

    “I am 16 years old and yet I find it easier to picture 14 feet rather than 4.7 metres in my head. Imperial should be kept, as it is understood by a majority of the public. Why should we change to suit foreign drivers?”

    In 1883 the United Kingdom signed a commitment to switch over to using the metric system – a system that had two over-riding advantages over then imperial system

    1. It was under international control and therefore not tied to any one country.
    2. It is a coherent system.

    Since that date (in fact even before that date), British scientists played a leading in setting up SI, but our politicians have leant over backwards to appease various whingers and as result the man in the street needs to learn two systems of measure, not just one. The result is that those members of our society who have trouble with numbers are doubly disadvantaged and as a consequence Britain has one of the highest levels of innumeracy in the developed world.

    Mathew, I notice that you are 16. You might have just completed your GCSEs or maybe you are going into your GCSE year. In either case you should familiar with Ohm’s Law. When the units were agreed by an international commission in 1881, they adopted the British proposal ahead of other proposals. The real beauty of the British proposal was that the watt was the unit of power which was identical for both mechanical and electrical systems. Thus a kettle can be rated at 2 kW and a motor car engine at 55 kW and the energy consumed by both can be compared directly. Moreover, if you go on to do A-Level Physics, you will come across the equivalence of the watt (and the joule) in different contexts time and time again.


  17. How is it possible for the United Kingdom to have low bridges without metric height signs? That’s crazy! In Australia we changed every road sign in the land into metrics in a month. That was it! We had an education campaign on the conversions of the speed signs and we simply got on with it. How could a change which went so smoothly in Australia and New Zealand be so badly handled in the United Kingdom!


  18. Moving from real railways to model railways. Has anyone considered how model railway scales are quoted with a mix of Metric and Imperial? For example the commonest international scale, 1:87 scale HO is called 3.5mm:foot in Britain. That is logical compared to the nonsense of using a half baked scale system called 00, 1:76 scale which uses the same track as HO but is a different scale for the size of trains..


  19. Mandating metric height signs is so obviously a matter of safety that the best way forward is to lobby for the law to be changed so that metric height signs must be displayed. There is no reason or excuse for the Government not to move on such an obvious safety issue.


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