Traffic Signs Review produces INACTION plan

The Transport Department’s current review of traffic signs has so far avoided any mention of the “m” word and is likely to be a failure. UKMA has therefore produced its own proposals.

Last September the then Transport Minister, Rosie Winterton, announced “the biggest review of British road signs for 40 years”, which she claimed would “consider all aspects of road signing”, including safety, efficiency, cost, the environment and the “street clutter” caused by unnecessarily large and complex signs.  The first result of this review, which was published in May, is extremely disappointing.

The draft “action plan” of this review, which might be better described as an “inaction plan”, fails to deal with the following key issues:

  • the huge increase in international traffic, with 3 million visiting drivers unable to understand British road signs
  • the use of long-winded verbal instructions rather than easily understood picture signs
  • the increasing cost of bridge strikes – often attributable to foreign drivers not understanding height and width restrictions in feet and inches
  • disregard of the international standards laid down by the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals (which the UK is signed up to).

In response UKMA has produced its own proposals for addressing these problems.  These are summarised in a new leaflet “Traffic Signs 2.0” which can be downloaded by clicking on this link. Alternatively, free copies can be obtained by emailing .

The proposed new signs, which use exclusively metric units, remove the need to be familiar with two systems of measurement, are clearer and simpler than current cluttered signs, and will reduce the number of language-specific signs on our roads.  Some examples of the improved signage proposed by UKMA are given below.

Current cluttered signs                         Clear metric signs

More examples can be seen on the UKMA web site.

The last major review of traffic signs took place in the 1960s in response to the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals.  This is an international treaty designed to increase road safety and aid international road traffic by standardising the signing system for road traffic (road signs, traffic lights and road markings) in use internationally. (Incidentally it has nothing to do with the European Union).

Note:  in 2006 UKMA produced a comprehensive case (“Metric signs ahead“) for converting traffic signs to metric units.  The DfT attempted to close down discussion of the issue by producing grossly exaggerated cost figures and claiming that UKMA’s proposals would be “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.  The absurdity of the DfT’s figures can be gauged by comparing the DfT’s claimed cost of  £1200-1400 per sign with the actual cost of £100 per sign when the Irish Republic converted its speed limit signs in 2005.  Further cost comparisons and an explanation of the discrepancy can be read at this link .

Robin Paice, UKMA chairman said, “It would appear from reading the review’s initial Draft Action Plan, that major safety issues, which are costing the country millions of pounds each year, have so far been overlooked. We believe that the practical solutions proposed in our leaflet, which also addresses issues of signage clutter, and the use of standard symbols, should be properly considered by the DfT’s Steering Group.  What would be unforgivable would be if the DfT were to make changes to road signs now – only to have to do it all again when they inevitably have to be converted to metric units in a few years time.  That really would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

32 thoughts on “Traffic Signs Review produces INACTION plan”

  1. The Department of Transport’s paper is not a draft set of changes to existing rules, but rather a draft set of changes to the rules by which further rules are made. As such it does not get down to any specifics but rather identifies at a high level what areas should be addressed and who should address those areas. To its credit, the document does envisage a consultation on TSRGD in September 2009 which, depending on whether or not the public are invited to contribute, is a good thing.

    There is however a serious omission in the document – the alignment of the law relating to road signs to other laws that might have developed elsewhere. One example is the use of “T” rather than “t” for tonnes. While this practice might have been permitted by the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals (I cannot find a reference one way or the other), it is certainly not permitted by the EU directive 80/181/EEC. Another example of conflicts between laws is the overlapping powers of the TSRGD and the T&CP (Control of Advertisement) Regulations.

    It would make eminent sense for the Action Plan to acknowledge that variances do potentially exist (without naming them) and to either set up a working party to specifically identify such variances, or better still, to mandate every working party to be on the lookout for such variances. Failure by government to identify laws that are at variance with each other makes lawyers rich, causes embarrassments for governments concerned and in certain cases cost the government considerable sums of money to remedy.


  2. I congratulate UKMA on its efforts, but I can’t help wondering if it could achieve more if it stopped pushing for immediate introduction of metric speed limits, which is clearly intractable in the absence of public sentiment or political will. People will see km/h on the cover and think “that’s barmy” without even bothering to look at the rest of the proposals.


  3. I agree with Anton. The first action should be to push for the permissible use of metric on all road signs and end the present illegality. It should be legal to have either system or both.

    With this, a community can erect metric signage without fear of groups like ARM threatening them or damaging/defacing them. If anti-metric groups do deface the signs, they can then be charged with criminal acts.

    Eventually, like Ireland, if enough metric signs pop up on their own it can be used as a reason to promote the complete metrication of road signs. It can then be shown that opposition only exists among fringe groups.

    At the September 2009 meeting that Martin mentions, UKMA members who attend could make an issue to change the law to make metric signs permissible.


  4. Do not be taken in by the false claims of ARM. I would urge Jeremiah and anyone else who thinks metric signs are totally illegal under present law to see this page on the UKMA web site:

    Re the campaign issue there is no point in UKMA arguing for “either system or both” That would undermine the assocation’s principles and would get us nowhere. In effect we already have this.

    A more sensible intermediate step to full metrication is to consistently use dual signs for vehicle height, width and length restrictions. This is allowed under present rules but is not consistently applied. It makes no sense to arbitrarily assume that in some places imperial only signs are safe.

    For the longer term UKMA are quite right to promote the idea of metric only signs by showing the benefits. The track record of attempts at metrication by stealth in this or other countries is not an encouraging one.


  5. I am afraid that Jeremiah and Anton are mistaken. The “voluntary/gradual” approach may seem to be a non-confrontational way of achieving metrication – but it is a trap. Indeed, it is precisely this “voluntary/gradual”, “metrication by stealth” approach that has got us into the present mess. Dual pricing/quantity indication in retailing has simply enabled those who resist metrication to ignore the metric units and carry on as before. No progress is made. Doing the easy bits first in the hope that the difficult bits will eventually take care of themselves just doesn’t work. You can’t win an argument by not putting forward your case.

    Anyway you can’t allow speed limits to be in two incompatible units at the same time – for obvious safety reasons. There must be absolutely no dubiety about whether 50 means mph or km/h. It has to be an overnight (or at most 2 – 3 day) changeover (as in Ireland, Australia, Canada etc).

    I would also caution against converting yards to metres for shorter distances while retaining miles for longer distances – a strategy that is sometimes advocated (though not here by Jeremiah and Anton). This would destroy the concept of an integrated, consistent SYSTEM, in which all units are interrelated. Children would then learn (as some already do) that there are 30 cm in a foot, and 1600 m in a mile, and that these units can be mixed at random. Hence, in the timber yard, you buy 3 m of 4 by 2.

    So I am afraid we have to persuade people to put imperial measurements behind them and learn to love kilometres. Impossible? The Australians and the Irish managed it. Are the British too stupid or obstinate? or just badly led?


  6. I agree completely with those who are saying that we should avoid advocating any gradual or side-by-side conversion, however in the very short term I think that all authorities that put up road signs should be encouraged to always use metric in cases where it is currently legally permissible – there should be no excuse for using imperial-only width, height or length limit signs.

    There is, however, a worrying trend which will hinder any change of speed and distance signs to metric and that is the seeming increase in the number of British-registered cars that seem to have imperial-only speedometers or (for instance in the case of digital speedos) have no instructions in owners manual to switch from imperial to metric. This seems to be happening despite the law requiring km/h, motor manufacturers seem to be going down the same path as market traders who often ignore or only pay lip service to the requirement for metric price labelling.

    The fact that there is no cheap or easy method to convert a MPH speedometer to metric and that there is no legal requirement for odometers to be switchable to metric is also going to be a major stumbling block.


  7. From my experience in South Africa, the conversion to metric units should be done as quickly as is practicable without compromising safety.

    I will now look at some specific issues raised by Alex:

    Height limits do have safety issues – a 1% error can cause big problems. My favoured approach is to convert all the signs to metric units but to have small yellow plates below each sign with the imperial equivalent. Once this has been done it will become mandatory for all high vehicles to display their heights in metres rather than feet. This will be enforced during the MoT tests. After one year (which will ensure that all vehicles have been through their MoT’s), the yellow plates will not be replaced when they wear out.

    Speed limits also have safety issues, but not as dramatic as height limits. A 10% error in speedometers is permitted by law. Here I favour the big-bang approach. The cost of changing the face of your speedo will be about £50 (if you want to do it). (It costs considerably more now, but there is very little demand). Post 1978 car that have mph speedos only are not fit for purpose and the owner will have a case to compel the manufacturer to change the speed face panel without charging. Most cars odometers these days are electronic and I am pretty sure that there is a switch hidden somewhere that will change the display to km.

    Width limits are a joke. A substantial number of 4×4’s are wider than 2m, their drivers do not even know the fact and quite happily drive in the width restricted lane while motorway roadworks are in progress (police Range Rovers included).


  8. I wasn’t really trying to advocate a half measure conversion. I was under the impression that metric signs were illegal and my comment was meant to make them lega first. In this way there would be no justification for ARM to remove or alter perfectly legal metric signs.

    If the metric signs are legal, then under what pretense is ARM legally able to remove or alter metric signs and the authorities back them? Shouldn’t the UKMA be stepping in and advising localities that have erected metric signs, that those signs are perfectly legal and any attempt by any group to remove or alter them should be treated as a criminal offence? Has the UKMA ever confronted ARM and successfully been able to prevent them from removing or altering existing metric signs?

    Could some one clarify or point to the law that allows metric only road signs (not just some twist of wording or logic that claims signs are advertisements)?


  9. Yes. Let’s ignore the opinions of 50 million British people who are used to and prefer imperial units. Please get it into your head, UKMA, that you are in a minority. No one I have ever met, nor seen on the TV etc. has ever described a distance in kilometres. Never.

    But I do agree the symbols. Why not have an image of a crossed out lorry instead of words? That would make sense, with imperial distances of course.


  10. Anton,
    anyone who thinks that speed limits in km/h is “barmy” is very badly mistaken. Currently our speed limits are in units of 1609.344 m/h. That really is barmy.


  11. I wonder how a person such as Tabitha can live in comfort in the UK. It must be a nightmare for her to go into any shop and try and buy prepackaged imperial goods as very few if any exist. I can’t image what her expression must be when she goes to the deli counter in any market, asks for an imperial amount and sees the display and label in metric. Or does Tabitha simply avoid the metric that is everywhere?

    How does Tabitha compare petrol prices when it is all in litres? What does she do when the weather is reported in metric? Does she turn off the TV or radio so as not to hear it or try to convert it to obsolete units and claim that is what she heard?

    I can tell from the tone of Tabitha’s post that she is angry. Does this come from the constant effort needed to disassociate herself from everything metric.

    If 50 million people plus can adjust to the majority metric in every aspect of the economy, then they can and will adjust to the metrication of road signs.

    Bring it on!


  12. In response to Martin, I’m certainly not advocating the use of dual units on the road, only saying that it’s past time that the display of metric units on height, width and length were made mandatory, even if imperial remains in use for a short period (perhaps the next TSGRD should swap the mandatory units from imperial to metric). I myself have a car which, according to the owners manual, is 1999 mm wide (between the tips of the wing mirrors granted!) which always makes me nervous when I see a 6′-6″ sign with no metric equivalent as I have no idea if I’d have a legal claim if my vehicle was damaged if this had been badly measured (not so much on the motorways, more at permanent signage on country roads).

    The relaxed attitude taken to the rules by local and national authorities will, in my mind, continue to be an issue in either case though. From what I’ve personally seen I wouldn’t mind betting there are hundreds, if not thousands of old “ton” weight limit signs still in existence around the country despite them being unenforceable (I recently found a 1991 letter from the DfT to local authorities saying as much). I gave up after 18 months of constant letter writing to Peterborough Council to try and get them to fix their signs and can imagine that there will be no rush to change other signage even if the rules do change in favour of metric!


  13. Tabitha Jones… you are WRONG.
    I’m British, I use metres and kilometres…
    kids learn kilometres and metres in school…
    nobody knows how many yards or feet or whatever are in a mile…
    i’m sure the only reason why people use the mile is because it’s easy to say…

    you can easily visualise a kilometre by breaking it into ten 100 m “blocks”… I don’t think you can do that with a mile ?

    plus mile per hour speed limits are stupid and depressing… tell me.. what sounds better.. driving at 30 miles per hour or 50 km/h ?

    what looks better? having a speedometer that’s extra cluttered? or having a nice clean one that shows one single set of units?

    get out of your imperial shell… metric is better. full stop!


  14. Tabitha Jones should get out more! If she did she’d find out that it is she who is in the minority. Around 6% of the world’s population still use miles to measure distance – that’s probably fewer than use an abacus to perform arithmetic! This measurement system is long out of date and the continued use of it makes me embarassed to be British.


  15. Imagine how conversion of the currency would have gone if the government had been just as timid as they have been when it comes to converting to metric.

    I can just see the happy smiles amongst the populace as shoppers needed to carry both L-s-d and decimal coins and notes in their pockets (separate pouches in special carriers to keep them separate?) knowing that in most shops they could use the new currency but in pubs and a few other special locales only L-s-d currency would be honoured!


  16. I am also British, and I learnt only metric units when I went to school. I try to use only kilometres, metres, and other metric units where I can. I find imperial units extremely confusing, and there is no point in keeping them at all.

    Opponents of metrication like to claim to have “never met anyone who uses kilometres” (or make similar statements) which is impossible. They will surely meet many people who use kilometres if they speak to anyone who does competitive cycling, watches cycling events like the Tour de France, goes on a 5km or 10km run – I’ve had a leaflet today for the “5K Family Run”, okay it should say “5km Family Run” but at least it’s metric). Also anyone who goes to the gym (as I do) will encounter and use kilometres and kilometres per hour if they spend time on the treadmill, exercise bike, or cross trainer for example.

    Once we have metric road signs, everyone will need to use metres, kilometres, and kilometres per hour when driving.

    The suggested signs shown here, and in the Traffic Signs 2.0 leaflet, are exactly the sort of signs I would like to see in the UK. I think the suggested replacement for the “For 550 yds” sign is a great idea – a language independent way of saying “for 500m”.

    Incidentally I have prepared similar versions of these metric signs for my blog, and plan on posting these in the near future.

    It will be a great day once metric road signs are introduced to the UK – We get to use the SI metric system we learnt when driving. No more being forced to use what we didn’t learn at school, and no more attempting to use Imperial units without actually understanding them. And the language independent, symbolic, and metric-only signs suggested really do look so much quicker to read – we drivers can read that in an instant, exactly what we need to really benefit road safety. They also look smaller and therefore cheaper to maintain. These benefits alone sound too good to ignore.

    It’s still not too late for the DfT to include changing to metric signs, and all the other recommendations from Traffic Signs 2.0, in its final Action Plan and in any other report or consultation. As we already know, the UK has to have metric road signs eventually, and we simply cannot afford not to.


  17. Dear Tabitha

    There is no evidence that “50 million people … prefer imperial measures”. A great many do obviously but real opinions and attitudes have never been properly researched.

    You also miss the point of UKMA’s campaign. It’s not about advocating or defending popular opinion it’s about changing it.

    There is nothing undemocratic about this so long as the campaign is an honest one. I can personally assure you that UKMA members and supporters are honest in their views and the basis of their arguments are truthful.

    Metrication is seldom discussed properly in a public context. In truth people are not really interested and when it is picked up by the media it is treated in a shallow and uninformative way. Meaningless opinion polls are conducted asking people to vote on an issue they seldom think about and on the basis of questions much more likely to appeal to a natural resistance to change.

    Only time will tell how long it will take for the stupidty of the present situation to sink in to public consciousness. But whatever happens UKMA members and supporters will always have the satisfaction of knowing that they are fundamentally right.



  18. The present logjam on metric road signs in the UK could be broken by a little lateral thinking.

    The most obvious place to begin is Northern Ireland. It makes sense for all Ireland to use the same road signs. If Unionist politicians could be persuaded that metric road signs are a good idea, the battle for metric signs in Northern Ireland would be won.

    Other places that might be quite prepared to move on metric signs might be the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The publicity generated by their move to metrics before the UK would be enormous.

    Other places that might be prepared to move might be Wales and Scotland.


  19. Alas, the Unionists might likely resist any attempt to “split them off” from the rest of the UK this way, even if it only has symbolic value to retain Imperial.

    Also, I have heard the argument that allowing just Northern Ireland to use metric road signs would actually remove some of the impetus to having the rest of the UK switch.

    It seems like the most fruitful course of action is to continue to pursue metrication of the road signs in all of the UK …. no exceptions.


  20. I have emailed the Northern Ireland Assembly about whether or not it has powers devolved to it allowing them to change the units of measurement on road signs. As far as I can tell they do not. If they desired to metricate their road signage they would have to request that Westminster amend the relevant parts of the Act that established the Assembly and outlined the powers devolved to it. Should it be approved by Westminster I guess a vote in Stormont would green light metrication, I’m not sure of the current make up of the Assembly but think that it might have a slight majority of Republican members ??


  21. Mark, the position is that traffic signs are a devolved matter in NI, but measurement units are not. So NI has its own version of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD), which closely follows the GB version. However, the Units of Measurement Regulations apply to the whole of the UK, and the NI Government has received legal advice that they have no discretion to use metric units on the signs. This has not been tested in the Courts, so is only a legal “opinion”.


  22. Interesting legal advice Robin. Are there any laws with regard to measurement units (other than TSGRD itself or the Irish version) that specifically prohibit the use of metric units? Surely the clauses that relate to this only allow the continuing use of inch, foot, yard and mile but don’t specifically prohibit the use of metric.

    Given the DfT’s unwillingness to include UKMA in the discussions about road signs it’s sounding as if somebody at the top is making a great deal of effort to remove any mere suggestion of metrication out of future road policy.


  23. Does the above comment mean that the NI Government has actually investigated the possibility of converting the signs? If so, that is quite interesting. I would expect that at least the NI civil service would consider the safety implications of using different measurement units from those in the Republic, coupled with the lack of a ‘fenced off’ border to alert drivers (as in the case of the US land borders with Canada and Mexico), but I would expect that the more hardcore Unionists would oppose any change. I had not heard anything about this.


  24. In response to Alex and Tom, the position is that we wrote to the NI Minister, Conor Murphy (SF) in 2007. After a long delay, a reply was received from the Acting Chief Executive of the NI Roads Service. I quote an extract:

    “…. there were some legal issues which required clarification.

    As you correctly point out, the responsibility for traffic signs policy in NI is a devolved matter. However, as outlined in Mr Woodward’s letter of 1 March 2006, the metrication issue is a matter of national interest and hence the responsibility of the UK Government. This is reinforced in the fact that “units of measurement” and “UK Primary Standards” are reserved matters under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

    I am advised that the UK Government has no plans to change distance measurement and speed limits on traffic signs to metric units. Unless and until the UK Government’s position on this issue changes, distance measurement and speed limits on traffic signs in NI will remain in imperial units.”

    I agree with Alex that the DfT is implacably opposed to metrication – primarily because they see it as an incursion into their budget that has little to do with their narrow transport objectives. The fact that it screws up the UK’s measurement system is of no concern to them. The problem lies in the failure at the very top of Government (i.e. in the Cabinet Office) to recognise that the measurement issue cuts across Government and should be taken out of the hands of individual Departments.


  25. Why does Northern Ireland have to be the first? Why not Scotland? Wouldn’t Scotland with its more independent attitude be the best candidate to change their signs?

    I’ve seen pictures on another website of informational road signs already in metric with no complaints or vandalism. It seems the people of Scotland are not bothered by metric informational signs along the roads and may be even in favour of them.

    Scotland could defy the law and change their signs and what could anyone outside of of Scotland really do? Then once it is seen that the metric road signs in Scotland pose no problems or were never costly to implement, then Northern Ireland and Wales could follow the Scottish example.

    The biggest advantage to the completion of metrication of British roads would be the cars. Since the British drive on the left, as do the Irish and many Asian & African countries, there would be a huge cost savings in the sale and trade of automobiles from the rest of the left driving world and the UK. Presently cars made for the UK have to have a special display unit which adds cost. Second hand cars entering the UK have to be modified at a cost to comply to British law. These costs add up and would be over time much greater then the cost of changing signs. The cost of changing signs is a one time deal. The cost of changing or having a special display is continuous. Does anyone ever look at this factor?

    Another issue is the safety issue with foreign drivers. Does there have to be a major accident that takes hundreds of lives before someone sees the nonsense of being different then your neighbours?


  26. Excellent information shared and points made here.

    In addition to (or related to) all of the above, there is the question of funds and budget. On the one hand, I don’t know if Scotland has its own budget for road sign maintenance and replacement. On the other hand, there should be plenty of incentive to save the money now wasted repairing bridges that have been struck because of Imperial height restriction signs that Continental drivers of lorries fail to properly understand.

    Since signs must be replaced over time anyway, replacing signs in a phased manner with Imperial decal overlays has been proposed (I presume) many times. On “M weekend” all of the overlays could be removed and — presto! — all road signs would thenceforth be exclusively metric.

    As Shakespeare wrote for King Henry: “Once more unto the breach!” The DfT may ignore UKMA, but I sincerely doubt UKMA will ignore them. 🙂


  27. I lived in Ireland during the changeover from miles to km. It took about 20 seconds to get used to the system on a practical level. The yard is practically a dead measurement in Ireland, after a few months most people (aside from the elderly) and the media referred to kilometres rather than miles. The same would happen in Britain, once the signage is changed, that would be that. I also note the travel industry is very metric, is that because most people who work in it are young? Baggage is weighed by the kilo, measured by the cm and it was always 1000 mL in 1 Litre (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm) bags! Happily I now live in Australia, English speaking and one of the most metric countries in the world. It’s wonderful to use my British metric education in a metric country.


  28. Here is the timetable specified in the policy review:

    Manage and deliver action plan work-streams – May 2009 to September 2010
    Consultation on amendment regulations to TSRGD – September 2009
    Review action plan – March 2010
    Amendment regulations come in to force – April 2010

    The consultation on amendment regulations is scheduled to happen next month. Is there any role foreseen for UKMA or other like-minded bodies or individuals in this process?


  29. It’s a pity that Northern Ireland can’t move on metricating their road signs. What about the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Would any of them be interested in making a move? They are not part of the United Kingdom, as far as I understand, and they might have more freedom of action in this matter


  30. I’m a big fan of Imperial….. but I have no problem with using metric for heights & widths in road signage as the metre is now more or less universally understood by Joe Publick (even if only as being a yard and a “bit”) and this would aid commonalty with europe. So I’m with most of you on this.

    Speed is a different issue however; few in the UK know “viscerally” what km/h is, and most folks killed on the roads are killed by UK drivers. Also 50 km/h is substantially faster than 30mph so you are factoring in increased pedestrian and RTA injury (almost 10% higher vehicle kinetic energy). To address this you would need to review all speed limit boundaries, extend 20 mph (32.19 km/h?) zones etc. so it is not as simple as a sign for sign replacement.

    Foreign drivers (Ireland not withstanding Dave) already have to cope with driving on the “right” side of the road; signs in mph serve to remind them that they are in a foreign country. I know this has helped me, in the reverse, when driving in france and faced with a funny looking “50” sign on the wrong side of the road…..


  31. The Coalition Government doesn’t want the clutter.
    From the BBC news website 26 Aug 2010

    Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has accused what he calls over-zealous councils of wasting taxpayers’ money on signs that blight the local environment.

    He and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond have written to council leaders calling on them to remove the clutter.

    Have these MPs read the UKMA leaflet?
    Send them copies.
    AND does your MP understand that this leaflet shows how proper metric signage will help reduce the clutter?


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