DfT imperialists waste more taxpayers’ money

The Department for Transport, who once described metrication of road signs as “a waste of taxpayers’ money”, have themselves been condemned by a House of Commons Select Committee for wasting £71 million on building 66 motorcycle testing stations in order that learner motorcyclists can take the manoeuvring elements of the driving test at the requisite 50 km/h (kilometres per hour), which would be illegal on quiet residential roads in urban areas where tests used to be conducted in the UK.

The Select Committee’s report can be read at this link.  The background is that the Second EU Driving Test Directive (91/439/EEC) requires Member States’ own driving tests to include an emergency stop at 50 km/h (which is the standard speed limit for urban areas throughout Europe – except, of course, in the UK, where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour).  However, 30 mph equates to 48 km/h, which is a lower speed than that required for the driving test. Consequently it would have been illegal to conduct the motor cycle driving test on 30 mph roads in urban areas in the UK – as has been the practice in the past.  So how could the DfT solve this problem?

There would appear to have been (at least) three possibilities:

  • Negotiate an exception (derogation) to the Directive, so that the UK test could be conducted at 30 mph.
  • Build special off-road testing stations, where speeds above 30 mph could be permitted – at a cost of £71 million.
  • Raise the UK’s default urban speed limit to 50 km/h (and convert other mph speed limits to the appropriate km/h value).  This would have entailed amending approximately 200 000 speed limit signs at a cost of ca £20 million1.

With regard to the first option, we can do no better than quote the Select Committee report verbatim:

“It is difficult to see why the Government failed to obtain a derogation from the 50 km/h speed requirement for certain elements of the Module 1 test. Testing riders at a speed which exceeds the standard limit in built-up areas is both inconvenient and confusing for candidates. Requiring test candidates to drive according to a scale of measurement not widely used in the UK is bizarre……. It is unacceptable that the Minister was unable to offer any satisfactory explanation for the Government’s decision not to seek a derogation.”

It may well be that, as was suggested by some witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee, the DfT wanted to build these testing stations anyway – for reasons unconnected with speed limits.  On this view, it was convenient to be able to blame the EU for imposing an unnecessary cost on the long-suffering British taxpayer.  The Committee added “It is tempting to conclude that other priorities may have coloured the Government’s decision to implement [test centres] in the UK.”

The third option –  bringing the UK’s speed limits into line with those elsewhere in Europe –  does not seem to have been even considered by the DfT – nor, for that matter, by the Select Committee or its advisers and witnesses. Yet it obviously would have been a far cheaper solution than building 66 testing stations.  This failure to consider an obvious solution illustrates the imperialist, anti-metric mindset of those in charge of the DfT.  The appearance is given, yet again, that the DfT is prepared to waste large sums of taxpayers’ money rather than admit that the changeover to metric road signs is inevitable, and that the longer it is postponed, the more it will cost.


1UKMA estimate based on the actual unit cost of the Irish changeover in 2005 (i.e. £100 per sign) applied to an updated DfT estimate of the number of speed limit signs.  See also paragraphs 6.4 to 6.16 of “Metric signs ahead”, which can be downloaded at this link.

A summary of the case for converting the UK’s road signs can also be read on the UKMA website at http://www.ukma.org.uk/Campaign/policy/transport.aspx

10 thoughts on “DfT imperialists waste more taxpayers’ money”

  1. If we had the analogous situation here in the States, I would imagine someone or some group would sue our Department of Transportation over this sorry mess with the hope that the courts would order the Department to implement a sign conversion program.

    Any possibility that similar legal action would stand a chance in the UK? I would certainly hope so, given how the DfT has mismanaged things and betrayed their fiduciary trust with respect to the taxpayers of the UK.


  2. I think these problems might keep recurring because the Department of Transport is divided against itself. You have Imperial signs made to metric dimensions, metres are rebadged as yards, position marker signs are marked out in metric distances, the roads are marked in miles but designed in metric measures and this confusion explains why the Department keeps on making mistakes with its measures.

    Perhaps the message to the public is this: the Department keeps on making mistakes because of the two systems. It is high time to ditch the imperial relics and go metric!


  3. History has a habit of repeating itself.

    The Julian calendar was in general use in Europe and Northern Africa from the time of the Roman Empire until the end of the sixteenth century. Then, between 1582 and 1700, most of Britain’s continental neighbours adopted the Gregorian calendar, with dates 10 or 11 days ahead of ours. Travellers to Ireland and to England’s colonies in North America did not have to worry, as these retained the Julian calendar. However, travellers to the continent lost 10 or 11 days on the way out, and recovered them on return.

    Eventually, the British Government, having struggled and failed to overcome the problems resulting from this situation, decided that change was unavoidable. In 1752, the Gregorian calendar was adopted throughout the British Empire and in Ireland. Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed immediately by Thursday 14 September. Popular hostility was expected but failed to materialise.

    So it is with UK Governments today, ducking and weaving to avoid the consequences of the mismatch between the units used for distance/speed measurement on UK roads and on those of our neighbours. One day, they will bow to the inevitable. The question is: how much resources will be wasted in the mean time? Look out for more articles in Metric Views.


  4. It is now 45 years (2010 – 1965) since the UK began its inevitable upgrade to the metric system. During that time, I suppose that the Department for Transport has replaced all the signs in the UK around about twice – assuming the lifetime of a sign is 20 years.

    By the way the Australian replacement of all road signs (on Sunday 1974 July 1) was initially much less that the 100 pounds per sign you quote from the Irish transition. We used stick-on labels to cover the old signs and then the signs were replaced in the normal maintenance cycle. With hindsight I estimate that the stick-on labels plus labor might have cost around $10 each.

    In Canada the road signs were changed from imperial to metric on the Labour day weekend in 1977. The change went smoothly and the kilometre became part of Canadian speech quite quickly.

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia


  5. When the Federal government ended the “double nickel” (55 MPH) speed limit and let States go back to setting their own limits, all the freeway signs had to change. We also used sticky labels and no State complained about the cost of doing so. However, going metric would break us (and the UK). When someone wants to go metric (or make any other change) cost effective ways can be found. When they want to oppose the change, highly cost INeffective ways of making the change can also be found.


  6. Wouldn’t it be grand if the Plain English Campaign would join forces with UKMA to push for the road signage scheme that UKMA has published to promote clarity, simplicity, and safety on British roadways?


  7. Back in the mid nineties the then Prime Minister, John Major announced that Britain was a fully metric country. This was presumably after the 1994 amendments to the 1985 Weights and Measures Act.

    It seems that when it comes to metricating road signs British politicians have a blind spot, as though they don’t count.

    If anything sets Britain apart from the rest of the world it would seem that we are prepared to change practically everything else, including what is taught in school, but not the road signs.

    Strange that Canada, Australia, Ireland etc seemed to have no hesitation in thinking that they were a necessary part of the change. Even the US when they put their minds to it started to do it.

    I’m mostly proud to be British but not when it comes to this.


  8. Not all news coming out of the DfT is bad.

    It has had to postpone three road projects as part of its contribution to the new government’s £6.2 billion of initial spending cuts. One of these projects is Phase 3 of the Managed Motorways Birmingham box. Managed Motorway projects are an alternative to widening, involving the erection of variable speed limit signs on new gantries over the motorway together with the use of the hard shoulder for traffic at peak times. The postponed project related to the M6 between junctions 5 and 8, and would have been worth up to £200 million.

    There was no guarantee that these new signs, expensive even by DfT standards, would be switchable from imperial to metric, and on past DfT performance one suspects that this was not even considered. Perhaps when and if this scheme is resuscitated, wider counsels will prevail, the scheme will be designed to cope with the inevitable metric change over, and a potential waste of many millions of pounds will be averted.


  9. Dft are realy good at wasting taxpayers money.think this should be exposed and put a stop to,they pay Mobility centeres £280 to demonstrate the use of a vehicle hoist to lift a scooter or electric wheelchair in and out of vehicle ,the assesors saying how good it is to get this for 10 to 15 mins work,this equates to aprox over £1000 per hour, all the client has to do is to turn up for this quick demo sign his name and thats it.
    This discusting waste of our money needs looking into urgently and put a stop to,
    any idears how to expose this?.paul.


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