Spain discredits DfT’s case against metric signs

The Spanish government this week exposed the Department for Transport’s case against adopting metric road signs in the UK as flawed. While the DfT maintains that it must allow an average of around £1400 to change our road signs, Spain this week changed all its motorway speed limit signs for an average cost of just €41, or £35.

The Spanish government this week exposed the Department for Transport’s case against adopting metric road signs in the UK as flawed. While the DfT maintains that it must allow an average of around £1400 per sign to change our road signs, Spain this week changed all its motorway speed limit signs for an average cost of just €41, or £35.

As the UK Metric Association (UKMA) has reported before, the Department for Transport’s excuse for allowing the UK to cling on to imperial road signs has changed from driver comprehension (as the majority of drivers have now been educated in metric rather than imperial units) to the alleged cost. Their case is based on an estimate of changing our signs into metric equivalents which averages at around £1400 per sign, a figure which UKMA has already demonstrated bears no relation to past experience elsewhere including the Irish conversion to metric speed limits in 2005.

However, the Spanish government this week changed its motorway speed limit from 120 km/h to 110 km/h – unlike in the UK where motorway speed limits are generally unsigned, in Spain there are 6,000 motorway speed limit signs to amend.

The Spanish government adopted a pragmatic approach, with many signs changed by application of reflective vinyl overlays, and has completed the whole conversion in a single day at a cost of just €250,000. This equates to just €41, or £35, per sign.

By comparison, the DfT estimates that the basic cost per speed limit sign would be in excess of £500 – and to this it adds very large sums for items such as preparation, management, disposal and ‘optimism bias’ which results in the overall cost more than doubling to over £1,000.

Whilst UKMA accepts that there will inevitably be some differences in costs due to differing labour costs etc., the Spanish government has shown that where there is a will to drive down the cost of changing signs, a practical approach can lead to an average cost many times below that assumed in the DfT’s own cost estimates.

Given this, it is clear that the DfT’s rejection of metric speed limits on cost grounds is based on a false premise, and the question of posting metric speed limits for the benefit of all road users in a quick and cost-effective manner should be revisited.

10 thoughts on “Spain discredits DfT’s case against metric signs”

  1. In response to a Parliamentary question in 2009, the minister stated that the cost of installing the first 16,000 driver location signs (DLS) was £5.9 million (or about £370 each) – see Since DLSs are found mainly on motorways, additional safety precautions are needed, which pushes up the cost. In addition, DLSs are larger than speed limit signs – for a start they are mounted on two poles, not one pole, making the material costs higher. This makes it very difficult ot believe that converting speed limit signs will be £500 per sign.


  2. This figure £35 per sign) equates with my own assessment of the cost of changing a simple speed limit sign. I found out from a local sign maker that the typical vinyl transfer (which, BTW, are used for new signs as well as overlaying existing ones), is on average £17, less if ordered in bulk. Add in about 15 minutes per sign for two men and a van at say £50 an hour = £13 for labour, total of £30.

    I read that if the cost of oil goes down to $100 a barrel or less by June, then the Spanish will convert all the signs back to 120 km/h! The very fact that this is proposed (even if it doesn’t get implemented) surely shows how simple, quick and inexpensive it is to change modern speed limit signs using the vinyl transfer overlay technique. The Canadians were of course one of the first to use the reflective vinyl overlay to quickly and cheaply convert signs, and the longevity of them (some still around even after 30 years) validates their use.


  3. The US National speed limit of 55 MPH after the 1973 oil crisis was probably the second-most unpopular law ever passed (Prohibition wins #1, hands down). When the States were allowed to go back to setting their own maximums on freeways, they were GLAD to pay for the vinyl overlays raising the limit. The cost is VERY dependent on how much you wish to change the signage.

    Your responsible agency is avoiding the most cost-effective solution in hopes of avoiding the change.


  4. One only has to read the DfT estimate published 5 years ago to see the hand of Sir Humphrey Appleby at work.

    They didn’t want the job so made sure it was prohibitively expensive. Were they keen to do it them you can bet that the result would have been very different, probably an order of magnitude cheaper, and no mention of imaginary costs to industry etc.

    It’s a great pity that Britain seems so incapable of honest debate.


  5. Is there a completely respected outside agency or organization that would be willing (inexpensively, of course!) to generate a report that gives a truly sound, reasonable estimate for converting all UK road signs to metric?

    While it would not prevent the government from concocting yet another lame excuse, at least it would take this particular red herring away from them.


  6. What do people here think is the real reason why the DfT opposes metrication?


  7. @ George Carty,

    I would say that (as ever) our government is scared of our reactionary tabloid press. They’re surely not scared of public reaction itself, given their current willingness to ram through all sorts of unpopular and divisive legislation. And they can hardly claim public inability to cope with the change without insulting the electorate’s collective intelligence (as tonyw writes in the article, most drivers now on the road have been educated in metric; and I don’t hear stories of the chaos caused by UK drivers on the Continent driving at 120 or 130 miles per hour on the motorways).

    Asking my own question in turn: 😀

    What’s the betting that an independent Scotland or Wales would pretty soon metricate her road signs?


  8. @ Peter – Wales and Scotland metricating their roads would be awesome wouldn’t it! And not at all out of the question, as they would both be ready to demonstrate their independence.


  9. The Irish Republic seems to have done it, with N. Ireland on the same land mass and a common border, without too much trouble. I see no reason why Wales and Scotland should not take the same route. I would give them all the support I could from this side.
    I tend to agree that tabloid press would be the main reason, certainly not the electorate! Even the ‘give money to my mates in the city’ don’t seem to dangle a carrot.
    Reading DfT blurb of the matter it is quite obvious there is no intention whatsoever of even thinking about changing. There are astronomical cost gestimations, totally discredited by other countries factual figures, yet not a single mention of any possible savings due to rationalization of the system. Considering the number of RTA’s and road blockages (common here in Kent and Sussex) caused by continental drivers one would think this would at least be worth some consideration.
    Now, if it was about changing to LHD I could understand the procrastination. Just changing the road signs there is no excuse.


  10. The change to speed limits in Spain shows that where there is a political will to drive down the cost of changing road signs, it can be done. There is no reason why the Department for Transport cannot adopt the same approach in the UK. The DfT do not want to do so because they are not interested in abandoning their ideological attachment to imperial units and are therefore not interested in investigating how the cost of metricating road signs can be reduced.


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