Review fails to address major traffic sign issues

A three-year review of traffic signs has failed to address major problems with the UK’s signs.

On 13 October the Department for Transport published the final report of its Traffic Signs Policy Review. The report, “Signing the Way”, marks the culmination of a major review which began in September 2008, which at the time was hailed as, “the biggest review of British road signs for 40 years“.

In an age of increased international travel, the need for road signs to be universally understood has never been more obvious.  It therefore beggars belief that the review has seemingly made little effort to address major issues related to the international understanding of the UK’s road signs. Some of the issues that should have been addressed include:

  • The use of outdated imperial measurement units.
  • The lack of full compliance with international road sign treaties and international road safety initiatives, including the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, and the UN Decade of Action on Road Safety.
  • The use of standard pictograms versus language dependent word-based signs.

At an interim stage of the review process, the DfT had recommended that all remaining imperial-only signing of width and height restrictions should be replaced with dual-unit signs. However this decision was later reversed by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, even though the DfT’s own figures showed that the continued use of imperial-only restriction signs would cost more due to their link with a higher incidence of bridge strikes.

UKMA wrote to the then Secretary of State asking for an explanation of his apparently irrational decision, and it is hoped that the new Transport Secretary will review the decision and perhaps restore the DfT’s original intention. UKMA will publish her reply when received.

Meanwhile, on what must be tentatively considered a positive note, the review’s final report has announced the introduction of a new dual unit height restriction warning sign, which is intended to make it easier for authorities to show height restrictions in dual units. Currently, if an authority chooses to use a warning triangle, rather than a roundel sign, to show a height restriction, then it is necessary to use two separate signs if metric as well as imperial dimensions are shown. The new sign will allow a warning triangle to be used that uses metres, whilst still fulfilling the DfT’s requirement that all restriction signs must use feet and inches.

The report does not make it clear though whether the new dual unit height warning triangle will replace the current imperial (and optional additional metric) sign, or whether it will merely be added to the list of height restriction signs that are already available for highway authorities to choose from.

The signing of height restrictions is a good illustration of the unnecessary complications that result from not using standard internationally agreed signs as prescribed by the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals.

Research Project into the Awareness of the Meaning of Traffic Signs

In an adjoining report, into the awareness of the meaning of road signs, the subject of the measurement units used on height and width restriction signs is briefly investigated. The comments of survey participants include the following:

  • regarding dual unit height signs, “showing both metres and feet is confusing
  • and that imperial-only width restriction signs could be improved if the “Sign should be in metric as well“.

The report’s conclusions to both of these issues is, “Recommendations -None“.

Despite the fact that survey participants had flagged measurement units as being an issue, no effort was made to research the understanding of metric-only restriction signs, or how much easier it is to assimilate information when presented in single standard units. i.e. in the form of signs compliant with the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals – as already seen by UK drivers whenever they travel outside the UK.

Regarding sign clutter, the research report also noted that, “Foreign drivers and drivers who have difficulty reading or understanding English were more likely to feel there are too many road signs“. Yet the report fails to make the obvious recommendation that, wherever possible, standard pictograms should be used in preference to language dependent word-based signs.

The UK Metric Association produced a fully-illustrated leaflet “Traffic Signs 2.0“, as part of its submission to the DfT’s review consultation. Free copies of the leaflet can be obtained by emailing .

21 thoughts on “Review fails to address major traffic sign issues”

  1. The Department for Transport are way behind the curve with height restrictions.

    The industrial estate where I work has had metric-only height indications on all the car-park entrances and loading bays since the 1980s. All the petrol stations that I know have notices such as “max height 4m” on the forecourt shelters, and about 5 years ago Birmingham airport switched to metric-only within the airport, and removed the imperial height triangular warning signs, that were next to metric ones, over the boarding gate gantries.


  2. Peter K’s posting is excellent!

    How about using the switching of signs to metric only at the Birmingham airport (and maybe some testimony from the officials there who approved that decision) both in whatever public forums UKMA can succeed in communicating through as well as in the UKMA’s next contact with DfT?

    If there are other such examples in the UK like the one at Birmingham airport that can be cited by UKMA, that would make the case even stronger that DfT has “no legs to stand on” when it opposes metrication of at least height restriction signs (although I daresay the argument applies to all road signs). Does anyone else know of such examples?


  3. Ezra’s comment has pretty much beaten me to the same concept! It is perfectly true to point out that many (and probably most) garage forecourts in the UK have their canopy clearance height given in metric only. Some multi-storey car parks (in my experience it’s some, not most) give clearances in metres only. In my town, the council car parks are mostly in dual-units, but the local main hospital has several multi-storey car parks and they’re all signed in metres-only as are canopy heights over entrances, and most (but not quite all) other clearance heights are metric only.

    The council-run recycling centre has a height-restrictor bar across the entrance, clearly marked as “2.0mtr”.

    I could go on for hours. We probably all could make a case proving that the DfT is well behind the times and could just go metric-only on bridge height signs tomorrow and there’d be no issue with it.

    I am firmly of the belief that there is a metrophobic “Sir Humphrey” installed deep within the corridors of the DfT who will block all and any attempts at metrication with every trick in the book. And has been for the last 30 or 40 years. He will have been the author (or instigator) of the oft-ridiculed £750million costing report from a few years back.

    The DfT, even with a metrophilic Minister, would be hard-pressed to get anything past “Sir Humphrey”. Quite honestly, right now, with the economic situation as it is, even a metrophile Minister would baulk at any proposal which would cost money without delivering a concrete benefit. And we all know that the benefits of metric roadsigns are not for the motorist, but for our children and our children’s futures in the big wide world.

    So any lobbying for metric roadsigns should also be aimed at the CBI and the Departmunt of Edukashun.

    I think that the DfT’s new pamphlet is about all we could expect for in this economic climate, and to get past “Sir Humphrey”. Notice that they do state that the next version of TSRGD will “get rid of lots of obsolete signs” or words to that effect. Now that there are authorised dual-units height and width roundels and a dual-units height triangle, then the old imperial only versions are ripe for being deemed “obsolete”. Indeed, lobbying should be put up to try and make sure they are.


  4. I forgot – there’s metric-only signs at Cardiff Airport too. Not just height, but distances too (“no left turn” with a “50m” plate underneath) for instance.


  5. At a higher level it has to be recognised that since the start of the UK metrication process there have been a number of administrations in office. It appears bizarre that they all seem to have taken a similar stance on road signage. So, where is the common denominator in all of this ? Was it someone in UK Senior Civil Service that originally placed the obstacles ? If that was the case, why has nothing changed over time ? Surely the individual would by now have moved on or retired ? Now consider this. Despite their claiming the contrary, it has to be remembered that career progression for a Civil Servant depends as much upon “being one of us” as ability. Thus, it would be career suicide for someone to go against a view held at a very senior level, even if it appeared that that view was inclined to frustrate political policy. Far better to agree with it. In this way the view held then becomes self-perpetuating over time. Finally, persuade the (various) Secretaries of State for Transport that implementation of metric signage would lead to their party loosing power and there you are; status quo maintained. Praise and reward for all involved.

    A conservative self satisfied Civil Service and politicians who lack fortitude. It’s the awful truth that made “Yes, Minister” so appealing (for those of us old enough to remember it).


  6. I’m wondering if UKMA could create a web-based photo album (Picasa or other) where readers could submit photos of metric-only (or even dual unit) signs that have been posted along with their location.

    Once the album is rich enough in content, UKMA could host a press event of some sort. Maybe present a published report to DfT with some of the best photos, a summary of the presence of metric signage in the UK based on the photos collected, and corrected figures for the cost of converting road signs. This could help demonstrate the breadth of the de facto acceptance of metric signage among the UK population (as evidenced by the complete absence of “metric martyrs” blocking the boarding gate gantries at Birmingham airport) and the sensibleness of the approach of finishing metrication via road sign conversion.

    We might even be able to get some testimonials from people (like from the person who runs the organization that manages the Birmingham airport, etc.) who are in some sort of authority and who engage with the public via the entity they manage to demonstrate that they have thought this matter through and came to the conclusion that metric-only signage was the right thing to do (and the reasons why).


  7. The leader column in New Civil Engineer on 20 October provides more grist to this particular mill:

    “Over the years there have been very few long-serving secretaries of state for transport. Philip Hammond’s sudden reshuffle into defence this week should be no surprise.
    In fact the 17 months that Hammond led this key government department was the longest period spent in charge since Alistair Darling was promoted from transport to trade and industry in May 2006 after a four year stint.
    In the four years between Darling leaving in 2006 and Hammond starting in 2010, the job of leading this complex department passed between four politicians, bringing the total that have held the transport secretary’s job over the past two decades to a staggering 19 different politicians.”

    Wild Bill points out that that the decision to go for metric road signs is politically difficult (short term pain for long term gain). So is it no wonder that successive Secretaries of State at the DfT, mindful of the revolving door, have not be willing to risk their long term reputation in a short term posting?


  8. derekp@ makes a good point about the revolving door at the head of the DfT. But surely implementing the previous Secretary’s decision to post dual-unit height restriction signs to avoid costly bridge strikes hardly seems like a course of action that would create a politically difficult situation.

    So, one has to wonder what the real source is behind the “regression” at DfT that Hammond introduced. That department was anti-metric enough already …. he only made it worse (or at least tried).


  9. Following the resignation of Dr Fox, Defence Secretary in the UK, I am wondering if there is more going on ‘in the background’ of politics? I have read of the presence of various lobbying groups, such as Atlantic Bridge which is funded by US-UK individuals and companies and whose aims is to maintain the ‘Thatcher-Reagan’ ideals including Euroscepticism and interests mutually beneficial to businesses in the UK & US.

    I am also aware that there are groups promoting the withdrawal of the UK from the EU which are funded by wealthy individuals, pulling the strings of the media and wonder if the same is happening with metrication. Obviously I am aware of the BWMA, but wonder how they are funded and if their influence extends into our political parties and thus Government?

    On a lighter, but related note, I think the attached link may be of interest – it’s an old Simpsons clip and may have been posted elsewhere here. Pay close attention to line 2!! Its from an old episode where Homer joins a Masonic style group, The Stonecutters. It really does feel like this may be the case ref metrication in the US!


  10. Further to earlier posts by Wild Bill and myself:

    Although archive material (I understand the DfT web site is being updated) can you spot the Luddite at ?

    The Director General International Strategy & Environment who, according to the Guardian at used to be the MOD’s head of personnel, now appears to be an “expert” on International Strategy, etc. … What expertise, in relation to transport or otherwise, do the others posses ? Perhaps someone may wish to research that one. Wasn’t it one A Blair who said that the Civil Service needed to be more specialist and professional ? It appears that didn’t get very far !! Perhaps if they were, or if they were prepared to act on professional advice, then we wouldn’t have such as “T” for tonnes, etc., etc.


  11. The effect of the persistence of Imperial distance signs on UK roads is in evidence again in the otherwise wonderful new series on the BBC, “Planet Dinosaur”.

    Nearly every mention of a unit of measure is metric in the program, including kilometers (although pronounced kill-AH-muh-ters). However, right near the end of one segment, the narrator talks about a dead sauropod being large enough to attract predators “from miles around”.

    Some day the road signs will be converted and the vestiges of Imperial (such as “miles”) will disappear.


  12. I should add that metaphors will persist (such as “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile”) but that is of no consequences since the units in that case no longer have a literal meaning and the phrase is understood in toto.


  13. Just my opinion, but campaigners interested in the adoption of a single world standard of measurement should not waste time on issues like that (sorry Ezra). Again, just my opinion, but to do so would play into the hands of the likes of the BWMA who have long argued that somehow if Britain’s roadsigns were to go metric, then it would magically damage Britain’s heritage and traditions (like Australia mysteriously stopped being Australian in 1973 when they changed *their* signs, eh?).

    I mean – we’ve had proverbs like “Do not hide your light under a bushel” since the original translation of the Bible into English in the 1500s. Ask anyone what a bushel is and the best you could probably expect is that it is some kind of container – the fact that it once was an actual unit of volume is pretty much lost these days.

    But the phrase persists and is hardly a problem. Likewise with all the other cases of obsolete units of measurement that have built themselves into phrases, or placenames. After the UK’s roadsigns do go metric, Blackpool’s “”Golden Mile” is still going to be known as that. No-one cares already that it isn’t a mile long and never was.

    I suspect the “Mile High Club” will stay named like that too 🙂


  14. Looks like the DfT are expecting the legislation to back up “Signing the Way” to get approved in January:

    Notice that as feared, they actually state:

    “Available headroom warnings. Currently, councils wanting to indicate headroom warnings in metric and imperial measurements must use two separate signs. From now on councils will be able to use one sign showing both measurements, reducing clutter and cutting costs. Councils will still be able to use a single sign displaying imperial units only

    All that time and money spent on designing the dual-units height triangle, and they permit it not to be used on *new* signs! It would have cost councils nothing to have been obliged to use all the dual units signs from now on.

    Proof (if anyone needed it) that the DfT are totally out of touch, and evidently have not bought any petrol in the last 30 years. If they had, they’d have spotted the metric-only height signage on most petrol station canopies, and the fact that petrol is being sold in litres these days too!


  15. This is clearly an attempt to whip up their support among the anti-EU crowd.

    Just as Republicans in the USA don’t really care about deficits (witness the trillions for the war in Iraq and the refusal to tax millionaires even a tiny bit more to raise revenue) but really care about smashing the “welfare state” of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Cameron and the Tories don’t really care about fiscal sensibleness but rather about keeping their own lot in power by pandering to pubic opinion. Otherwise, they would have been eager to reduce the risk of future bridge strikes and mandated dual-unit height restriction signs.


  16. I’m also wondering if there is a way for UKMA to quietly campaign alongside road safety organizations with individual local councils to persuade them to post dual-unit height restriction signs rather than Imperial-only. This would ltimately create a fait accompli that could later result in a new regulation (under a new government eventually) that would require metric alongside Imperial.


  17. @Ezra I’ve tried on a several occasions to strike up conversations with my nearest local authorities on the subject, even when ready to praise action they have taken I often find that they will generally do the minimum required by law in order to keep within the current budget – and I suspect that this included the cost of dealing with potential trouble makers from the anti-metric side of the fence.

    Corby Borough Council did recently make a lot of noise about having put dual-width restriction signs on one road after putting in extreme restrictions due to an unsafe bridge; unfortunately they also pointed out that, months after doing so, that the metric signs made no difference and that HGVs were still trying to get down a road that has a 7 metre width restriction. It’s unfortunate that any effort being made is often ruined by somebody blindly following their sat nav.


  18. It is also possible that dual signage is less effective than metric only.

    Insofar as drivers not being aware of how the restriction compares with their vehicle dimensions causes accidents, a single system is bound to be an improvement on the status quo.

    All the more reason for progress toward the exclusive use of metric for road signage. Holding back merely sustains the uncertainty and inevitable difficulty in assessing the true causes of accidents.


  19. I believe the comments from philh@ are “spot on”. I’m also disappointed along those lines that the push was not made for (at a minimum) two separate signs for height restrictions (one metric and one Imperial). True, such an arrangement is more expensive and takes more room; however, each individual sign is more easily decoded by the driver than having the combination cluttering up a single sign. There is also the virtue that, once road signs finally do start being converted to metric only, the Imperial height restriction sign can simply be removed, leaving the metric sign to do the job.


  20. The recent veto of a European treaty exposes the isolationist thinking at the very top. We can see similar attitutes in the review of traffic signs, hence the lack of interest in aligning measurement units on British roads with the rest of the world and fully implementing the Vienna Convention in the UK.

    The DfT is not even interested in simple changes such as not using unnecessary text and not using “m” for miles. The recent review shows that the DfT is not interested in radical change and is happy with the status quo.


  21. Richard Branson had more than a few words to say about the DfT yesterday, none of them complementary. They included:
    “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn?”
    It will be no consolation to the DfT that this includes a quote by Albert Einstein.


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