Metric traffic signs – an issue that goes round in circles but will not go away

The reply to a recent parliamentary question prompts thoughts about joined-up government in relation to measurement units.

On 26 November 2012, Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport), provided this written answer to an MP’s question* on the metric changeover of UK road traffic signs:

“There has been no spending by this Department (including the Highways Agency) on the metrification (sic) of traffic signs in the last three years and there are no plans to change the law to allow the conversion of traffic signs in Great Britain to metric measurements. Traffic signing in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and subject to separate regulations.”

Unambiguous, and demonstrating clearly the UK Government’s lack of concern about the impact of road traffic signs on the wider picture of the use of measurement units in the UK. However, it leaves the door open to a single, simple and logical system of measurement units for all road traffic signs in the island of Ireland. Or does it?

Regular readers of Metric Views will be aware that the Republic of Ireland, having converted distance traffic signs to metric in the preceding years, changed its speed limits in January 2005.

In 2007, in response to an enquiry relating to this issue, the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Road Service, replied as follows:

“… the responsibility for traffic signs policy in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. However, … 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.”

He continued:

“I am advised that the UK Government has no plans to change distance and speed measurements 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 Northern Ireland will remain in Imperial units.”

So the Governments of the UK and Northern Ireland appear to be selective in their application of joined-up policy on measurement units. For traffic signs, we are told, units have to be common between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But generally, a two-system measurement muddle is accepted, with most of the UK economy, including education, science, engineering, manufacture, medicine and trade being metric, but traffic signs remaining Imperial.

It is almost as if we were driven onto a roundabout forty years ago and, despite many changes of driver since, we are still going round. Alas, Mr Baker seems unlikely to steer us to the exit.

* Written Answers – Transport: Road Signs and Markings (26 Nov 2012)
Lumley: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much his Department has spent on the metrification of transport signs in the last three years; and what plans his Department has to convert transport signs to metric measurements in the UK.

Parliamentary report

51 thoughts on “Metric traffic signs – an issue that goes round in circles but will not go away”

  1. If a speed limit sign is in mph, the driver has to make sure the needle on his speedo does not go past whatever the number on the sign shows. That works, sort of, as it simply means comparing two numbers. Sort-of, though, because most people in Britain today do not know what a mile is and certainly don’t know what the tenth of a mile displayed on their speedo is. Does it mean something in feet, yards, inches? Supporters of Imperial will tell you it doesn’t matter. You do not need to understand Imperial to use it, they say. Well, how can you calculate anything in Imperial if you don’t understand it? Imperial is not taught as a system of measurement, so why is it still on our road signs for the measurement of speed and distance? We have a relatively good record of road safety in Britain, though not for young drivers. With metric road signs (i.e. signs in the units taught at school) it could be even better.


  2. I first commented on the possibility of NI “going it alone” in the Ireland Revisited link, Now I have the answer – No, from both UK and NI. Seems daft to me, but then I am no politician, thank God.
    On the point of motorists not understanding measurements, this week, for the second time in three weeks, I have had to wait while a camper van reversed out of the Tesco underground car park entrance (err, different vans I think!). Despite the huge black on yellow, horizontal banner beam giving height in both metric and them other things, it seems they just do not know the height of their vehicles whatever is used. Surely if someone is driving such a vehicle, which by definition is going to enter places of a restricted nature (camping sites, ferries come to mind) then they should at least learn one of them.
    Back to my hobby horse – Get rid of dual signs and then we have a chance, albeit a slim one, that some drivers may learn what they are driving. As most of us “know” metric then that is the way to go.


  3. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that Northern Ireland resists the idea of “going it alone” and metricating traffic signs since the Protestant majority wants to maintain as much distance as possible with respect to the Republic of Ireland while at the same time staying as close to the rest of the UK as possible for political reasons (unfortunately).

    We’ll probably have to wait for the next elections (which I suspect will not be called early) and hope for a Labour government that is more sensible with regards to metricating road signs. A few more years of creeping metric mindshare amongst the growing younger population won’t hurt either, I suspect.


  4. The way speed limits are set in the UK is utterly bizarre and today incomprehensible. First, speed limits can only be in increments of 10 mph, because vehicle standards require speedometers to be graduated in these increments, nothing less. Obviously the USA (the only other major country in the world still using miles) has no problem with this, as increments of 5 mph are to be found there. Metric speed limit increments are suffciently small at 10 km/h to not require anything smaller.

    Second, the speed limit on any road in the UK is mandated by law to be set according to … wait for it … the distance between streetlights. Back in the mists of prehistory, when the car was in its infancy, there may have been a (vaguely) logical reason for this (whatever that reason may have been), but certainly not today.

    Briefly, if the road has streetlights AND they are spaced no more than 183 m apart, then the road MUST have a 30 mph speed limit. In addition, there CANNOT then be any ‘repeater’ signs on such a road reminding motorists of this 30 mph limit as – ta da! – they might get confused! Whoever came up with this piece of (il)logical thinking must have been pretty confused him/herself.

    As for the 183 m spacing, how is a driver supposed to be able to measure this? Between looking out for speed cameras, constant monitoring of one’s speedometer, as well as the occasional glance at the road ahead, there is not much time to be able to GUESS at what the street light spacing is, let alone actually measure it. Use your odometer? 183 m is a distance not measurable on ANY odometer, metric or imperial. One can come close with a metric odometer, but no chance with an imperial one, especially as a younger driver may NEVER have been taught (at least officially) how many metres there are in 1/10th of a mile. Digital odometers (where the 10ths simply click from one reading to the next, are impossible to use as a method of measuring streetlight spacing.

    It seems clear that the whole principle of setting speed limits needs to be brought into the modern age, using such logical criteria as road conditions, traffic hazards, etc. And at the same time convert the speed limits to km/h, where 10 km/h increments can enable much more precise limits to be set. Seems a reasonable advance on using spacing of the streetlights!

    But this requires some intelligent thinking on the part of the DfT. We know they are incapable of this (and not only in respect of the roads – they are proving themselves to as equally inept and incompetent on the railways as well), so I don’t hold out much hope that anything will change anytime soon.


  5. Another twist in the circle today.
    Will the new toll roads be charged by the mile or by the km?


  6. @John FL

    Yes, Federal rules (MUTCD) require US speed limits to be multiples of 5 MPH (no units shown on sign) or 10 km/h (numeral enclosed in a circle, “km/h” legend under the circle). Of course, 50 States and DC choose the MPH option.

    Worse yet, many of the States are “passive-aggressive” and have passed a law that metric is only legal IF the local authority (county, city, town, as applicable) also agrees to it. That means metrication faces not 50 obstacles but tens of thousands of obstacles.


  7. I think the worst feature about UK speed signs is that they are identical in layout to the signs used elsewhere for km/h speeds. This is most confusing. I once spoke to a British tourist in Australia who was alarmed to see a 40 sign in a school zone until he realised that the speed was in km/h.

    In the United States the signs are different, and drivers have an instant clue that the measurement is different. Australia had the same speed signs as the United States before we metricated the signs in 1974. This video on Youtube shows how the difference in signage actually assisted the changeover:

    If the UK used the American-style signs for miles per hour, at least they could not be so easily confused with km/h signs.


  8. @Michael Glass … Sorry, I am not quite with this one.

    Surely, the clue is the country in which you are driving?
    If you are driving in USA or UK the speed limits are in mph. If you are driving in any other country of the world the signs are in km/h.
    There may be some odd ones, but I tend to find out before I start driving.


  9. @Michael Glass

    Canada uses nearly the same design speed limit sign as the US, but with km/h. US uses “SPEED LIMIT” as the text, Canada uses “MAXIMUM”; both use a number with no units as the next line on the same rectangular white background. Canada does have a yellow metric placard they can place below the sign. It is not mandatory but they tend to use it near the border. Given that we have over 2000 miles of land border crossing, there is risk of confuion. The Customs/Immigration booth helps most people figure it out (however, prior to 9/11, there were places where crossing the border was pretty informal)


  10. Brian, I agree that it is the country that determines the speed signs. Still, the fact that the UK uses MPH speed signs that are identical to the km/h signs used elsewhere is potentially confusing.

    The most confusing part must be around the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At least one road crosses and recrosses this border. It is all very well to state that drivers should be alert. However, some drivers are tired or distracted by other concerns. In this situation the added reminder of a visibly different speed sign is a help to all, and not just to those whose memory needs a jog.


  11. John, thanks for the information about Canadian road signs. I think it’s a pity that Canada did not adopt the international signs during the metric changeover. The risk of confusion from the similarity of the signs in the United States and Canada could be reduced if Canada adopted the international signs.


  12. As far as UK /NI / Eire is concerned they follow the Vienna convention for road signs, I don’t know it that allows for different units, that was not part of the plan. Here the sensible thing is for NI to start using km/h. I do know the Irish police do moan a bit about people “thinking they are miles per hour”. Even so, for the most part, the motorist should have the right “feel” for the right road. That is if you are in a built-up area you know where the speedo needle should be pointing irrespective of any road signs. We also know that on a single carriageway country road we don’t do 80 mph. The US / Canada one will be around for ever.
    The sad bit about this is that UK and American tourists do not realise that all other countries use a universal system of measurements different from our / their oddball ad-hock DafT units.


  13. When Canada did convert, intially all the speed limit signs had a small ‘km/h’ (white letters on a black background) under the numerals. Over time, almost all of these signs have been replaced. the ‘km/h’ note disppeared at the same time.

    I drive regularly in Canada and the US, as well as in the UK and Europe. The European style signs can be found both in mph and km/h (UK and Europe), while North American style signs can also be found in mph and km/h (US and Canada). I find no problem knowing which units I am dealing with, although I admit the Irish situation could be cause for confusion.


  14. I am not totally convinced about BrianAC’s argument that “… the clue is the country in which you are driving”. It can happen (and has happened to me), that one can be required to drive in a country without sufficient warning to enable the rule of that country to be studied. In my case, in November 2001 I started a new contract. For the first two months I was due to work in Grenoble (France) and for the final two months in Rome. I planned to return to the UK on alternate weekends. Three days after I arrived in Grenoble, it was agreed that my team would relocate to Naples that weekend. I did not have an opportunity to get any information about driving in Italy other than a low-scale map. I bought a large-scale map of Italy at the first services I visited after crossing the border and an English-Italian dictionary at a market stall in Lucca en-route to Naples. At least I knew that “km/h” was universal.


  15. An ideal opportunity to combine forces and save costs was missed when the UK failed to metrticate its road signs at the same time as the Republic of Ireland. We read that ties between the two countries are strong and focused on peace and prosperity, so why did the two departments of transport not talk to each other and consider this as a joint venture? As a result, the Republic of Ireland has had to erect large, shiny signs at its border crossings to inform drivers entering from Northern Ireland that speeds are in kilometres per hour, while crossing from the Republic into Northern Ireland new, shiny signs have been put up to indicate that speeds are in miles per hour (the latter signs could just as easily have been prefaced with the words “Sorry, we are still stuck in the past in terms of measurement”). The situation is also quite dangerous because modern Irish cars do not indicate mph and, while Irish drivers who have lived through the transition will no doubt still understand mph, this cannot be said of visitors in cars hired in the Republic, especially those from other European countries whom both the Republic and Northern Ireland are surely glad to welcome as tourists.

    A joint effort would have saved the Republic of Ireland the cost of signs merely to point out that speeds are in km/h, and Northern Ireland could have put the cost of its equivalent signs to state that speeds are still stuck in mph towards new metric signage. As the speeds on most cross-border roads do not really change except for the units of measurement they are displayed in, no additional cross-border signage would have been needed anyway as speed limits in the Republic could have been deemed to continue into Northern Ireland until changed by a different speed sign and vice versa.

    So much is said in the UK about the exorbitant cost of converting road signs to metric, but a joint changeover in the UK and the Republic of Ireland would have saved both countries money and it would actually have been over and done with. Instead, we are left with the rather ludicrous situation of a land border where the numbers on road signs change even if the real velocity of a vehicle actually does not. It is progress in terms of securing a single system of measurement but only for the people of the Republic of Ireland.


  16. @Jake:

    The problem of km/h-only speedometers in an mph land is not confined to Northern Ireland. When I lived in Canada, some of my cars (mostly VW Rabbits/Golfs, Jettas, and Saab 900s, as well as, bizarrely, a 1988 Jeep Cherokee) had km/h-only speedometers. Not a problem of course when driving in Canada, but it did mean I had to mentally convert when driving in the US. The other cars in my household were Japanese/Korean – Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas and a Hyundai, which were dual marked (metric predominant/mph secondary, probably the only such ones in the world).


  17. @ John FL:

    I realise a similar problem exists between the Canadian and US borders, but there you do have to slow right down, if not actually stop, and go through a border check point, and it is therefore absolutely clear that you are leaving one territory and entering another. In Ireland, apart from the main motorway from Dublin to Belfast, you are often on country roads and suddenly these large metal signs appear from nowhere to tell you basically nothing other than that the unit of speed measurement changes from km/h to mph and vice versa. In such a relatively small geographical land area as the island of Ireland it seems rather ridiculous to metricate part of the territory but not the rest. I realise there may have been political objections in Northern Ireland to considering such a joint venture with the Republic but it is nonsense to think that hanging on to mph makes a territory more British when most of the former British Empire has modernised and is now metric and when more metric units are named after British scientists than any other nationality. And that argument obviously applies to the rest of the UK as well.


  18. @Jake’s comments are spot on about the advantages of converting road signs to metric in the UK when Ireland did. Unfortunately, I suspect the Unionists wouldn’t want to “go it alone” (even though that would have made sense also) and look like they were taking a step towards unification with the Republic given that Westminster wasn’t willing to convert the rest of the UK at the same time.


  19. @ Ezra:
    As I understand it, the Unionists would not have been able to ‘go it alone’ anyway as the units displayed on road signs are not a matter devolved to the Northern Ireland authorities. And a joint venture would have had nothing to do with political unification. The authorities on the two sides of the border cooperate on all kinds of matters already. In the scenario I envisaged the island of ‘GB’ would have converted at the same time. It would all have tied in together. At a basic level, the islands of both Ireland and Great Britain are part of the European single market, a venture that both the British and Irish governments strongly support, so it makes sense to have at least the same units displayed on road signs even if the actual shapes and sizes of signs differ to some degree. If you drive across continental Europe the shapes and sizes of signs change but the units displayed do not. It seems madness to have a large country in the single market area with different units of measurement on its roads to the rest of the market. We see the result in the UK in the form of bridge strikes and other accidents caused by drivers from other parts of the single market area to whom imperial units mean absolutely nothing. And they are increasingly meaningless to British drivers too. The opportunity for that joint venture and the associated economies of scale has obviously been lost. There is currently a debate going on in the UK about road sign clutter. I am hoping the issue of measurement units will be raised as part of that debat because a clutter of too many different units on a road sign is as much of a distraction as a clutter of too many signs.


  20. @ Jake
    You are trying to bring logic into politics! That does not work.
    I can no longer find the links, but from my post above ( BrianAC says:2012-12-16 at 15:55
    I first commented on the possibility of NI “going it alone” in the Ireland Revisited link, Now I have the answer – No, from both UK and NI. Seems daft to me, but then I am no politician, thank God.)
    The UK government (DfT?) said this was a devolved matter and up to the NI whoever to deal with road signs. The NI equivalent said, in an unrelated incident I believe, that road signage was down to central (UK) government. Sorry I can’t be more specific, maybe someone else picked up on that link?
    With each passing the buck to the other, neither seeming to know who is even responsible we won’t get very far.


  21. Unfortunately, the question of metricating the road signs in Northern Ireland is split along political lines. The Unionists go for Imperial and the others are more inclined to go for metric measures.

    I asked members of the Northern Ireland Assembly that question some time ago. Here is a summary of what I found:

    I counted 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, I cannot guarantee that my summary is free of mistakes.

    Five members of the Assembly did not publish an email address, and 10 emails bounced. That left 93 with valid email addresses of whom 39 replied to my email.

    Of the 39 who replied, 23 favoured the Imperial measures, 14 favoured metrication, one answer was ambiguous and one, Mr William Hay, the Speaker, stated that convention meant that he was unable to comment. All but one of the opinions for Imperial measures were from the DUP and the UUP. Opinions in favour of metrication came from Sinn Fein, the Alliance, the SDLP and a Green. Opinion seemed to divide on whether to conform the road signs with the UK (Unionists) or with the rest of Ireland so opinions split on party lines. Six members of Sinn Fein pointed out that the Assembly did not have the power to change the signs. However, while one appeared to accept the status quo, the other five stated that Sinn Fein had a pro-metric policy. These five sent me almost identical replies. One reply indicated that the member thought I was asking for the Republic to switch back to using miles and miles per hour.

    I think it’s important to point out to the Unionist parties (the UUP and the DUP) that Ireland won’t be returning to the Imperial system, so if they want uniformity on Irish roads, metrication is the only way to go. It’s also important to stress that many people on the other island also support metrication, so supporting metrication does not mean support for separation from the UK.

    Meanwhile, it is good to stress to the other parties that support for metrication should not be a political football. It is clearly desirable that everyone on one small island use the same measures on the roads, just as it is desirable that you use the same rail gauge, even though this is different from the rail gauge in Great Britain.

    It should also be pointed out to both Unionist and non-Unionist members that if the Northern Ireland Assembly recommended changing the road signs, Whitehall would hardly be in a position to say no. The game of Whitehall flick-passing the decision to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Sinn Fein flick-passing the decision to Whitehall shows both Whitehall and Sinn Fein in a poor light.

    Instead of playing games with Whitehall, Sinn Fein should have the courage of their convictions and support an obvious reform.


  22. Well, now the miles on road signs (and speed limits) are to be used as an excuse for teaching Imperial in schools (in addition to metric).
    Ministers said that a new curriculum “goes further” than previous documents drawn up under Labour by requiring schools to place imperial units at the heart of maths lessons.

    Under new plans, a draft primary school syllabus requires pupils to understand and use the “basic equivalencies” between metric and common imperial systems.

    The document also makes greater reference to miles to make sure children are fully aware of the standard measurement of speed and distance on British roads, it was revealed.


  23. but note the final comment from a DfE spokesman: “No significant change is planned. Imperial units are in the current curriculum and will be in the new curriculum. Both the mathematics and science curriculum, however, will continue to teach metric measures as standard.”


  24. All so so sad. Saddling our future generations with a whole mess of obsolete measurement units, not to mention adding weeks of time to the school year. And for what? Just so the Dft doesn’t have to change the road signs over? Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

    What does it take to get the government to see the stupidity of it all? But then we’re talking about politicians. Appeasing the few loud protestors is much more important than doing what’s best for the country. The only bright note is that the comments after the Telegraph article were suprisingly pro-metric. Considering that this is the Telegraph, one of the most ant-metric papers in the UK (and presumably so are its readers), the considerable support for full metrication in these comments should send a message to the government. They won’t listen, of course…


  25. If no significant change is planned, no new policy is needed.

    This will undermine UKMA’s metric majority argument because now the kids are trained in Imperial too, and there is no need to change the road signs EVER. (Well, except for foreign visitors, but they will be ignored. They don’t vote.)

    Perhaps I am overly concerned, but Americans have more experience with giant steps backward. In 1995, Congress undermined FHWA metrication policy and brought metric road construction and signage to a crashing halt from which it never recovered. FHWA has completely abandoned any metrication of roads, and has removed metric signage from the MUTCD (well, they moved metric to an appendix and there are no words on whether it is still legal or now illegal). After what Congress did, it is State’s choice and no state will choose the metric option so I suppose the MUTCD change doesn’t matter.


  26. How much longer is the DfT going to consider the roads and the units shown on road signs as something that has nothing to do with measurement in the rest of society? How much longer is it going to leave Britain as the laughing stock that cannot make up its mind what its system of measurement is? How many more generations of children are going to be taught the global system of measurement only to find signs outside their school that don’t relate to what they are taught? Metric is not just for maths and science; it is for life. It is the global norm, as pointed out in a recent letter to the Economist. Metrication is not a political issue, it is not about being British and defying the rest of the world, it is about modernising Britain and bringing it into line with virtually the whole of the world in terms of measurement. Forget what America does. They may be our main ally, they may have provided all kinds of assistance in the past, but they are not the example to follow in measurement. We are a European country and a global player and we should use the world system of measurement – metric.


  27. Erithacus: I think it’s significant that most news outlets in Britain didn’t even report this “story”. It’s basically confirming business as usual, though it’s probably true that the D.f.E deliberately set up the whole exchange in order to be able to make such a statement. AFAIK, this is a standard technique in parliament, in which a back-bencher is asked to send a written question to a minister on a given topic, because then the minister’s answer will be heard in the House, and be published as such.

    The back-bencher selected for this game (Andrew Percy MP) seems to have enjoyed his minute of limelight, and penned a fairly incompetent article for the Torygraph:

    He claims that it is illegal for a roadsign to display distances in anything other than yards or miles. That’s wrong for a start. It applies by default to official signs erected under the auspices of the TSRGD, yes, but privately erected signs can be in metres if the owner wants them to be. I know of several – one very prominently advertising 250m to a McDonalds drive-through.

    Based on his first mistake (above) he further claims that “How can teaching our young people how to use the only measurement system allowed on UK roads be anything other than a progressive step?”

    Well everyone on here can answer that for you Mr Percy! The reason for deferring the original1973 date for changing the roadsigns to metric was (in part) to allow for a significant amount of the public to have been educated in metric.

    Now that we’ve reached that point, we can see the government scrambling for a cop-out. *Now* they claim that because the roads are in imperial, then kids’ education must be wasted so that they can understand that system.

    The “progressive step” sought by Mr Percy is to fix the problem properly. With metric majority achieved, change the bl**dy roadsigns to agree with what the last several generations of people have been taught!

    How much would it cost (just in money terms) to shoehorn more teaching of imperial units into a modern primary school’s syllabus? And bear in mind that that cost occurs repetitively, every year. Balance that against the probably 100 million quid one-off cost of fixing the roadsigns.

    This government evidently will not countenance any more metrication of roadsigns, and will happily cripple our children’s education in furtherance of that policy. Doesn’t look like anyone listened to Mr. Cameron’s speech a few months back where he laid it on about how we need to produce more engineers and scientists to start making Britain “great” again.


  28. @ Wild Bill

    I agree. It was obviously a political stunt designed to appeal to readers of the Daily Telegraph and others who might be thinking of defecting to UKIP. Happily, it seems to have been a bit of a damp squib. The “draft consultation” is described as “informal” (i.e. Ministers chose the consultees). We are promised a proper consultation in due course, and we may have an opportunity (together with organisations with a genuine interest in maths and science education) to make the points that you have made. MetricViews will probably review the situation at the time.


  29. Since 1973, the DfT and successive transport ministers have maintained that the continuing use of Imperial measures on some UK road traffic signs has no implications for the rest of the UK economy and that their changeover to metric can be considered in isolation. This is nonsense, as has often been pointed out here and elsewhere. Perhaps we should be grateful to the MP, assisted by the Daily Telegraph, who drew attention to some of the evidence and perhaps also to the ongoing costs. Clearly, this IS an issue that will not go away.


  30. I think this political stunt can only be seen as a massive shot in the foot for anti-metric campaigners.

    It is an explicit admission by the Government that the majority of British drivers do not fully understand the units used on our road signs, and that keeping imperial has, and will continue to have, quantifiable ongoing costs which can only be ended by switching to standard metric signs.

    Any future change to the school curriculum will be a non-starter. It would be a vain exercise in “closing the barn door” – There are already 2 generations of road users who left school long ago without being taught imperial.


  31. I remember having to learn to convert into imperial at school ie yards and feet and inches (I’m 35). Whilst it’s undesirable it isn’t being used in favour of metric. Indeed it could help us, as children will now know metric is the better system.


  32. The fact the pro-imperial brigade is not saying much says it all. The toilet red tabloids haven’t said much either.


  33. Which part of the National Curriculum does the minister intend to jettison to make way for the additional time spent teaching the imperial system? Will calculators be allowed?


  34. Here in Japan, CNN weather forecast tries to use metric measurement. Sadly however, on the weather chart, wind speed abbreviation reads “kph”. Where’s the metre, Muppets? But hey, CNN is staffed exclusively by US Liberal Arts Muppets. Hold it up to the light, not a brain in sight.


  35. Going back to traffic signs, this article at should be read by all those at DfT who say that it is too expensive to convert Britain’s traffic signs. This extract is particularly appropriate:

    “Ideally, a benefit-cost analysis calculates the benefits and costs as they accrue to all of society – such is the nature of a social benefit-cost analysis. Anything less – an analysis that calculates benefits and costs for a sub-group – is a private benefit-cost analysis, and the researcher is obligated to explicitly declare it as such. Benefit-cost analysis should be most welcome in education research. Benefit-cost analysis imposes a structure in which “the whole picture” gets considered. It provides a framework that can impose rigor and honesty onto evaluations that could otherwise be sloppy.”

    That last sentence needs to be seriously learnt by DfT.

    I believe that not having UK’s signs converted to metric costs this country dearly – as Martin said above, in terms of increased education costs, and as I have said before, in terms of lost exports and loss of British prestige. I am sure there are other costs as well, such as transport companies dealimg with dual measures, not to mention companies having to retrain young workers who have had to learn dual measures (metric at school and imperial at home because of stubborn parents who refuse to change) and who become proficient in neither. All these costs – ongoing year after year – probably amount to many times more than the one time cost of conversion.


  36. Government expenditure:
    The cost of amending speed limit signs is estimated at £20 million – a tiny amount compared with the DfT budget.
    You could compare this with the 2012/13 cost of the Dept of Health’s GP Patient Survey projected to be under £4 million. [Information provided by Patrick Driscoll, Ministerial Correspondence and Public Enquiries]


  37. Doug Sheehan makes a good point on UKMA’s Facebook page, He writes:
    “If the problem is people no longer understand imperial road signs, surely it makes more sense to move to metric road signs.”


  38. It’s not just the problem of changing road signs. Cars in the UK have speedometers graduated in mph, with a secondary km/h scale. In my car the km/h scale is much smaller than the mph, and is in dark red on a black background. In other words, it is quite useless. Surely every car speedometer would have to be re-scaled and fitted with a new odometer, at God only knows what cost (although I suspect it would be paid by the motorist through even more taxes). One problem for the metro-fascists is that many people in the UK actually like the idea of being different, and until that changes we’ll continue to use good old miles, and continue to drive on the left. Or is that something else that must go?


  39. When Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada changed their road signs to metric in the 1980’s and when Ireland switched its speed limit signs from mph to km/h over a single week-end in January 2005, no motorist was required to “re-scale” their car’s speedometer or to fit a new odometer, and there were no significant increases in road accidents as a result. But perhaps people in the UK are different – perhaps we really do like to claim that simple jobs will be difficult and expensive so that we can put them off.

    Incidentally, Australia, NZ, SA and Ireland still drive on the left as they did before the metric change, and Canada still drives on the right as before. One of the few countries to switch since the 1960’s from driving on the left to driving on the right is Burma aka Myanmar, but strangely they have retained imperial measures. Perhaps they actually like the idea of being different too.


  40. Neil above berates those who support the full adoption of the metric system in the UK as “metro-facsists”.
    Well, many of the strongest objectors to metrication are very right wing in their political views and much closer to being facsist than anyone supporting the idea of a single rational system of measurement in the UK.


  41. Neil: you are incurring extra cost for your speedometer *now* because a special *imperial* version has to be produced for the UK market. With a metric speedo you have the economies of scale and the savings found throughout the metric world where you have one single specification for the scale markings. You are right to highlight the issue of the poor readability of the km/h scale on many British speedos, though. As I understand it, that is because there is no legibility requirement for the metric scale, only for the mph one. Commonwealth countries which have metricated and more recently the Republic of Ireland did not have major problems with the changeover of the speedo. Cars can be put on the market with a proper metric km/h scale and a – legible! – smaller mph scale for a transtional period of the lifetime of a car (say, 10 years). After that, there should be no need for the mph scale any longer and it could be simply dropped from new cars. During the changeover in Ireland, the authorities provided full and effective information to the public and the public were expected to know the law and the change coming about. There is no reason why this approach cannot be taken in Britain. After all, metric has been taught now in schools for 40 years and people can be expected to be able to apply what they have been taught. As far as being different is concerned, the French are different to us, the Germans are different to us, the Italians are different, even the Belgians and the Dutch are different, yet they all have a proper system of measurement and we don`t. And we are paying the cost of that every day in the loss to our economy because we don’t use metric (or at least not properly).


  42. My car has the “unreadable” km/h scale issue, but there’s a load of ways of handling the MPH -> km/h transition easily enough. I’d guess that 40% or more new cars have digital speedos that can be switched from km/h to MPH and back from the dashboard setup menu. A friend with a Citroen C4 demoed how easy that is just the other day.

    Another thing is that many sat-nav units display speed, so all you have to do is run your sat-nav with the speed display in km/h and ignore your car’s built-in speedo if you can’t read it.

    Alternatively, stick a GPS-based speedo app. on your smart-phone, and just prop that up on your dashboard.

    Alternatively, just stick little paper labels onto your existing speedo to remind you! I know one person who has an imported car with a km/h only speedo and he drives it with paper labels all over the speedo to provide MPH at-a-glance.

    As soon as the DfT got brave enough to announce that the MPH->km/h change was imminent, they would modify the construction and use rules to require that all new cars sold in Britain after a given date had km/h dominant speedos (or switchable ones). So on the date of the change, significant numbers of then-current vehicles would be km/h ready anyway.

    It could be done easily, but don’t worry, it won’t happen any time soon. Not with a Tory-led government, and not with the current clowns in the DfT. I’m starting to doubt that I’ll live long enough to see it, being in my 50’s already.


  43. You could always have dual Imperial/metric or metric/Imperial road signs and signage. But perhaps that would be a too confusing for the average British motorist. Both Britain and the US are between a rock and a hard place in regard to metrication. The British will be muddling through with two systems for decades or even generations to come until someone in power actually grasps the nettle and makes the hard decision to fully metricate the country or abandon metrication altogether and return to fully using Imperial, or return to using Imperial as fully as the UK can in the modern world where the use of Imperial units has enormously decreased worldwide since the mid-1960s. Successive UK governments have been messing around with metrication since 1965 and it still isn’t resolved, which hardly makes metrication an example of British resolve and decisiveness.


  44. When I raised the issue of different measurement units used in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which both share a land border, with the Department for Transport, I got the following reply:

    “I have forwarded your email with the subject name ‘Problems on NI and RoI Border’ to the Department for Regional Development Northern Ireland, as your enquiry is about a devolved matter and therefore is not one that the DfT can either comment on nor give an informed reply.”

    It seems that there is total confusion between various levels of government about who really is responsible for measurement units used on road signs in Northern Ireland. The NI executive thinks that it is a national matter whereas the DfT thinks that it is a devolved matter.


  45. One very telling example of the influence of road signs (and of government decisiveness) is the metriction of road signs in Canada back in the 70’s.

    Last night on the CBC radio program “As It Happens” a fellow from Vancouver, B.C. was interviewed since he had run in the Boston Marathon right at the time of the explosions. When they asked him how far away the explosion was from him when it happened, he quickly responded “about half a kilometer” (pronounced by him as kill-AH-muh-ter).

    Despite years of Imperial influence from the USA along the Canadian border, American media, American films, etc. etc., this fellow quite naturally and instinctively responded in metric — and I firmly believe it is because of the metrication of road signs and the pyschological impact that has on the public.

    Yes, he used an “Imperial” way of measuring by saying “half a kilometer” instead of 500 meters or 0.5 kilometers and yes he said “kilometer” the way most Americans say it, but nonetheless he used the metric measure.

    The same is true for Celsius. All the Canadians I have talked to or heard on the radio use Celsius. When I’ve asked them about Fahrenheit, they all say they have no idea what the temperature is when they hear degrees Fahrenheit.

    Once a British governments “grasps the nettle” (great phrase) and finishes metrication in all spheres of public life, the UK public will quickly adapt and just as quickly forget Imperial once and for all.


  46. To muddy the waters even more, a per-hour measurement of speed/velocity is illogical particularly for passenger cars. A per-second measurement would be far more logical, as literally nobody could maintain a steady speed for one hour, so it`s an average. Compare with revolutions per minute or metres per second (as example, gravity). Doubt if this argument would convince Mr. Plod. “You will find that my average speed over the passed hour was less than 70mi/hr.
    But then mph is not a scientifically correct abbreviation for miles per hour, as “m” stands for metre not mile. Try mi/hr.
    Bit too late to change now, Britisher pals. Looks like you`re stuck with an illogical mishmash. Your only solution would be to relocate to a metric part of the world, because residing in UK has to be an exercise in frustration.
    Jack, Japan Alps


  47. I have a small rear window sticker printed from my home computer that reads-Drive the change km/h UK metric! Is anyone out there printing a similar sign on a commercial scale yet?


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