DfT misses another trick

The Department for Transport wants to reduce sign clutter.  Very commendable, you might think.  So why don’t they adopt an obvious measure that would make many signs smaller, simpler and easier to read – and thereby reduce clutter?

The Department for Transport has recently published a leaflet ‘Reducing sign clutter’ together with a press release.  (This is actually a re-announcement of an earlier policy by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2010 – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11092590) .  Here is an extract from the latest press release:

“Thousands of traffic signs are being brought down across the country as part of a Government drive to rid streets of clutter.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is urging local authorities to continue the cull.
He has also unveiled a new document called ‘Reducing Sign Clutter’ that provides guidance to local authorities on how to remove unnecessary traffic signs as cost-effectively as possible…
.. The new traffic signs advisory document provides local authorities with various hints and tips to help get them started in removing pointless signs. It also encourages authorities to think about:
• Improving the streetscape by identifying and removing unnecessary, damaged and worn-out signs;
• Helping to ensure signs are provided only where they are needed;
• Minimising the environmental impact, particularly in rural settings; and
• Reducing costs, not just of the signs themselves but maintenance and energy costs.”

Although the tone of the leaflet is somewhat patronising, its recommendations – so far as they go – are generally unexceptionable.   It glosses over the fact that much signage is a legal requirement (e.g., speed limit repeater signs), and that the spread of 20 MPH zones in residential areas is leading (as in Portsmouth in 2007/8) to a big increase in the number of signs.

However, the glaring omission from the Circular is its failure to deal with the question of the design of the signs themselves.  MetricViews has tackled this issue before (see https://metricviews.uk/2010/08/ukma-welcomes-attack-on-sign-clutter-but-obvious-targets-have-been-missed/), but it is worth repeating.  We quote from our 2010 article:

“Some examples of current cluttered signs (on the left) and our proposed simplified signs (on the right) are given below:

Current cluttered signs                              Clear metric signs

The simplicity and legibility of the metric signs speaks for itself.  The refusal of the DfT to endorse them demonstrates that their political masters give higher priority to pleasing the anti-metric lobby than to any genuine concern for the environment and road safety.

11 thoughts on “DfT misses another trick”

  1. Just how are the DfT allowed to continue to take an anti-metric stance in the 21st century? What will it take to change one of the last major pieces of ancient Imperialism?

    I do enjoy reading Metric Views, the UKMA website and the tweets, but I invariably just get depressed as there is never any good news on this particular issue.


  2. My take on this issue is somewhat more cynical and certainly not an opportunity missed by DafT. As stated, it has all been done before, in fact it has come up several times.

    My view is that in another 18 months, plus or minus the election date, an issue of road signs is bound to come up in one form or another. DafT can say, in all honesty, something like “We have just spent xx millions doing a review of signage throughout UK, we cannot justify another xx millions on yet onother one”. Thus sidestepping the real issue once again.

    Brighton and Hove have just changed their city centre 30 mph signs to 20 mph at a cost of £1.5 million*. If they just changed the 30 mph to 30 km/h it would have cost exactly nothing! They could do this across the country, just change mph to km/h and leave all the signs the same. What a bitter sweet pill that could be.

    *[Note: this figure is for a comprehensive traffic calming scheme, of which changing the signage is a small part].


  3. The comparison between the overload of information on existing road traffic signs and the clarity of the simplified metric signs is astounding. It needs wider coverage. These pictures should be sent to every MP, every school of design and splashed over every newspaper and magazine in Britain. Even the tabloid newspapers could not justify this idiocy.
    Maybe shaming the Department for Transport publicly will have some effect.

    [It is actually quite difficult to get in touch with MPs as they are shielded from non-constituents by various filters. However, they sometimes respond to their own individual constituents, so our advice is to forward relevant articles to your own MP and ask for his/her comments. The usual email address is lastnamefirstinitial@parliament.uk. If you get a response, you can copy it to chair@metric.org.uk – Editor]


  4. How many Polish drivers of large vehicles understand “NO WIDE VEHICLES – Do not follow SAT NAV – Very narrow road”? It is rather a mouthful for English-speaking drivers to pickup while driving. If English is not your first language, you have little chance of reading the sign.

    How many British drivers of large vehicles understand a width limit of 2 metres. Probably most of them (apart from a few drivers of 4×4 vehicles that have a width of 2.1 metres).


  5. I thought I understood English, but perhaps I don’t. While pretending to be informative, the sign is vague and useless. The sign defines neither “very narrow” nor “wide” so I have no clue how narrow the road is or how wide a vehicle it can’t accomodate. Are there standard definitions of these terms buried in some law? A sign this verbose should at least have the essential information.

    (Perhaps there is a standard width restriction sign just out of camera range, but this sign, if standing alone, is non-helpful.)


  6. Even if the metric signs were square and had to incorporate some text they would still be a lot neater than the present imperial ones. Taking the first sign shown above, ‘Low Bridge Ahead’, it would be enough just to say ‘Low Bridge’, if you have to have words, and indicate the distance, e.g. 200 m as on the sign shown. A sign drawing attention to a low bridge is obviously going to be sited ‘ahead’ of the hazard, so that particular word is redundant. The fact is of course that metric signs such as the UKMA is proposing are actually used all over the world in one design or another already.
    Two of the dafter signs I have seen are in Kent and have the letter m to indicate a height width restriction in metres and the same letter m on the signs to indicate that the motorway exit is two thirds and then one third of a mile from the motorway exit. The signs in question are the Channel Tunnel exit marker signs at 1 km (signed as 2/3 m) and 500 m (signed as 1/3 m) from the motorway exit and the other m on the signs indicates the height width restriction in the Tunnel itself, which is actually superfluous as it is not a road tunnel.


  7. See Cliff’s comment and the Editor’s note above …
    It’s not just MP’s that need to see these facts but also local authority councillors – especially those who are responsible for Highways issues. How many of these councillors really know about the DfT Traffic Signs Manual?
    This document gives authoritative guidance on the use of signage and road markings; in it the regulations state metric units for distances and most of the signs to show only imperial units.

    [See this link: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/traffic-signs-manual%5D

    So readers of Metric Views shouldn’t just contact their own MP but also their Councillors.
    The County, City, Borough, District, Town, and Parish Councillors in their respective local authorities – responsible for their roads and local streets, also need to be made aware of the DfT’s mismanagement.


  8. Sorry, in my above post I was referring to the height restriction in the Channel Tunnel not the width restriction.


  9. Today, 31 January, a report into the collapsed West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco includes the words: “This was compounded by major failures by civil servants, some of whom misled ministers.”

    They could just as easily be talking about the decisions to retain imperial road signs.


  10. The BBC today, 30 August 2013, showed a picture of a bilingual Welsh road sign, that was almost impossible to read, as it consisted of long text, no pictograms at all. The English words said: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” The Welsh wording underneath translates to: “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

    This just shows the idiocy of using words to denote what only needs to be the simple standard pictogram showing a red circle with a lorry inside it, immediately understandable by English, Welsh Polish and all other nationalities.


  11. To be fair, that’s a *very* old story! It happened not far from me, though I didn’t see the sign before it was removed (it lasted less than a day as I recall).

    However, at the time of the story, the pictogram showing a truck on a blue background crossed out by a red diagonal bar just didn’t yet exist.

    Now that it *does* exist, the truck sign is gaining usage in Wales (around this bit of Wales anyway). But we’ve still got plenty of “wiggly road” (and other) warning triangles with a whopping great plate underneath saying “Am 1 filltir” and “For 1 mile” when it could have been a much smaller plate just saying “1500m” with a pair of up-arrows either side of the “1500m” bit..


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