What do imperial traffic signs cost?

One of our regular readers, John Frewen-Lord, a quantity surveyor, has attempted to answer this question. In this article J F-L refers to the junior Education Minister’s suggestion that there would be more teaching of imperial units in the future school curriculum (subsequently played down by Department officials as “no significant change”).

UKMA regards the Minister’s suggestion as a political stunt to appease Eurosceptic critics (not that it has anything to do with “Europe”).  It has still to be formally consulted upon and is unlikely to get any further.  Nevertheless, John’s analysis is a useful demonstration of the order of possible costs of the DfT’s obstinate refusal to join the rest of the world and permit metric units on the UK’s road signs.  This is what he wrote:

“For very many years now, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) has used the excuse of cost in its obstinate resistance to converting the UK’s traffic signs from imperial to metric values. It has become quite obvious that this is simply a smokescreen for some other (and rationally unjustifiable) reason for refusing to bring the country’s road signs in line with virtually everywhere else in the world.


Just recently, it has been proposed to start teaching Britain’s schoolchildren imperial measures in school, purely, it must be emphasised, because of the use of imperial units on road signs – there is absolutely no other reason whatsoever for re-introducing imperial units in the school curriculum after some 40 years of metric-only teaching, and no other use of imperial units in government, industry, commerce or the professions.


This is very much the tail wagging the dog (any sane person would suggest changing the road signs!). Has the DfT backed itself into a corner on this issue? Can it still now use the argument of cost in refusing to change? Perhaps the following may shed some light on the total cost implications of this somewhat bizarre and very backward step.


The DfT, as reported on in MV on many occasions, has come up with a grossly inflated cost of £700 million to convert all of the UK’s speed limit and distance signs to metric units. Others have said that the true cost, especially considering the economies of scale involved, are more like a tenth of that. My own assessment is that the real cost may be as much as double that tenth, but is unlikely to exceed £150 million. Let us use that figure as an upper-bound and conservative estimated one-time cost.


That cost must then be compared with the recurring annual costs of NOT converting the UK’s road signs. In order to do that, the one-time cost must be annualised over a number of years. Road signs probably last somewhere in the order of 20 years before they either wear out, or are replaced for other reasons. The average mid-life will therefore be 10 years. The £150 million thus represents an annualised cost of £15 million per year. (I have ignored the time value of money.)


Now let us look at what ‘saving’ this annual amount of £15 million is actually going to cost, or is currently costing, the UK:


Re-introducing imperial units into the school curriculum


Back in 1992, Richards Phelps undertook a study in the US for Education Week, showing how much teaching dual measurements costs US schools. In particular, Phelps noted that: “… there is a cost to the time spent in teaching two systems. A full year of mathematics instruction is lost to the duplication of effort. Mostly in the elementary grades, our schools spend a few weeks a year [my emphasis] teaching two measurement systems when teaching just metric could be done in one-third the time. Elementary school mathematics textbooks generally give equal weight to the two systems, as do the newly completed curriculum standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.”


In the UK, it is doubtful that equal weight would be given to teaching imperial units alongside the metric system (although it could happen!), and therefore the full year lost in the US (over the 12 years typical for US students) would be much less here. Nonetheless, additional time must be allowed (or is the UK going to abandon other subjects to incorporate teaching imperial units?). This additional time is, say, one third of that spent in the US, or four months over those 12 years. With a typical school year of, say, 200 days, that represents an extra 5 ½ days a year additional classroom time [that is, 200 days per year multiplied by 4 months divided by 12 years, 200 x 4 /144 = 5.6 days – Editor] (I’m sure British schoolchildren will really relish that!). What will this additional time cost per year?


It would be unfair to simply pro-rata the total costs of these 5 ½ days into the annual education budget, as many fixed costs (such as tangible assets) won’t change. But incremental costs will. I will assume that these incremental costs amount to 50% of the annual budget. In 2008-9, the UK education budget was £62.2 billion (source Wikipedia). Allowing for some inflation, let us assume in 2013 it is currently £65 billion. Over a 200-day school year, that represents £325 million PER DAY! Those 5 ½ days, at an incremental cost factor of 50%, are going to cost the UK a staggering £894 million a year!


That alone exceeds the entire one-time cost of converting Britain’s road signs, even at the DfT’s own inflated estimate! But it doesn’t stop there – there are other costs as well.


Lost Exports


I have reported before on a lost export order suffered by an engineer colleague when his Japanese client, undertaking a due diligence visit, assumed that, as all he could see were imperial road signs, the UK was not metric (or metric enough), and, rather than risk a metric-imperial mix-up, awarded the contract to a competitor in a properly metric country. Other British companies may never even get the opportunity to bid on export projects, as overseas companies look upon Britain’s workers as being potentially proficient in neither metric nor imperial units (but particularly metric), and look elsewhere.


In 2011, the UK exported £480 billion of goods and services. Let us round that up to £500 billion for 2013. The US (the world’s only main non-metric country) represents 11% of that, leaving £445 billion exported to the metric world. But how much more than £445 billion would that be if that metric world had TOTAL confidence in the metric capabilities of Britain’s companies and their workforce? Even at a miniscule 0.1% of lost opportunity, the UK may be (and likely is) losing almost £445 million a year in lost exports. It could in reality be much more than that.


Again, we see a cost to the UK economy EVERY YEAR that is of the same order of magnitude as the one-time costs of converting the UK’s road signs (and many times those costs on an annualised basis, using some sensible cost estimates).


The above are just two significant aspects of the UK’s economy that are being, or will be, negatively affected PURELY by the DfT’s insistence on retaining imperial measurements on our road signs. There are numerous other costs well, such as companies having to deal with dual measurements, a workforce with less than optimum mathematical skills, the real costs to society as a whole of foreign lorries striking bridges, and so on, all of which probably amount to many more hundreds of millions of pounds a year.


How can Britain’s politicians be blind to what’s happening here? To cost the British economy at least £1.5 billion a year to save a mere £15 million over that same year – £100 of costs for each £1 saved – is plain madness!”

Author: UK Metric Association

Campaigning for a single, rational system of measurement

39 thoughts on “What do imperial traffic signs cost?”

  1. One point to add to the very good points made above is that our neighbour in the British Isles, the Republic of Ireland completed the move from miles to kilometres on their roads in around 2006. It would be possible to find out what their costs for conversion were which could then adjusted to the UK. I was in Cork and Dublin last week and was asking taxi drivers about the change – it had caused no problem and every one just adjusted. So not only those going to or coming from the continent have to change measuring system, so do those driving across the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As usual the British Government insults its citizens by apparently assuming we are stupider than our neighbours and do not have the natural aptitude let alone the will to change.


  2. Ireland went for a cost-saving solution, all signs apart from speed restriction signs, were changed as they came to the end of their useful lives. That approach would reduce the DfT figure by a substantial amount. The amount for changing speed limit signs could be reduced further by having a change-over period of a few weeks (the savings would be on overtime working), The new speed restriction signs would be differentiated from the old ones by having a yellow field rather than a white field (as in Sweden) (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilometres_per_hour) and the text “km/h” below the number.
    During the first phase, any signs displaying “120 km/h” will be erected and the corresponding imperial signs removed. During the second phase, 100 km/h and so on. Such an approach has the added advantage of a built-in contingency should work be set back due to unseasonal weather.


  3. I don’t agree with Martin’s approach to converting the speed limit signs.

    Dual signage – even for a few weeks – provides no incentive for drivers to change. They would be free to ignore the new km/h signs and only look at the mph signs. In so far as they do look at both, there is a residual safety risk as a result of possible confusion.

    There would be no cost saving since there is no element of “end of useful life” replacement (as with distance signs – that’s a different argument). Indeed there would almost certainly be a major cost increase since not only would there be two labour-intensive operations ((1) erect new sign, then later (2) remove old sign), but there would probably have to be a new post in a new concrete base. The highly successful Irish approach simply involved unscrewing one disc and replacing it with another, taking about 10 minutes.

    In any case, the sums being talked about (for speed limit signage) are tiny compared with the vast amounts that the DfT routinely wastes. The estimated cost of replacing speed limit signs “overnight” was £20 million in 2006. It won’t have changed much.
    The cost of the aborted West Coast Main Line franchising fiasco was £80 millions and counting. The sums being discussed for HS2 are just mind-boggling.

    This is one of those issues where costs do not really enter into the argument. It is not about money. It is about hearts and minds. If the DfT wanted to do it, they would find it from savings in the small change. As they don’t want to do it (obviously for political reasons), they manufacture problems and invent preposterous cost estimates.


  4. John’s observation regarding the lost exports due to imperial road signs giving the impression to potential export customers that the UK was not metric (or metric enough) should surely cause some MPs to rattle the cage at the DfT.

    More worrying to me, however, is the possible scale of lost opportunities due to ‘a workforce with less than optimum mathematical skills’.

    Is it really worth risking this for the sake of a few signs along the road?


  5. Opel cars, the General Motors German subsidiary, have recently started selling their cars in Australia for the first time. Some models, albeit rebadged as Holdens, have been sold in Australia for years but this is the first time they have been sold under the Opel marque. Branding is very important in selling cars and in Australia, European products are seen as sophisticated and desirable. There was no question of marketing the cars as Vauxhall, the British subsidiary, even though Vauxhall cars were once sold in considerable quantity in Australia, because of the perception of German engineering being infinitely superior to that in Britain. This negative image of British industry hinges mainly on the fact that the UK still clings to outdated parochial measurements which can be seen on every road sign in the country.
    Many Australians find the decline of British industry sad. Others find it laughable that the country has dug itself into a rut by refusing to change. Both reactions are bad and result in lost exports for the UK. I suspect that the UK has this image problem in most Commonwealth countries. It costs Britain money and prestige and it’s so unnecessary.


  6. Now aged 54, I had ten years of secondary/tertiary education taught solely using SI units (thankfully). I often wonder if I would have a case at the European Court of Human Rights against the DfT, as my whole state education prepared me for a fully metric UK and, as a road user, their refusal to change the signs negatively impacts on my daily life. Given some surprising successful rulings on other topics, I’d love to take up the challenge!


  7. @IanR

    Hear! Hear! I’d chip in a few quid to support such a court challenge. 🙂


  8. I think the key point made in the article is that the non-metrication of road signs is more than just a transport issue. The retention of imperial road signs is a key factor making educators argue that they should continue to be taught in school. The government could justify the change on those grounds alone and give the DfT and local highways authorities the money to do it.

    In case anyone else had the same difficulty as I did understanding that editorial note about the 5.6 days a year lost to education I offer an alternative and hopefully clearer explanation as follows:

    In the American case it was stated that 1 year is lost to teaching dual measures over a period of 12 years. The author speculates that it would be a third of that in the UK. If we take 1 year as 200 days that amounts to 200/3 = 66.67 days. Hence over a period of 12 years that works out at 66.67/12 = 5.56 days per year.


  9. Another example of the social cost of Imperial road signs: the persistent use even in nature and science shows from the BBC of “miles” right alongside metric units like “metres” (as in from one sentence to the very next during the narration).

    The most recent show I just watched showed a production date of 2002. I’m wondering if anyone can say if the situation has gotten any better in last decade despite the reinforcing effect of Imperial road signs on the use of “miles”.


  10. Actually, I should have said ‘the persistent use of “miles” right alongside metric units like “metres” and “kilogrammes”‘. It’s quite telling how “miles” will slip in all the time even when all of the other kinds of units used in a program are metric.

    Surely, this is a clear indicator of the insidious and perfidious influence of those Imperial road signs, which continue to be a major contributor to the persistent muddle.


  11. Last night’s Panorama on BBC1 helped to put these figures into perspective. The programme was about Barclays, and said that its former Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, had been paid about £120 million total over 6 years – almost enough to change all the speed and distance signs on UK roads. It also suggested that a large part of Barclays’ profits came from the aggressive promotion of tax avoidance schemes, diverting money from the government to private companies and bankers’ “remuneration”. So it’s all the same money, really.

    The programme included a film clip of Diamond at a party standing next to Philip Hammond, who when Transport Secretary boasted that he would not pay £2 million up front for dual height and width restriction signs that would save £10 million a year. Bob might have written a cheque on the spot if Hammond had asked. On second thoughts, that’s unlikely as Diamond comes from the only other country in the world with lots of non-metric road signs.


  12. The general mixing of miles and metres in BBC programmes is very common, I also find. Presenters seem to know their metres from their yards, and metres can even be seen on some height restriction signs and private signs. But the kilometre is nowhere to be seen in the general environment and is therefore still the preserve of scientists, engineeers and those professionally involved in measurement. The non-metrication of road signs has a knock-on effect throughout the whole of society and carries an enormous social and economic price tag in terms of the damage it causes to education.


  13. This is a very interesting angle on things. There are one-off costs of conversion and ongoing costs of failing to convert.

    Would somebody please publish this discussion on the newsgroup:


  14. Confirming @Jake from the other direction, namely, that according to my Irish correspondent the introduction of metric road signs has definitely caused a shift to using kilometers in everyday speech rather than miles. (Others may be able to confirm this from their own recent trips to the Republic.)


  15. I often read the articles of the UK Metric Association with two heads. Yes I agree that the current fudge of metric and imperial measurements in Britain is causing a certain degree of confusion and that the younger generations are more adept in metric units for most purposes. Having served as a student in a typical midlands secondary school for three years now, I can tell you solidly that nine out of ten students will weigh themselves in stones and measure their height in feet. They will talk about pints of beer and milk, miles and feet on the roads and pounds and ounces for newborn baby weights.. Yes, the majority of younger people do talk about weights of products in kilos and grams or Celsius for temperatures even in summer, but younger children are not running the country. Look at the opinion polls and they will tell us that a clear majority of people throughout the country are in favour of keeping things as they are: half-imperial, half-metric. Even when it comes to what is surely the most-metric matter in Britain (Fahrenheit and Celsius) – most people use Fahrenheit in summer, and Centigrade, as they call it, in winter. I do think that the Department for Transport have grossly and misguidedly exaggerated the cost of metrication for decades now but having read many articles on this website I must ask the question no one has dared ask before: if the majority of people do not want to convert wholly to metric, what rights have you to enforce your system on them any more than they have to enforce their system on you? None. The current system may be irritating to foreigners and to British nationals alike, but there must be no contention about this fact: two-thirds (68%) want to keep the current measurement system with no change to the way products are labelled, fruit and vegetables are sold loose, milk or beer are measured, temperatures are calculated, weights and heights are expressed or how road signs are set up. You say that in schools there are no metric measurements, why only last week my maths teacher told me his horse had was 72 inches and my science teacher not so long ago, after a long lesson of discussing Body Mass Indexes (weight in kilos divided by height in metres squared) said and I quote, that he ‘weighted 16 stone and [is] 6ft 2in tall.’ On higher maths GCSE papers only undertaken a few weeks ago in practice for the real thing, I can tell you I saw miles and miles per hour on the many papers we practiced on (no kilometres or km/h whatsoever), the conversion from centimetres to inches and temperatures from Celsius – though the 2009 paper mentioned ‘Centigrade’ – to Fahrenheit. Like it or not: by the consent of the overwhelming majority of the people, imperial is here to stay. Rant over.


  16. @James Neece:
    You are simply saying how things ‘are’. The whole point behind UKMA’s rationale is to try to show how much better things ‘would be’ if we had one uniform system of measurement like virtually every other modern country and economy in the world. The point you make about being tested on ‘conversions’ is an obvious example. Please read through all the threads here and you will find well-written statements of why this teaching is a waste of time and money. If you have a proper system of measurement used and understood by everybody you do not need to keep teaching how to convert back to the old system which has been (or in the case of Imperial, should have been) fully replaced. Children don’t have to learn how to convert decimal currency back to shillings and pence because the currency changover was properly handled (and I am old enough to remember how it was done). The problem is that the transition to metric was handled on a sector-by-sector basis and not across-the-board as it was in Australia and other former colonies which modernised their system of measurement to metric decades ago but where they did it properly. You say people are happy with the half-and-half of two systems. But that is all they know unless they have lived and worked in countries with a proper single system of measurement (as I have). It is a waste of time and money not to complete the transition to metric. It is a waste of children’s education: they learn metric in the classroom and see something called ‘yards’ on signs outside the school. So they have to learn Imperial as well, or at least enough to understood street signs. But they can’t calculate in either system effectively. We have generations of children and adults who are mathematically challenged. This has a major impact on the economy in terms of what work they can do if numbers and measurement are involved. I could go on but I would just be repeating what others have written on other threads on this website.


  17. @James Neece

    I think your math teacher may have misinformed you, as there appear to be two issues:
    1) Inches aren’t for horses. Horses are measured in hands. He is teaching Imperial wrong.

    2) Did you ask him how to square 6 ft 2 in. It’s a major nuisance. The easy way is to convert to decimal feet but as the decimal system can’t divide by multiples of three, I’m sure that would be unsuitable for an ardent Imperialist. I would propose
    (6 ft + 2 in)² = 36 ft² + 24 in·ft + 4 in² = 38 ft² + 4 in²
    however, I am quite unsure how to divide 16 stone by that.
    It seems easier to convert the whole mess to metric and compute properly.
    Why measure in a mixed base system utterly unsuitable for computation?

    More practically, the only other country that understands your “feet and inches” doesn’t really understand your “stones.” (or your gallons, bushels, hundredweights and tons). These systemic differences in American and British measure are most easily explained via the metric system. IDEA!!!: Why not just use metric all the time instead of just to explain these differences. Then EVERYBODY could understand.


  18. I would like to thank James Neece for his “rant” (as he himself described it) as he does actually make a serious point, and this is a good opportunity to answer it.

    He gives examples of how many UK residents (including school students and their teachers) default to imperial measures, and refers to opinion polls (unspecified) that purport to show majority opposition to completing the changeover to metric. He asks what right have Governments to “force” metrication on an unwilling majority.

    The problem that such polls suffer from is that their results are strongly influenced by how you ask the question. Moreover any poll that asks questions about hypothetical situations of which the respondent has little or no knowledge or experience have little credibility. People naturally prefer what they know or are accustomed to over what they don’t know or is unfamiliar. So I would largely discount these polls.

    If you were to ask people whether they think it is a good idea to have two measurement systems, with some people using one system, and other people using a different system, or whether it would be better to have a single system used by everybody, you might get a different answer (but again only if the respondents really understood the question). Moreover, little is known about the strength of feeling. My guess would be that there are small minorities strongly for and against completing metrication and a large majority who are fairly indifferent.

    One of the tasks of politicians (unfortunately more honoured in the breach than in the observance) is to give a lead – rather than slavishly to follow the latest opinion poll or defer to the populist clamour of tabloid newspapers. If they misjudge public opinion, then they may be punished at the polls – if the voters think the issue important enough.

    In fact, all the evidence is that amongst all the issues that influence voters, units of measurement is nowhere. Issues such as the economy, education, health, immigration, law and order etc, completely eclipse esoteric issues like measurement units. I am quite confident that a government that grasped the nettle and took decisive action to complete metrication and – also explained it properly – would not suffer at the polls.

    James is right that imperial remains the default system for a large proportion of the population and the media. In the absence of any official encouragement or explanation, people will naturally copy their parents and their peers. But that is the problem: there never has been any official encouragement or explanation of why metrication is necessary. Instead Ministers have sought to blame others, notably the EU, which has helped to identify metrication wrongly with “Europe”. Alternatively, they have deferred decisions, hoping that they will have left office before the question comes back to bite them.

    So the argument that we should remain in the present mess because many people are opposed to completing metrication doesn’t hold water. If public opinion were the test, we should never have started the project. We can’t stop now.


  19. @Jake reminds us properly of the currency changeover and how it was done properly. Imagine the equivalent muddle that would exist of the government had simply*added* decimal coins in addition to the old L-s-d coinage and anyone could price, sell, and buy in either type of currency. What would the argument in favor be of such an arrangement even if a majority of citizens preferred the old L-s-d currency? Which business sector would prefer such an arrangement?

    Also, the current UK muddle is an accidental artifact of the changeover to the Tories just when the government was on the path to converting road signs and the artifact of the Republicans (under Ronald Reagan) comingto power just as Jimmy Carter was preparing the USA to convert to metric.

    Had both the Democrats and Labour won instead of losing in those two crucial elections, UKMA would not exist and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Why should those “accidents” of history prevent the sensible conversion to a uniform system of measurement (i.e. the SI) by the current (or at least some future) government?

    Note also that, once the USA finally wakes up and we do convert to metric, this whole folly of “saving the mile and the pint for Britain” will go up in smoke in a flash. With the influence of the American economy and media (think TV, movies, etc.) at that point suddenly pushing Britain towards metric, meaningful opposition to metrication in the UK will certainly collapse almost overnight.

    Given all that, how can the current muddle be even acceptable, let alone preferable?


  20. I would like thank Erithacus for a very balanced and thorough response to my “rant”. I agree with many of the points which she has put forward. I should like to point out that the opinion poll to which I referred was a YouGov poll conduced in September 2010 with the wording: “Would you like to see the metric system introduced for all purposes in this country, so that there is only one system of measurement?”. And to Mr John Steele I should say that my Maths teacher did quote the height of his horse in both hands and inches: I quoted it here because inches are far more commonly used than hands, in the same was centimetres are far more used than decimetres. Also I should point out that I am not an ardent imperialist: I support metrication to the fullest, including that of road signs (perhaps with the exception of the pint for beer simply to save a tradition). To Jake I should say that, having lived in Spain for four years before moving back to Britain, I too have lived in a fully metric environment for a space of time. I posted on this website not to criticise, for it agree with you on virtually all points of dispute. No, I posted here so that I could gain some useful points to use in a debate with my peers about the current fudge of imperial and metric measurements, where I will argue why the current system works but that a metric only system will work much better. Thankyou very much.


  21. I am also grateful to James Neece for the snapshot he gives of the measurement muddle that exists in the UK. As far as ‘forcing’ metrication on an unwilling public is concerned, as James puts it, UKMA is not trying to force anything on anyone. It is British governments themselves which started the move towards the adoption of the metric system in the UK. UKMA is simply asking for this process to be drawn to a logical conclusion and for the task to be completed, as has been done in the Commonwealth countries which took their lead from the ‘mother country’ in the 1960s but which actually completed their transition. Experts in metrication themselves have said that no country that has completed the process has even expressed a desire to return to Imperial units. We know that the voluntary route to completion in the UK has failed and therefore government action is required if we are not to live with this befuddled mess forever. I do however take comfort from the fact that James says he reads UKMA’s articles with two heads. If his description of the status quo in the UK was written with one of those heads, I like to think his other head sees the sense and wisdom of having a single set of weights and measures that everyone is taught at school and can be expected to understand and use.


  22. The assessment Jake gives of my thoughts on the UK Metric Association’s works and his feelings on my ‘two heads’ viewpoint is absolutely true. I support metrication to the fullest and do not want to turn back (though I do hope that we retain the imperial pint for the sale of beers and ciders in pubs).


  23. The UK Metric Association, James, is also amenable to the retention of the pint so long as the litre is also allowed. We in fact advocate the deregulation of prescribed quantities for beer but with a requirement to display price/litre allowing price/pint as a supplementary indication.
    This may appear to contradict our argument for a single system in all other areas but we recognised that the one minor exception for the pint in the pub would be a small price to pay for the larger objective.


  24. @Philh

    ..But not all contributors agree.
    I see no point in retaining pints, nor in supplementary (dual) labeling. That is what got us into this stupid mess in the first place. My heart stopped for a while when I heard those exclusions announced at the time. I knew then we were in for a long hard slog. Never in my worst nightmares did I expect to still be having this conversation some 40 – odd years later.
    So why not revive the Flaggon of beer (or whatever it was) so we can get a real flavour in the days of Henry 8th?
    On the other hand, if it offers a sop to the luddites and helps move us on on the roads then let it be so.


  25. I agree with those who say we should not get too worked about the pint as a quantity. It is only a size number, like shoes, but with very limited choice: 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 and multiples of 1/2. Try asking in a pub for 3/4 pint of beer. And it stands alone, as all other imperial measures of capacity from the tun (about 955 litres) to the minim (about 0.059 mL) have become historical curiosities (but no less interesting for that).


  26. Philh, I totally agree with you that we should deregulated the quantities in which beer is sold and allow pubs to sell beer by the half litre should they so choose. I would be in favour of a system where the only imperial hangover is the pint, so long as the price per litre is displayed too. I imagine signage being something like this, “One pint (568ml): £2.95 (£5.19/litre). I see no problem whatsoever in retaining this one small exception once the larger objective has been achieve. And, BrianAC, you may be in favour of replacing pints with litres and may think that my idea of keeping the imperial pint is ludicrous. However, do not compare the imperial pint, which is perhaps the most widespread imperial measurement after the mile, with a sixteenth century fad. That sir, is irritating and nasty.


  27. Back to road signs, I agree that making metricating road signs is the key element in finishing the metrication project: Making height limits, width limits, length limits, depth gauges, distances and speed limits on road signs fully metric – as well as ensuring speedometers and odometers of cars, motorcycles and vans, and the in-cab height indicators of vehicles over 3.6 m (I think) are compliant. Not to mention correcting the already metric weight limit signs and replacing the already obsolete remaining imperial weight limit signs.

    Personally I favour correcting the problem of “m” being used to abbreviate mile (only in the UK) as a first step. As long as this isn’t done, this continues to give the UK a bad image internationally, along with the fact that UK’s road signs are not metric.

    I agree with JF-L that there are big costs to society, and in terms of lost potential business due to a poor image, poor numeracy etc. of not having metric road signs in the UK. Costs that would disappear after metricating the road signs just once. These figures should be publicised in my opinion.


  28. So now I read (a bit belatedly) that many communities in Britain are establishing 20mph speed limits (with new signs, I presume):


    The article also mentions that the government had promised to raise the speed limit on the motorways to 80mph (although it is now backing off due to protests from safety campaigners).

    DfT and the current government don’t seem to have two neurons in their brain to rub together (as we sometimes say here in the States). How on earth can they claim there is no money to convert road signs, yet all of these new speed limit signs are being put up with lower speed limits (in mph, of course) and DfT was prepared to spend all kinds of money changing motorway speed limit signs to 80mph!

    Not a lick of sense to be found with any of that lot! It’s pure political pandering to some misplaced notion of British “pride”. What they should be proud of is British science, British ingenuity, and British inventiveness (a la John Wilkins, for instance). What a crying shame to see all of this tomfoolery from Whitehall when it comes to road signs. 😦


  29. I’m in Canada at the moment. Sad to see a rather worrying amount of regression back to imperial, but brought on by 20 years of NAFTA, and the insistence of the USA to ignore and disrespect Canadian standards and culture. My son and I visited the Toronto car show, and I was shocked to see some models with USA specs – lit up instruments in imperial units (illegal in Canada). Talking to many old Canadian friends, Canadians it seems are now weary of the battle in fighting the USA on every front.

    One point I made in my original article was the damage done to British exports by the perception that Britain was not metric due to its imperial roadsigns. This was brought home to me last night, when my son and daughter-in-law were helping my grandkids with a carpentry set and a make-your-own jewellery set that I brought over from the UK. My daughter-in-law, who has visited Britain, was astonished to see that the instruction books with these kits were 100% metric (as of course they should be). She wondered how come, since Britain’s roadsigns were not metric (and therefore presumably the whole country)?

    If she has that perception that Britain was not metric because of our roadsigns, how many potential foreign buyers of goods and services have that same view? I’m beginning to think that the 0.1% of lost exports I suggested in the article may in fact be way too low. In which case the country really is losing vast amounts of business.


  30. The perception from abroad is indeed that Britain is not a metric country – at all! Visitors to the country do not study the backs of packages of goods in the supermarket where they would indeed find metric labelling. Their view is informed by what they see on the roads entering from the airports and ports. Add to this the fact that most people in Britian still use imperial units in conversation and that the media seem to delight in dumbing foreign new items involving measurements down into imperial and it is hardly surprising that this impression exists. Half a century after we adopted the centrigrade, now the Celsius, scale, some newspapers are still using fahrenheit as their primary unit of temperature. Where is the concept of a single nation in all of this? Why was no lead given by government fifty years ago for the media to come in line and use the new units? Why did the BBC offer conversions back to imperial for years and years and why is it sometimes still doing so today? Why did the London weather forecaster on the BBC last night tell us the elevations of certain towns in ‘feet’ although you will not find those units on maps unless the maps are seventy years old? Road signs are the single most obvious sign of Britain’s failure to embrace metric units. I am convinced that if this issue were addressed then much of the remaining attachment to and use of imperial would wither away as the new units would enter people’s minds and take root in everyday life.


  31. James Neece, people only using fahrenheit in the summer time is news to me. Everyone I know young and old uses centigrade only bar the odd one or two. And whilst watching my nephew who is (11 years old) doing his maths homework. There were alot of questions regarding kilometres and none in miles.


  32. How can politicians be so blind?
    The answer is simple. Because they only care about the short term. Most politicians (like anyone who takes the time to think about the issue in depth) probably realise that it would make sense to change the signs to metric, but the costs would be short term and the change would be unpopular, while the benefits would all be long term.

    Thats the sad reality. Nothing is going to happen until public opinion changes – and of course that’s a bit of a Catch 22 because public opinion won’t change until miles become unfamiliar and they won’t become unfamiliar until they disappear from road signs!


  33. You are quite right of course Andy. The catch 22 you refer to shows why it is important for politicians to lead sometimes rather than be driven solely by public opinion.
    The real difficulty, in my opinion, is that the too many politicians suffer from the same misconception as the wider public, namely the failure to understand that miles and yards etc are only accepted because British road users haven’t experienced anything else.
    Had they waited for decimal coinage to gain popularity as a precondition for decimalisation back in the late 1960s it would never have happened. So instead they had to take a lead and promote it. The result was very successful and no reasonable person today would seriously accuse the government of that time of being undemocratic because of it.


  34. Yesterday I watched a program on Dutch TV: Road Abusers (Wegmisbruikers). A British motorist made a very expensive mistake regarding the measurement of maximum speed limits in The Netherlands. He thought that these limits are in miles per hour. Yes, really! So, when encountering a sign, saying ’70’, he sped along at 116 km/h (72 mph). He was pulled over by the police and had to pay a 367 euro fine. The fines for traffic offences are very steep in my country compared with Britain.


  35. This article on the BBC news web site gives real insight into why the government’s perspective on something like road signs can be so blinkered:


    Not sure what can be done to rectify this situation, but it certainly does cry out for redressing … and soon!

    [By way of amplification, Ezra has added:]

    When reading the article by Stephanie Flanders about the blinkered view London has which excludes the rest of the UK, it seemed to me that perhaps this was a parallel version of the blinkered view Washington DC has of the world while ignoring the rest of the USA.

    In that sense I can see how that London-centric view can encourage members of the government to stay stuck in their view that the metric muddle in the UK does not require any fixing since no one in their local world is complaining about it. Over here we sometimes call it the Beltway echo chamber (where “Beltway” refers to Washington, DC since the large ring motorway around our capital is called the “Beltway”).


  36. Here’s an example of “what imperial traffic signs cost”:


    This story featured in this week’s “Metro” newspaper, but doesn’t seem even to have got coverage on the BBC’s website. “Metro” claims that the driver “tried to squeeze a 4.6m truck under a 4.4m bridge” but as can be seen, the bridge is actually signed as 14′ 6. Even if he knew he was driving a 4.6m vehicle, the driver couldn’t have known if he was going to make it or not….

    It doesn’t look to me like the driver made any attempt to “squeeze” under the bridge! More like clobber it at full-tilt!


  37. I suspect Ezra Steinberg is an American unfamiliar with UK speed limit signage practice.

    Unlike the USA, the UK has national speed limits which automatically apply if there is no signed lower limit — for cars these are 60 mph for single carriageways (roads with no median) and 70 mph for dual carriageways (divided highways) and motorways. Trucks and buses have their own (lower) national speed limits.

    The national speed limit applies on almost all motorways, so increasing the speed limit to 80 mph would not require any signs to be changed (as there aren’t any).

    Incidentally, what do people here think the single carriageway limits should be post-metrication? Round down to 90 km/h, or up to 100 km/h?


  38. In reply to George Carty’s comment above I would prefer 90 km/h.
    One related problem is the lack of enforcement of speed limits in (? many) areas.


  39. I wonder if some people oppose metrication of road signs because they fear that environmentalist or other anti-car campaigners will seize the opportunity to drastically lower speed limits by declaring that the new speed limits (in km/h) will be the same numbers as the old mph speed limits? (Such that the motorway speed limit for example would be reduced to a mere 70 km/h…)


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