DfT guilty of making unfounded claims

Yesterday, the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the UK Department for Transport (DfT) for its unfounded claims about the benefits of the proposed high speed rail project HS2. In this article, Ronnie Cohen identifies another unfounded claim by the DfT – one that relates to the change to metric units on road signs.

The DfT regularly claims that policy is “evidence based”, and one such claim is that drivers who have not received metric education at school would be confused by a change to metric units on road traffic signs (Parliamentary Written Answer, 11 July 2002, Hansard, Col 1116w). However, other countries’ experience of the metric changeover suggests that such confusion is not a significant problem.

With this in mind, Ronnie Cohen recently made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the DfT. In his FoI request, he asked what evidence there is to support the claim that older drivers might be confused by metric units. This is the response (DfT reference: GT51/2/2/F0010060) dated 13 May 2013:

“Dear Mr Cohen

Freedom of Information Act Request F0010060

Thank you for your information request of 17 April about older drivers who might be confused by the use of metric measurement. You referred to a Parliamentary Written Answer dated 11 July 2002 which explained the Department’s (“the DfT”) view on the use of metric measurement on traffic signs and asked the following questions which I have numbered for clarity –

1. How many drivers have been confused by metric-only private sector restriction signs and what were the consequences of such confusion?

2. I would be interested to know what research the DfT has done on this issue and whether the DfT has published any papers about it.

3. Does the DfT have any other evidence to support this claim that old drivers might be confused by metric-only signs?

Your three numbered requests have been considered under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the FOI Act”).

With regard to question 1, I am writing to advise you that following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested is not held.

As to question 2, I can confirm that the DfT has not done any research on this specific issue; therefore we have not published any papers about it.

In answer to question 3, again this information is not held.

In keeping with the spirit and effect of the FOI Act, all information is assumed to be releasable to the public unless exempt. A copy of this response and the information provided may now be published on our website together with any related information that will provide a key to its wider context.

Yours sincerely
(name redacted)
Traffic Management Division
Department for Transport”

We should like to thank the DfT for the clarity and speed of its response.

Having seen the NAO report on the proposed high speed rail project, Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, said the business case for HS2 was “clearly not up to scratch”. This echoes UKMA’s view on the case for retaining imperial road signs in an otherwise largely metric economy. And if an illustration of the weakness of that case is required, then we need to look no further than the DfT’s view on “driver confusion”.

5 thoughts on “DfT guilty of making unfounded claims”

  1. This is all very interesting, but not surprising. The question now is, what do we do with such information? How can we make this an issue to get the ball rolling to complete metrication?

    I feel no matter what lies the managers of the DfT have spoken concerning the issue, they will still resist metrication. What we need to do as a first step is to push hard for removing any laws that make metric illegal on the roads. This is worse than not metricating. With a reform of the laws, we can encourage those who want to use metric to do so without fear of having signs damaged.

    Is there anyone in the media that supports metrication enough to publish an article? What media outlets are metric friendly? The only way we can move forward on this issue is with support. Who supports us strongly enough to make a difference? Anyone in Parliament? What about Lord Howe?


  2. Excellent use of the Freedom of Information Act. We should also celebrate the fact that the response is candid.

    I have the following further comments:
    1. Please consider doing FOI requests via
    It makes the process simple. It is searchable. All requests & responses can be seen by anyone. A response can be quoted with just a web link. It allows requests to be made with an alias (for good reasons, this is entirely legal). I’ve used it successfully and highly recommend it.

    2. Perhaps we could use FOI requests to discover progress on, and impediments to, transition from imperial-only to currently permitted dual unit signs.


  3. I notice that the DfT replies do not mention anything about improved safety etc.
    A publicized aim of the DfT, (made a few years ago), is to make Britain’s roads the safest in the world. This has been covered in other [Metric Views] articles; one aspect is reducing street clutter by using metric signage see:

    Click to access Traffic_Signs.pdf


  4. This letter is very interesting. Past letters I have received from the DfT have been very strident in terms of their anti-metric rhetoric. Those letters were written when Philip Hammond was minister, who is on record for not only being hostile to the idea of metricating Britain’s road signs, but introduced measures to roll back the entire DfT to imperial units.

    By contrast, this latest letter is subdued in its tone, considered in its wording, and, while not actually favouring metrication, says nothing against it either. Perhaps we may indulge ourselves in a little cautious optimism that the current Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Patrick Loughlin, would at least consider, in a fair and reasoned process, converting our road signs to metric units?


  5. All we can conclude from this FoI response is that metricating road signs isn’t on the agenda and no aspect other than the short term cost of conversion has been researched or quantified; certainly no one has looked at the benefits.
    It would further seem that when ministers are asked about it they make up answers as they go along.
    The real obstacle to all this is that it is only ever seen as a transport issue and never in a wider context. Cost would be less of an impediment if the DfT did not have to find the money purely out of their own budget and a higher authority mandated it (prime ministereal level presumably).


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