Money-saving tips for cash-starved Councils and the DfT

Ronnie Cohen suggests ways to help those responsible for transport budgets, both local and national, achieve savings targets without extra spending.

There has been a recent agreement between several government departments and the Treasury to make budget cuts of 30% over the life of this Parliament (Source: One of the departments that has agreed to make cuts on this scale is the Department for Transport (DfT). Local government faces budget reductions on a similar scale. For cuts of this magnitude, government needs all the help it can get. Here, from the view point of a road user rather than a transport professional, are my suggestions:

1. Put imperial vigilantes out of business by amending the traffic signs regulations (TSRGD) to permit the use of metric units for distance.

There is a group of imperial vigilantes who go around the country to remove and deface metric signs and post reports about their activities on their website. I will not name them here but you can find out who they are by doing a quick web search. They claim that thousands of metric signs have been removed but don’t say how many of these were authorised. They claim, erroneously, that “Metric distance signs on our roads and footpaths are illegal.”. You can read about one of these imperial vigilantes at Although his conviction for theft was later quashed, his conviction for criminal damage was upheld.

The DfT bears some responsibility for their activities. The UK is alone in the world in not allowing metric units for distance on traffic signs. DfT policies have led to the misleading impression that no metric units are allowed on UK roads and footpaths. This is not the case. You can find more information about legitimate metric signs at the following links:

Unfortunately, some local authorities have given in to intimidation from those who threaten to vandalise signs.

This problem can be avoided if the DfT amended the TSRGD to allow metric units on distance signs. Amending the sign regulations in this manner would quickly put the sign vandals out of business.

Metric units are widely used by the private sector with no imperial conversion and they appear in the Highway Code, so drivers must surely be expected to be familiar with them.

2. Use pictograms instead of words

Pictograms normally require smaller signs and do not require translation. Smaller signs are cheaper to install. They are also simpler and clearer. You can find examples of smaller, simpler and clearer signs at

3. Use symbols instead of made-up abbreviations and words

Unlike imperial units, metric units have common international symbols (e.g. m for metre, km for kilometre, etc.) and do not require translation. This is especially useful for Welsh road signs where “yards” or “yds” must be translated as “llath”. Also, use arrows instead of words to indicate distances to width and height vehicle dimension signs. These measures will lead to smaller signs and lower installation costs for new and replaced signs. Once again, see for examples.

4. Avoid unnecessary signs and painted road markings

For small roads in built-up areas where a 20 mph speed limit is the norm, a small 20 mph roundel is sufficient. There is no need for painted road markings as well. There is no need for both. Be consistent.

There are other examples of unnecessary signs such this one by the London Borough of Barnet:


Drivers are expected to know what zigzag markings mean and observe them. It seems that the council lacks faith in drivers’ knowledge of the highway code.

Also, signs saying “Low bridge” that accompany height vehicle dimension signs are superfluous. A height restriction on a public highway implies that there is a bridge or similar ahead. What else could it be?

5. Reduce the number of sign variants and standardise on metric units

One category with a large number of official sign variants is vehicle dimension signs. This has led to many more unofficial ones. One of the consequences of the measurement muddle is the huge proliferation of vehicle dimension sign variants as explained in UKMA’s Vehicle Dimension Signs Report. Some of these signs tend to be large to incorporate text and, in Wales, Welsh translations. The use of imperial and metric vehicle dimension signs alongside each other is especially wasteful and unnecessary. Also, dual signs sometimes need to be larger than usual to incorporate more text.

For vehicle dimension signs, the UK needs one for height, one for width and one for length. Use the roundels like the ones shown here:


There is no need to replace all vehicle dimension signs overnight. Just use these metric signs when installing new signs or replacing existing signs that need to be replaced. Instruct highway authorities that any new and replaced height, width and length vehicle dimension signs and distance signs are in metric units only and that no unnecessary information should be added to them (e.g. “low bridge ahead”, “unsuitable for heavy vehicles”, etc.).

In Ireland, imperial signs, other than speed limits, were replaced by metric ones over a period of 10 years. This meant that no extra costs were incurred over normal replacement.

6. Require local authorities to use the simplest, standard road signs.

Some signs erected by local councils are non-standard, unnecessarily large and verbose. For example, Barnet Council has erected some speed limit signs with the words “WATCH YOUR SPEED 30 M.P.H. LIMIT” in some small roads in Golders Green.


These signs are large, non-standard and wasteful. A small 30 mph roundel would have served the same purpose. Drivers are expected to see and understand them.

Here is an example of a verbose width vehicle dimension sign, just one of several in Golders Green:


See for a smaller, simpler, cheaper and clearer alternative.

Imperial vehicle dimension signs can be phased out when they are due for replacement. This means that no extra costs would be incurred over normal replacement. Metric signs are already widely used in the private sector, especially for private car parks. The suggestions made here will help the local Councils and the DfT to save on road sign costs. While it will not add up to the required savings, those responsible will need all the help they can get to meet their targets.  And will Transport ministers and the DfT rise to the challenge and set aside their dual measures ideology in the face of financial necessity? Only time will tell.

5 thoughts on “Money-saving tips for cash-starved Councils and the DfT”

  1. Two points: a permanently erected ‘Watch your speed’ sign is, as you say, a waste of money as well as an eyesore. If it is necessary to remind drivers of the speed limit in a particular street or road, a mobile speed measuring device that flashes the driver’s actual speed can be placed at the curbside to warn the driver. If that fails to do the job, the police can then use their radar devices to target speeding drivers and fine them. This seems preferable and a more targeted approach than a permanently erected sign that neither flashes the driver’s actual speed nor imposes fines on constant offenders. A mobile curbside device to warn a driver if he or she is driving too fast can obviously be used throughout a borough or town and is not sited in one place all the time.
    Second point: the verbose blue sign in Golders Green looks awful. The figures for width restriction and distance ahead shown in a white font almost disappear againt the blue background and have to be taken in quickly at speed as the same time as reading ‘Caution’ and the fact that it is is width restriction that the sign is all about. It must be difficult enough in daylight to absorb the information on the sign let alone at night. A metric width restriction roundel in black on a white background with upward pointing arrows to indicate the distance ahead would be easier to take in at driving speed, smaller, cheaper to install and maintain and ultimately more easiely understandable by British and overseas drivers.


  2. The DfT has always used the cost argument to justify its ideology in resisting converting the UK’s road signage system to metric units. The most quoted figure, trotted out incessantly, is £600 million. The true figure is probably about 10% of this, and certainly no more than £100 million. £100 million is still a lot, and probably a high enough figure to make people stop and think if it’s worth it.

    But what if converting to metric units on our road signs could be accomplished at no cost to the government (and hence to the taxpayer)? I believe, subject to some research and analysis, it could be done. It does mean some innovative thinking (and I have some ideas), but is not impossible. If that could be achieved, and yet the DfT STILL refused to consider the conversion, then we would know for sure that it is only obstinate and outmoded ideology that is preventing the change. If that turns out to be the case, then time for some new, more forward-thinking, heads at DfT to take the place of the current crop.


  3. This article was about how new signs can be installed and existing signs can be replaced in the most cost-effective manner. Obviously, these proposals would require changes to the TSRGD to make them legal. The DfT plans to make a version of the TSRGD in the near future. They should made the necessary changes to the TSRGD to implement the ideas expressed in this MV article.

    The central message of this article is that if signs are going to be installed, whether new ones or replacements, and the money is going to be spent doing so, do it in the most cost-effective manner. This will save money and will not require any extra spending. These proposals remove the DfT’s excuse about conversion costs and diverting funds from “higher priority areas”.


  4. When Canada metricated road signs they did it easy and cheap. They covered over the old number with a new number using sticky paper. If you want to change a 40 mph sign to 70 km/h, you simply cover over the 4 with a 7. How much can that cost?

    The same is true with width and height restriction signs. Just cover over the obsolete numbers with modern metric values.

    In the future when the sign wears out, then you replace it with a fully metric sign at no cost and what I mean by no cost is the cost for the metrication part of it.

    20 mph—-> 30 km/h
    30 mph —> 40 km/h
    40 mph —> 60 km/h
    50 mph —> 80 km/h
    60 mph —> 100 km/h
    70 mph —> 110 km/h
    80 mph —> 130 km/h

    This is just an example. But as can be seen, one digit only need to be covered over.

    Here is an interesting picture where a 25 mph sign in Canada was changed to 40 km/h. The community (Bolton, ON) that did this long ago got their money’s worth out of this sign.

    There are smart ways to accomplish goals and stupid ways. Those that are innovative and can make the change in a cost effective manner prove to the world they are worthy of doing business with. The rest are allowed to sink into abject poverty.


  5. @Daniel:

    Canada converted 241 000 signs in ONE NIGHT (1977-09-04) using the stick-on vinyl overlay (same material as used for new signs), at a cost then of C$25.43 per sign, equivalent to about £60 today (C$120, US$90). Over 700 000 km of roads were involved.


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