British drivers’ exposure to metres

Ronnie Cohen takes a look at some of the ways in which British  drivers are exposed to metric measures. Metric Views would be interested hear of readers’ experiences, though it is not possible, unfortunately, to post photos with your comments.

Despite the absence of metres on UK road traffic signs for distance and speed, British drivers often encounter metric measures. A few examples appear in this article and there are more on UKMA’s web site:

In rural areas, private and government hazard signs (e.g. the forestry commission) often show metres:

Also, ford depth signs are given in metres in locations where there is a crossing through a ford. I have seen a local authority notice for drivers by a local road that uses metres. Pedestrian signs near roads in some areas show metres. DIY car products and spare parts show metric units, including metres. Notices by or on buildings aimed at drivers often use metres:

Height restriction signs at petrol stations and at private car parks are usually metric, as they are provided in accordance with safety regulations rather than those relating to road traffic signs:

Distance signs to private car parks are commonly given in metres (with no imperial conversion), and would normally be authorised under planning regulations:

Advertisements (e.g. billboard advertising) and notices to local attractions near roads often use metres to express distances to venues:

Vehicle length information on the backs of long vehicles are commonly shown only in metres. When drivers turn on the car radio, they will find metres used in broadcasts about Olympic sports, news and visibility information in weather reports. When they use maps to find their way, they will find commercial maps show information in metres and kilometres (alongside imperial units) and Ordnance Survey maps just use metres and kilometres.

When drivers look in their vehicle handbooks, they will find their car’s dimensions expressed exclusively in metres. The Highway Code uses metres, in some places without any imperial conversions. Ironically, a section of the Highway Code states that a driver’s eyesight should be good enough, with spectacles or contact lenses if necessary, to be able to read a number plate from a certain distance. That distance is expressed in metres.

Despite this, successive governments have opposed the use of metric measures on road traffic signs for distance and speed. Regulations still require that vehicle dimension signs showing metres also show feet and inches. And only recently did metric measures become obligatory alongside feet and inches for new height and width restriction signs.

The Office of National Statistics has recently reported that the median age of the UK population in mid 2015 was 40. All those now under the age of 47 will have been taught only metric measures at primary school – a clear majority of the population. We have to ask how much longer will the Government insist that the rapidly declining tail continues to wag the dog.

ps. The World Athletic Championships will run from 4 to 13 August 2017 at the Olympic stadium at Stratford, London. The Championships will, of course, use only metric measures and there will be extensive TV coverage. One hopes British drivers’ presumed ignorance of metric measures when they are behind the driving wheel can be overcome when they are in front of a TV screen.

14 thoughts on “British drivers’ exposure to metres”

  1. It is my understanding that due to a goverment blunder when negotiating UK opt-outs in about 1978 in respect of EU directive 80/181/EEC, it became mandatory to show metric units for clearances on buildings, but not on road signs. The government compounded this blunder by prohibiting metric units on road signs that showed width and height restrictions until a few years ago. For the record, the EU directive states that miles, yards, feet and inches may be used for purposes of “Road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement” … “only in those Member States where they were authorised on 21 April 1973”.


  2. I’m curious if the photo showing Carriage Gates is recent or old. This sign was damaged by ARM in this photo:

    Has it since been restored back to metric only?


  3. Quick somebody better call ARM & that 80 year-old from Huntingdon to take those evil signs down (tongue firmly in cheek btw) but seriously nobody is complaining about them so lets just finish the job we started in 1965 please.


  4. Ronnie’s post seems to provide quite convincing anectodal evidence that the British public is more than ready to drop Imperial and switch to metric only. The fact that signs created by businesses and organizations are metric-only with no thought of Imperial is really quite telling.

    Too bad road signs and metrication have become a proxy in the eyes of British conservatives and far right folks for their struggle for so-called British independence from Brussels and EU bureaucrats (which is an entirely unrelated issue).

    I’m sure at some point a government will come into power that will recognize the inevitable as well as the advantages of presenting both the appearance (via the presence of metric road signs) and the reality (via a populace that is quite metric literate) of a truly metric (and therefore international) Britain.

    Such a UK will also help nudge us here in the USA to finally get on with our own metrication (once we also have a more rational government in power! 😉


  5. Here we expose the stupidity of the situation. Basically Health and Safety signs should be in metric for safety reasons. DfT say signs in metric will confuse people and insist on imperial signs for safety reasons.
    Nice comedy, if comedy is what it is supposed to be.


  6. The Highway Code is using metres for most situations, I am unable to find any references to the yard in any of the 307 Highway Code rules although the yard is shown on pictures of warning and roadworks signs at the back of Highway Code.
    The thinking and braking distances given in metres,feet and car lengths are not used as distances on the highway so why are they printed in the Highway Code!
    Just three examples of the road sign muddle in east Kent are –
    1. Runaway vehicle escape lanes leading to down Dover port shown in various foreign languages complete with distances given in yds.
    Do foreign drivers know what a yds is? (the entire world can understand metres.)
    2. Junction 11A sign on the M20 towards Folkestone shows 2 different meanings for m on same road sign! – A bridge height shown in m. ( and feet +inch) with the distance to it in m (for miles).
    3. mph to km/h speed conversion signs for the benefit of foreign drivers are in use heading away from Dover port on the A2. (Possibly the only place in UK where km/h is officially used on the highway).


  7. Don’t worry after 2019 we can go back to the hogs head a cubits (hogs head is a Simpsons reference btw)


  8. Signs on the back of ambulances, taxis with wheelchair ramps, and other vehicles requiring unimpeded access to rear doors usually have that clearance shown in metres (e.g. ‘Please leave 3 metres clearance for access’). Another example of where British drivers are expected to know metres.


  9. @ John

    So, can we now expect ARM to start vandalizing ambulances???


  10. @Ronnie Cohen:

    ‘We have to ask how much longer will the Government insist that the rapidly declining tail continues to wag the dog’? This is what happens when you have governments comprised only of [donkey] tailbones. See also

    @Daniel Jackson:

    I live not far from Tony Bennett’s home playground and have noticed that his victims, including the council, are getting quicker and more effective at undoing the damage—seemingly to within one working day of each [thankfully increasingly infrequent] vandalisation. The New Palace Yard sign looks like it still has traces of ARM vandal’s glue around the distances, but has probably been targeted and restored several times before and since the photo’ was taken. All unnecessary work and expense just to pander to a few imperial fans and their DFT champions…


    At least DFT have stopped pretending that any significant number of professional HGV operators even understand those arc-minutes and arc-seconds any more…


  11. Thank You Mark for the refreshing bit of information. It is good to see that Tony Bennett’s money and time are being wasted. Unfortunately, so are the taxpayers. ARM never admits that its work is undone and even the news media seems to be in the dark when reporting the vandalism recently by other members of ARM over the years. The impression is that the changes they are making are permanent.

    Even though Bennett has been charged in the past and had his convictions discharged, continuous vandalism should have resulted in fines, jail time or both. ARM justifies their actions on the claim the signs are illegal. But in a complete show of hypocrisy, ARM encourages shop owners to break the law by not selling in metric with metric primary pricing. Shop keepers who break the law by not having metric only scales and price in metric should also be fined and prosecuted.


  12. @Daniel Jackson:

    At one time ARM claimed to have vandalised ~2 000 signs. But if you looked a bit more closely, it turned out to be the same 50 signs 40 times each, or whatever, spread over 10 years or more. Those signs, unsurprisingly enough, tend to be located quite near to the homes of the handful of active vandals. The notable exception being the Westminster Palace ones, which no doubt involves a day-trip into London for the gang. Half of the media like to hint that each vandalisation is long-lasting because their editorial agenda supports a reversion to imperial and they hope spreading that false impression makes it likely. The other half because it makes UK highway employees look like bungling incompetents and/ or terrorist sympathisers.

    The ‘illegal’ defence only works for [some] official public highway signs. The private signs which ARM also vandalises have always been legal, or at least the metric couldn’t make them illegal. In one video which you linked here, Tony admits this but excuses his vandalism on the basis that he personally ‘prefers the look of the old units’, before sticking the ugliest and least legible non-matching sign over the stencilled height measurement on an entrance barrier!

    To secure criminal convictions requires bringing charges and providing evidence beyond reasonable doubt; more unnecessary work and expense. It doesn’t help that DfT have waded into one of the previous trials with what appeared to be a condonement of the vandalism, just because they too—individually and institutionally—have a bit of a thing about metric signs…

    I think it is a different group, BWMA, which supports a small number of shopkeepers to flout the retail law. They might (or not) consist of an overlapping set of individuals.


  13. A message from the Sussex police to local residents about an abnormal load moving through the county on mothering Sunday of all days.

    “Motorists are advised to plan ahead as the electricity transformer, which is approximately 78 meters long and 4.6 meters wide, and weighs about 331 tonnes, is transported on Sunday 11th March 2018. … ”

    “The route is as follows:
    Basin Road South, Shoreham 800m
    Wharf Road, Hove 250m
    A259 1.2km
    B2193 900m
    A270 700m
    A293 1.8km
    Hangleton Interchange 400m
    A27 42.8km
    A259 10.58km
    A269 4km
    Potmans Lane Ninfield 2km ”

    A clue if needed that ‘m’ does not stand for miles!
    That is the message, interested to see the media translation.


  14. @Mark Williams

    Yet another sign that converting road signs would be the definitive tipping point for the UK to become fully metric. The country really seems perched right on the verge and needs only that little push.


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