DfT has done no cost-benefit analysis on metrication of road signs

Ronnie Cohen draws some conclusions from a recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request that he made to the UK Department for Transport (DfT).

On 19 February 2017, I made the following FOI request to the DfT:

“I would like to ask the DfT for studies it has carried out to measure the benefits of completing the metrication of road signs in the UK. Can you please supply me with the papers, reports and correspondence you hold about the benefits of a full metrication programme for UK road signs.”

The DfT replied to me on 16 March 2017 (ref. GT51/2/2/F0014560). It advised me that, following a search of their paper and electronic records, it does not hold the information that I have requested. It has also confirmed that they have neither carried out any study of nor considered the benefits of “a full metrication programme for UK road signs.”.

Compare that with the standard response to calls for the metrication of road signs that it has been sending out for years:

“The significant costs involved for the UK in changing the measurements used on signs, replacing signs, providing safety and publicity material and the consequential costs for businesses and other organisations would far exceed any benefits in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives. The principle of proportionality requires that action at Community level does not exceed what is required to achieve the EU’s objectives and clearly consideration must be given to ensuring that costs are not disproportionate to overall benefits.”

Without a study on the benefits of a full metrication programme for British road signs, how would it know what the benefits are and how much they are worth? How can it claim that the significant and consequential costs “would far exceed any benefits in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives” and imply that costs are disproportionate to overall benefits without that crucial information?

In November 2005, the DfT prepared a report entitled, “Estimating the cost of conversion of road traffic signs to metric units”. (Source: The National Archives, http://tinyurl.com/7bqczxa). The estimates in the report gave an average cost of £1400 per road sign.

It has only carried out a study of the costs of the conversion of road signs, which have been subsequently found to be grossly inflated. You can find evidence of an extensive study I have done on the actual costs of road signs several years ago in my previous MV article called “DfT cost claims busted” at https://metricviews.uk/2012/05/dft-cost-claims-busted/. The DfT figures have also been called into question by the actual cost figures for changing Irish and Spanish road signs.

In 2011, the Spanish government changed all their speed limits signs in a single day for €250 000, in order to promote fuel economy. They changed about 6000 signs by using vinyl overlays. This cost an average of €41 or about £35 per sign. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12663092). Closer to home, the Irish government spent in 2005 €9 million on 58 000 new signs plus €2.5 million on a driver education campaign. The Irish conversion costs were close to the UKMA mid-range estimate of £160 per sign for the metrication of British road signs.

Before the DfT produced its discredited report on the cost estimates for metricating British road signs, it had opposed the metrication of road signs for a long time. Its previous arguments against the use of metres and kilometres on British road signs were that dual signage (i.e. metric and imperial on the same or adjacent signs) would be confusing – and therefore dangerous in a safety-critical environment (quoted from a letter from the Permanent Secretary, 2003) and that drivers who have not received metric education at school would be confused by a change to metric units (Parliamentary Written Answer, 11 July 2002, Hansard, Col 1116w). There was little validity for these arguments. When these arguments had lost any validity that they might have had, the DfT needed a new argument to justify its long-standing opposition to metric road signs. So it produced a report to say that doing so would be too expensive. It claimed that the cost of conversion, estimated at £680 – 760 million (ca. £1400/sign) would be disproportionate to the benefits for transport and was not a priority for scarce resources. It based its figures on several dubious assumptions, which are listed in the 2009 Update of UKMA’s “Metric Signs Ahead” report. The actual costs of converting road signs in the real world were ignored. The DfT has not carried out any study to estimate the benefits of the metrication of road signs. It cannot claim that the costs would “far exceed any benefits” and are “disproportionate to overall benefits” when it has no idea what these benefits are or how much they are worth.

In the whole sorry saga of the muddle of measurements on UK road traffic signs, which began in 1970 with the surprise appointment of John Peyton as Minister for Transport Industries and has continued to this day, it is difficult to decide whether blame lies primarily with Ministers or with the DfT. It was of course a politician, John Peyton, who in 1970 announced that proposals to metricate road signs had been dropped, and another politician, Philip Hammond when Secretary of State for Transport, who in 2010 withdrew a DfT proposal to replace Imperial with dual height and width restriction signs.  But although there have been tens of transport ministers since 1970 from three different political parties, there has been only one DfT. Perhaps opposition to bringing road signs into line with the measurement system used in the rest of the UK economy and in most of the world has been the policy of all governing political parties for the past 47 years. But is this really the most likely explanation of the facts outlined in this article?

5 thoughts on “DfT has done no cost-benefit analysis on metrication of road signs”

  1. Odd that the DfT decides to involve the EU in the response when solving the current mess would obviously be for the benefit of the UK, not the rest of the EU.

    I wonder if some elements of metrication will become easier if/when the UK is no longer an EU member state. No longer can opponents of metrication claim that it is the EU enforcing metrication (despite the first steps towards metrication were made almost a century before the UK joined the EU). The whole “increasing global trade” argument can even help metrication as global trade is obviously in metric.


  2. Clearly the DfT think people in the U.K are too stupid and incapable of understanding metric road signs? I mean that’s the conclusion I have come up with after 52 years


  3. The costs (of converting to metric road signs) would exceed any benefits in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives? So the DfT is itself spinning the story that it is the EU that is forcing Britain to adopt metric measures! And I was under the impression that the EU had always bent over backwards to accommodate the UK government’s desire to allow imperial units to continue to be used on British road signs. If Brexit goes ahead, the DfT will have to find someone else to blame for the continuing mismatch between the system of metric measurement taught to youngsters in British schools and the imperial units those same youngsters presumably just ‘pick up’ but are expected to fully understand and apply when they learn to drive.


  4. @ Lee Kelly,

    It has to be noted that the DfT is an inanimate object and incapable of forming opinions. We shouldn’t blame the organisation for what comes out of it. The DfT is run by people and it is obvious that those people who run it have an anti-metric bias, at least those who ran it in the past. I’m not sure about the present administration. Making metric width and height signs mandatory would make me feel the present administration has a pro-metric or neutral bias.

    Those who ran the DfT in the past incorporated their personal bias against metrication into laws and into their public responses to the extent of nonsensical excuses to metrication of signage. Change can only come to the DfT when persons in favour of metrication and completing the change are running the DfT. The present administration may be in favour of metrication but may be afraid to make too many changes at once. As previously mentioned, they at least made height/width signage in metric a requirement.

    Maybe if they got more encouragement from the public such that they feel confident in changing the laws to make metric only signage 100 % legal, more change may come. But this can only happen if the administration of the DfT continues to be pro-metric.

    Permitting metric would actually save money. It would make vadalising signs illegal and give communities the warm and fuzzies about increasing the presence of metric only signage. What we need to do now is work to get the message to the DfT to change the law to remove any restrictions to metric only signs.


  5. I do admire A.R.M, I mean every time they take down a metric sign the council has to put up a new one. So that goes onto my council tax, the lorries using sat-navs which are designed for cars then drive into low bridges, so thanks.


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