Legal position on metric social distance signs

Now that we have all become accustomed to metric social distance signs, it might be a good time to look at their legality, which some have questioned. Ronnie Cohen has investigated and reports his conclusions.

It has come to my attention that a prominent anti-metric pressure group has been lobbying ministers to express social distancing rules in feet and inches and claims that official 2 metre distance signs are unlawful. Its director has claimed that the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (Schedule 18 Part 3) state that the “permitted expressions of distance” are imperial measurements like inches, feet, yard and miles.

The TSRGD covers traffic signs that fit the legal definition of a traffic sign. Section 64(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 defines a “traffic sign” as “any object or device (whether fixed or portable) for conveying, to traffic on roads or any specified class of traffic, warnings, information, requirements, restrictions or prohibitions of any description –
(a) specified by regulations made by the Ministers acting jointly, or
(b) authorised by the Secretary of State,
and any line or mark on a road for so conveying such warnings, information, requirements, restrictions or prohibitions.”

In other words, for a traffic sign to be lawful, it must be either prescribed in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) or be authorised by the Secretary of State for Transport. The wording of this definition appears to mean that any purported traffic sign which does not comply with the regulations or which is not authorised by the Secretary of State is not in fact a “traffic sign” within the meaning of the Act.

On 22 May 2020, the Secretary of State laid before Parliament “The Traffic Orders Procedure (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020” as a statutory instrument. Its opening words stated “The Secretary of State makes these Regulations in exercise of the powers conferred by sections 16(2) and (2A), 35C(3), (4) and (4A), 46A(3), (4) and (4A) and 124(1) of, and Part III of Schedule 9 to, the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.” It came into force on the following day. On 9 May 2020, the Department for Transport published guidance for local authorities on managing their road networks in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This guidance was last updated on 23 May 2020. That page includes a document with traffic signs to support social distancing. These traffic signs include metric social distancing signs for pedestrians. Even though these signs show 2 metres on social distance signs, the document states on the same page that the distance may be varied or omitted.

On 23 May 2020, the DfT published a web page of statutory guidance headed “Traffic Management Act 2004: network management in response to COVID-19”. This page includes a Foreword section by the Secretary of State for Transport. This page includes the following paragraph:

“Traffic signs may be needed to inform pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of changes to road layouts, particularly where temporary widening is in place. Advice on using existing signing, and some new temporary designs, will be published alongside this guidance. These are covered by the provisions of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 and as such do not need special signs authorisation from the department.”

This paragraph includes a link to the document that contains the new metric social distancing traffic signs for pedestrians.

Contrary to claims made by anti-metric campaigners, these signs are legal because they have been authorised by the Secretary of State for Transport.

I am grateful to Metric Views readers who have posted links to recent articles about the attempt by the anti-metric lobby to persuade the government to replace metres with feet and inches on the new social distance signs. If they had not posted links to these articles, I would not have been aware of this. Never mind that the vast majority of social distance signs only show metres. Very few give imperial conversions. I have not seen any that are exclusively imperial. I suspect that imperial-only social distance signs are very rare in the UK.

For many years, the DfT has been out of step with the rest of society in its use of yards for short distances and and feet and inches for vehicle dimensions. Contrast that with the private sector’s common use of metres for both on private signs. We can see these signs all around us. If the government had used feet and inches on social distance signs, it would be out of step with the rest of society, the World Health Organization and the whole world except the USA. In its use of metric social distance signs, it is encouraging that the government appears to be joining the modern world at long last.


6 thoughts on “Legal position on metric social distance signs”

  1. Put out a press release so your findings can be published in the media. It does no good if only we see what you have discovered.


  2. Even though the United Kingdom has left the EU, EU directives continue to apply until they are explicitly repealed. Directive 80/181/EEC requires that metric units be used with a few exceptions for “economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes”. The only exception involving feet and inches related to road signs. This directive is part of UK law, therefore, unless Parliament agrees otherwise, it is mandatory to use metres to specify social distancing.


  3. Whenever I see a sticker saying this vehicle is restricted to 62mph I want to cross it out and put 100km/h, let’s be honest 99% the British population understand metric now, just the 1% of those in government who think the British are too thick to understand metric.


  4. I’m with Lee, after all we already have signs for trams on public highways around the country that are metric and even if they insist on still using chains to measure distances, some of our railways have been converted too.


  5. Lee & Alex,

    Maybe those in government who think the British are too thick to understand metric are listening to the fake news media which is being fed anti-metric dribble from the anti-metric organisations. The UKMA needs to be more pro-active in dealing with the media and public. Otherwise the present muddle will continue.


  6. I agree Daniel Jackson, and most of the anti-metric media are owned by Americans especially the newspapers in the UK. When was the last time you saw high temperatures in Celsius, unless it was in small print at the bottom of the headline in tiny print? I guess it’s a case of wait until the US goes metric before Britain does, but I’m not holding my breath for this to happen anytime soon.


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