Multiple conversions for same social distances

If you thought social distancing was simple, think again. Ronnie Cohen draws attention some examples of confusing conversions. When will we learn to think metric and not convert?

I have recently noticed something odd about the imperial conversions given for the two metre social distance signs. I have seen three different conversions in different locations, then I thought if I were familiar with metres and had never heard of the imperial foot, I would be none the wiser. Here are the different conversions I have seen:


Shop Window Sign

NHS Floor Sticker

Shoe Shop Sticker
Different conversions for two metre social distance notices

The first sign gives a conversion of 6 feet, 8% less than 2 metres. The second sign gives a conversion of 6 feet 6 inches, which is by far the closest conversion for two metres and is just 1% smaller. The third sign’s conversion is 22% larger than two metres. This is wildly inaccurate. I saw the latter in a shoe shop in Brent Cross Shopping Centre in London. I also saw the following notice in the same shoe shop:

In fact, a distance of 1.5 metres is equivalent to approximately 5 feet, not 6 feet.

There is a widespread perception that giving conversions is helpful. If different conversions are given for the same lengths, the general public will surely wonder which one is correct. It does not help our understanding of measurements. If the measures are wildly inaccurate, they are unhelpful and misleading. Such conversions are worse than useless. I know that social distancing guidelines are meant to be approximate. If you wanted to give the most precise measurement, you would give a conversion of 6 feet 6 inches but that involves using a combination of feet and inches. If you want to give a conversion to the nearest number of whole feet, you would give a conversion of 7 feet, which is 7% larger than two metres. However, I have not seen that anywhere.

It is encouraging that a lot of social distance signs and posters just use metres. We can avoid all these conversion issues if everyone was consistent and just used metres. Why don’t we just dispense with conversions and just use metres for all social distancing information?

6 thoughts on “Multiple conversions for same social distances”

  1. @Ronnie
    Is there any way to talk to the shop owners and find out what their thinking is behind using signs or stickers with Imperial “conversions” in addition to the distance in meters? Could be enlightening, I would imagine.

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  2. This reader could be forgiven for thinking that after almost half a century of metric education in schools, it would not be necessary to tell anyone what a distance of two metres looks like. But the general public still have to handle imperial units for distance on traffic signs, so are effectively expected to be able to work with both metric and imperial at the same time. It really is time to start thinking about upgrading road signs to show the units that are actually taught, then all these conversions would be a thing of the past.

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  3. metricnow,
    How many traffic signs does the average person encounter daily? So, even if the sign says yards, we know they are really metres? So how many people who see yards just think of them as metres anyway? Even when driving, most people spend most of their driving life going to the same places on a regular basis to where they can go from place to place and completely ignore the signs. I don’t think the signs in miles are as effective as some may think in preventing people from learning metric.
    One pays more attention to distances they they are running/jogging or walking distances for health reasons, and they distances are always metric.

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  4. Daniel, Totally agree with you there. In practice a sign with the word ‘miles’ on is not that common, I see more pedestrian signs in metres ‘m’ and ‘km’.
    It is not the signs themselves that are the problem, it is the spin off from them being perceived as the ‘only’ way to mention long distances, the media revel in it. Either the media needs to change or the road signs, no signs of either changing in my lifetime.

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  5. Daniel:
    I take your point that most/many people drive the same routes all the time, or mostly, and perhaps don’t pay much attention to the road signs. I’m not sure that everyone really thinks yards are metres, though. If that were the case, why aren’t metres allowed on road signs? As far as miles not being an impediment are concerned, I think they are. You learn metres and kilometres, not metres and miles. Metres and kilometres go hand in hand and both would need to be shown on road signs. As you know, I’m sure, all highway engineering is done in metric. The only imperial is the numbers on the (metric-dimensioned) road signs themselves.

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  6. @Ezra

    I have not thought about talking to shop owners about the dual social distance signs. I wonder why so many people think that the conversions are necessary. Government advice on social distancing was given without conversions, using only metres.

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