On 4 April 2023, YouGov carried out a survey of 4808 British adults about changing the rules around speed and distance in the UK from miles to kilometres. It revealed insights on different attributes based on region, politics, and age.
YouGov asked survey participants the following question:
“Would you support or oppose changing the rules around speed and distance in the UK (e.g. road signs, speed limits etc) from being based on miles to being based on kilometres?”
Overall, 22% supported the change from miles to kilometres while 62% opposed it.
While opposition was almost three times the level of support for the changeover, there were clear differences based on gender, region, politics and age.
YouGov provided a breakdown by two social grades – ABC1 and C2DE. There was little difference in support or opposition between the ABC1 and C2DE social grades.
In a breakdown of gender, there was 50% more support among men (27%) than women (18%) for the changeover and little difference in opposition between genders. Why do a lot more men than women support the use of kilometres on British roads?
In a breakdown by region, there was clearly a lot more support for the changeover and less opposition to it in London (34% support, 43% opposed) and in Scotland (26% support, 58% opposed) than in other regions. Could this be related to greater support for EU membership in these areas? A majority of voters in London and in all Scottish regions voted for Remain in the EU membership referendum in 2016.
In a breakdown by party allegiance and voting behaviour in the EU membership referendum of 2016, there are clear differences in attitudes to the metric changeover on British roads. There are clear differences in attitudes to the use of metric units in road transport between voters of different political parties and between Remain and Leave voters in the EU membership referendum.
Support for the use of kilometres is just 15% among Conservative voters, 23% among Labour voters and 28% among Liberal Democrat voters. It is a lot higher among Remain voters at 25% compared to Leave voters at just 15%.
Opposition to the use of kilometres is 56% among Labour voters, 60% among Liberal Democrat voters and 75% among Conservative voters. Opposition is a lot higher among Leave voters (75%) than Remain voters (59%).
It is clear that those who oppose UK membership of the EU are more likely to oppose the metric system. There is also a link between party allegiance and the level of support for metrication. Metric opposition is strongest among supporters of the Conservative Party, the most anti-EU among the three major political parties in the survey. The strongest support for the metric system can be found among the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU party in the survey. Why is the metric system associated with the EU in voters’ minds despite its use all over the world?
A breakdown by age reveals that the younger generation is a lot more likely to support the metrication of road signs and regulations than older generations.
The MV commentator Alex M says, “It is not terribly surprising given that people tend to not like change and prefer to stick with what they are used to. However, this doesn’t mean that any switchover wouldn’t go smoothly, and people would quickly get used to it.”. I agree with Alex M.
Another MV commentator metricnow says, “I don’t remember there being such a public survey before decimal currency was introduced. I was young at the time, but I remember a few people sounding off against it in the newsreels of the day, but as you said, people quickly get used to new things if they have to. I don’t really see why the government would actually run a public survey on whether road signs and speeds should be expressed in the units which have been taught in schools for the last 50 years. It simply makes sense to do so. It is an abdication of governmental responsibility not to lead the way on this issue. There is nothing inherently better about miles and everything better about using kilometres, especially as metres are already very much embedded in the public’s mind for shorter distances of several hundred metres. It simply makes sense to count those metres in thousands and use the term kilometres. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that the result was that people preferred the status quo, if they are asked such a question. If they had done such a survey in the early 1970s to ask if people would like to switch from shillings and pence to decimal currency, I’m sure the public would have voted for the status quo back then too. Sometimes the government needs to take the lead and not hide behind the cloak of what it seems the public prefers.”.
Well said, metricnow. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
You can find the full results of the YouGov survey at:
5 thoughts on “Recent YouGov survey on attitudes to metrication of road transport”
Did anyone else notice the footer at the bottom of each page : “YouGov – What the world thinks”? The WORLD????
Thanks Ronnie. I read this with interest and some dismay, though not much surprise. I think the message is th
Which is the problem. The reason that metrication of road signs failed in the UK and have ended up with the continuation of imperial to this day is that the government of the day decided to chicken out of it 50 years ago as they cared too much about public opinion, rather than getting it done and dusted there and then. While other countries such as Canada and Australia went ahead and are better for it. People only prefer miles over kilometres because that is what they are used to and people generally don’t like change. It is not some deep routed issue that people feel passionately about. Sure people might moan about it for a bit but would quickly get used to it and move on to another issue.
Shame that government seems more interested in worrying about short-term popularity through opinion polls, than acting in the national interest. I mean how much longer do they need to implement something that virtually the rest of the world agreed upon a very long time ago? And constantly stumble around it, rather than address the elephant in the room?
@metricnow “YouGov – What the world thinks”? The WORLD????
YouGov polls a variety of countries on various issues, hence why it says what the world thinks but thankfully this is an irrelevant question in virtually the rest of the world.
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My wife and I are spending the weekend away (Only a distance of 210 km to our first stop and then another 60 km to my son’s home). I have just finished checking the distance that we have to travel and the location of services en-route and, at my wife request, which food outlets are at which services. I am usually the navigator and I work in kilometres for the simple reason that the driver location signs are in kilometres. For motorways, I assume 100 km/h and for other roads, I assume 60 km/h (or 1 km/min)
This evening used three difference websites:
1. viaMichelin (gives miles or kilometres for the entire trip)
2. Wikipedia (gives driver location signs in kilometres plus, for some unknown reason, the miles equivalent on a motorway by motorway basis).
3. Roads.org.uk/database (gives distances between junctions in miles, but shows driver location signs in kilometres WITHOUT mile conversions).
I am not sure that the survey question was presented in the best way. Many rules, as found in the Highway Code (e.g., distance at which a number plate can be read) and public notices (e.g., distances defining extent of road works) are already in metric. More consistency would be useful. However, a balance must be struck between over-loaded question style and complete impartiality.
People would also argue that questioning should be representative of the population as a whole. If this is the case, then inevitably the question will be answered by non-drivers or others with no real interest in road transport. If the question were put to an organization such as the Road Haulage Association, or to licensed drivers only, then the proportions would very likely be much different.
Furthermore, what about the “don’t-knows”? “Don’t know” can mean anything from “don’t care” to “I’ve carefully considered all aspects both for and against, and they seem to be equally balanced.” I suspect many people do not like to answer “don’t know” because it suggests a lazy mind, and they think they must answer one way or the other, even if they are uninterested in the topic. They tend to side with the status quo. They may think of change as costing money.
Ireland changed speed limit signage to metric at a cost of 12 million euros. Given the larger population of the UK, at an educated guess I would say that a similar exercise in the UK would cost £ 80 million. The 2018 transport budget was £37 000 million for the following year (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/budget-2018-documents/budget-2018). O.22% of annual budget for a single operation is not something that the government cannot afford.
So, let’s have a look at the groups.
There seems to be more support among men. One factor that could influence this is that more men are employed in occupations where metrication of road signage is likely to be an issue. Truck drivers sometimes venture across the Channel, and even if they stay in the UK they need to deal with the likes of tachographs, which work in kilometres. There are some woman lorry drivers but they are at present very few in number compared with men.
In London, a larger share of the inhabitants come from abroad. Those that are accustomed to metric highways in their homelands are unlikely to prefer our mixed-up system.
Breakdown by political party allegiance gives results one could expect. Labour has a better track record than Conservative on metrication progress, by a slight margin anyway. We cannot refer to a track record for the Liberal Democrats but their stronger support comes as no surprise. In 1965 under the Wilson Labour government, the intention to convert generally to metric and SI was generally announced, followed by substantial progress. The Heath Conservative government of 1970 backtracked on progress, including the withdrawal of the plan to metricate highways. The Thatcher Conservative government of 1979 onwards missed opportunities by failing to introduce unit pricing on a metric basis. The Blair Labour government of 1997 onwards oversaw the big changeover in 2000 to metric units for weighed-out goods. However, it could be argued that the 2000 changeover was already planned by the Conservatives, to conform with EU regulations. Under Labour from 2000 onwards there was not much further progress. However, there was no backtracking on existing regulations, as has been proposed by the present government.
In mediaeval times, communities were largely self-sufficient. Food came from local farms and trades people practised their trade for the benefit of the immediate community. Since the Industrial Revolution, the picture has been one of continued expansion. The development of machinery resulted in greater productivity per person, while the spread of roads facilitated trading on a national scale. In the 20th Century, communications expanded in the form of telephones, radio, telephones and, latterly, the Internet. Thanks to satellites we now have instant communication on a world-wide basis. Effectively, the world has continued to shrink. Hence the desirability for various countries to collaborate in trading and other forms of government. Supporters of the EU recognize it as part of this continuing process, and recognize the desire for the attendant standardization. Brexit voters took a more insular view, and probably considered more how leaving the EU would affect them personally, and would tend to resist change that they saw as unnecessary or costly.
Regarding age breakdown, one could expect more support for metrication than indicated here. I believe that younger people, with their more-limited experience of life, tend to side with what they are familiar with. Older people have more experience of both successful and unsuccessful legislation and are inclined to judge on that basis. Not really the result I could have expected.
Finally, I observe that many, even most, privately erected unofficial signs, such as one sees at garages, farms, etc., show metric distances. I have been seeing such signs since the 1970s. This would suggest that there is substantial support for the metrication of road distances. It is strange that the YouGov survey does not seem to endorse this.
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