The Transport Department’s refusal to comply with Government policy on metrication is the biggest remaining obstacle to completing the metric changeover. But how can the DfT defend this example of non-joined-up government?
Although the Department for Transport (DfT) has recently proposed the replacement of imperial-only height and width restriction signs (roundels and warning triangles) with dual metric/imperial signs within 4 years, it has furiously denied that this proposal is part of a comprehensive plan for converting the UK’s road signs. A DfT spokesperson is quoted as saying that the proposal was “absolutely not the thin end of the wedge” and that there were no plans at all to use kilometres, rather than miles, on distance signs, adding: “This is a specific solution to a specific problem” (i.e. a disproportionate number of damaging bridge strikes by foreign lorries).
In its refusal to accept the inevitability of metric road signs the DfT is increasingly at odds with other Government Departments – and indeed with stated Government policy on metrication. Consider the following quotations:
(a) “As you will be aware, all Governments since 1965 have adopted the policy that the United Kingdom should – in stages – switch from imperial to metric units of measurement for an ever-increasing range of uses.”
(b) “The Government’s longstanding policy in relation to units of measurement is to move to full metrication in time but at a pace that recognizes that a significant proportion of consumers are still more comfortable with using imperial units.”
Quotation (a) is from a letter dated 15 September 2004 from former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to UKMA’s patron, the former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe. Quotation (b) is from a letter dated 7 December 2008 from the Minister for Science, Lord Drayson, to the Chairman of the UK Metric Association.
Even more recently (25 February 2010), the junior Minister of Health, Baroness Thornton, said in the House of Lords that she “absolutely agreed” that it is time to clear up the “very British mess”. All these statements make it clear that full metrication is the ultimate goal, and none of them adds “Oh, by the way, we didn’t mean to include road signs”.
Indeed the Transport Department itself appeared for many years to accept that metric conversion was inevitable – while endeavouring to postpone the date for as long as possible. For example in July 2002, in answer to a Parliamentary Question asking what plans there were “to replace miles with kilometres on traffic signs used to indicate speed limits and distances”, the then Transport Minister, David Jamieson, responded:
“Although many drivers are familiar with metric units, it would not be appropriate to fix a date for converting speed limit and distance signs while there is still likely to be a significant proportion of drivers for whom the change could be potentially confusing.” (Hansard, 11 July 2002, Col. 1116w).
The clear inference to be drawn from this somewhat ambivalent reply is that, when there is no longer a “significant” proportion of such confused drivers, then it would be appropriate to fix a date for conversion.
Since then, the DfT has hardened its stance against conversion. As it is now likely that the majority of UK drivers were born after 1964 (and would therefore have received their secondary education in metric units), the argument about “confused “ drivers has lost most of whatever validity it had. So the DfT have come up with a new argument: cost. They claimed that the cost of converting half a million signs, estimated at £680 – 760 million (ca. £1400/sign) would be disproportionate to the benefits for transport and is not a priority for scarce resources.
UKMA believes that the costs have been grossly exaggerated – possibly deliberately. It is palpably absurd to claim that the average cost of amending or replacing road signs is £1400 per sign. UKMA’s “most probable” estimate was £160 per sign, and this is supported by independent data. [See this link for details]. The DfT is guilty of “shroud waving” in order to protect its budget.
Even if the DfT cost estimate were credible, it is still only a tiny proportion of total transport expenditure (£21.5 billions in 2007/08), and is capable of being spread over several years and partially absorbed within existing budgets.
All other sectors of the economy have already absorbed the costs of change within their own budgets. Manufacturing industries have retooled their factories, retailers have invested in new scales and retrained their staff, schools have redesigned syllabuses and purchased new textbooks – yet the DfT has continually sought to postpone the inevitable – thereby actually increasing the eventual cost (as any additional new imperial signs will have to be amended or replaced). An example of this DfT waste is the decision to launch a programme of reduced speed limits in residential areas while still denoting those speed limits in miles rather than kilometres per hour. Thus, in 2007/08, as a Freedom of Information request has revealed, the city of Portsmouth installed 3128 “20 mph” signs (on new posts) at a cost of £313 000 (average cost £100), much of which will have to be duplicated when they are eventually changed to “30 km/h”.
Indeed the DfT appears to believe that it can stand aside indefinitely from Government policy on measurement units and that road signs will always be a “stand alone” system, separate from the rest of society. In doing so, the DfT is the last major obstacle to the achievement of a single, rational system of weights and measures in the UK.
As long as road signage and speed limits remain imperial, it will be difficult for many people to shed the habit of thinking of distances in terms of miles, yards, feet and inches or of speeds in terms of miles per hour. This lack of facility to think in terms of metres, kilometres and kilometres per hour then spills over to other walks of life. Weather forecasters feel obliged to translate windspeeds from metres per second or kilometres per hour to the more familiar miles per hour. Journalists, fearing that their readers will not understand metres, feel bound to translate foreign news stories from metres to feet (or yards). DIY shops and garden centres feel bound to give product descriptions and instructions in feet and inches. Publishers of road maps and atlases fail to take full advantage of the kilometre-based National Grid for identifying locations.
As long as this imperial anomaly persists, many people will have difficulty in making the change in other fields and in “thinking metric”. It is therefore essential to the achievement of the metric changeover in other fields (such as news reporting, weather forecasting, advertising, product description and maps and atlases) that road signage is brought into line. It is untenable that it can continue to be a “stand alone” system.
In the national interest, the DfT should fall in line with Government policy.
One further Government pronouncement is worth quoting. This is from the 1972 White Paper (paragraph 107):
“The present system for showing speed limits and other road signs is unlikely to be changed for a long time to come.”
The author of that statement was right: 38 years later they haven’t been changed. One wonders how much longer they think they need.