Is the DfT part of the Government?

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.

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20 Responses to Is the DfT part of the Government?

  1. The Glob says:

    The DfT's continued opposition to metric road signs is baffling. What are the DfT hoping to achieve by continuing to resist this change?

    We will have a fully metric road network one day, this has to happen eventually. Hopefully this will happen soon, not another 38 years from now.

  2. George Carty says:

    Perhaps the DfT are hoping to dodge the fury of the Sun and the Daily Mail??

  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    In addition to the "knock on" effect of the Imperial road signage by perpetuating Imperial in other areas of life, there is also the issue of safety for UK drivers in Northern Ireland who cross over into the Republic given that they are not used to speed limit signs in metric and have to try to make out the smaller km/h markings on their speedometers.

    Perhaps the DfT could take a page out of the Irish playbook and begin to convert distance signs to metric. However, if they did even that, they would be acknowledging (if only implicitly) a path to full conversion of all road signs. That clearly will not happen until a new government and a new minister at DfT are put in place.

    Why should the UK remain so out of step in this regard compared to every other country in the EU? And has been pointed out elsewhere, both the Irish Republic and all Commonwealth countries other than the UK have already converted their road signs to metric.

  4. Michael Glass says:

    Look at the DFT as a road block and work out how to get around it. Don't decry it, dodge it. Write to every member of the Northern Ireland parliament about changing the road signs. Write to every member of the Tynwald to urge the Isle of Man to switch (their big race already uses kilometres). Approach the Channel Island Governments with the same request. One of them might be willing to break ranks.

    Approach the Welsh Assembly Government and point out the advantage to the Welsh language of using metric distances. Ditto with the Scottish Parliament. Be flexible. Changing distances and changing speed limits would be desirable, but moving of one and not the other might be easier that moving for both to be moved at once.

  5. Richard Ational says:

    A while back I was involved in an orienteering exercise with a group of young people. Whilst most were more than comfortable with using Ordnance Survey maps, metric distances, elevations, etc. there was one who raised some questions about the relationship between time and distance and asked, more than once, why kilometres and not miles were being used. The neutral explanation I gave was that the map was scaled in metric, so that was what had to be used. This prompted the question as to why that was the case when, on road signs, etc. distance was shown in miles as well as the statement that they weren’t that good at maths in any case.

    Here was a classic example of the effect that the political establishment’s contradictory stance on metrication is having on education. With one breath they claim that a good knowledge of science and mathematics is vitally important to the future prosperity of the nation and yet they signal through their actions that the system of measurement used in educating the young in such subjects is not valued by society as a whole. It’s about time that government grasped the nettle and demonstrated that they were willing to forego political appeasement in favour of acting in the best interests of the country. Also, in the matter of metrication, they need ensure that they have far greater support from that most conservative and technophobic of institutions, the Civil Service.

  6. John Frewen-Lord says:

    It is very interesting that this article noted that it cost Portsmouth £100 a sign for over 3000 20 mph signs. As this article pointed out, they involve a completely new post, which has to be drilled through a hard paved surface, and then cemented in. This total cost is in line with what I dsicovered when I did some research on this subject a little while ago, where a number of new signs in connection with a new road project cost under £100 each (as paid by the contractor). I also discovered that the actual new sign itself involves an adhesive sign applied to a plain galvanised metal plate (circular, square, rectangulat or triangular, depending on what type of sign it is).

    The actual adhesive sign is but a small part of the total cost of a complete new sign (£100 in Portsmouth's case). It should therefore be not too expensive to apply an adhesive km/h sign over the existing mph sign - I estimate a total cost of under £50 per sign, including labour. The 'stick-on' solution is one I have always proposed as being fast and cost-effective, based on Canada's experience. As new signs are made the same way (i.e. an adhesive sign on a metal plate), the finished result is no different - the km/h sign is simply applied over the existing mph sign.

    The £1400 per sign that is usually trotted out is therefore utter nonsense (and my MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and who therefore should know better, has actually trotted out an even higher figure when I wrote to him on this subject).

    These 20 mph signs have proliferated quite a lot, and there must be many local councils who can supply the cost of the ones they have installed. If they were asked how much these costs were, ostensibly in finding how much your local council is spending on these signs, the answer might just be on the low side of their actual cost - which of course would be to our advantage.

    The total cost of coverting the UK's road signs to metruc will be mere petty cash when looked at the total cost of road taxes and highway expenditure, yet the economic case for completing metrication in the UK (and the US) cannot be ignored for much longer. We need to make our MPs (whoever they after the next election) fully aware of this.

  7. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The Department for Transport web site has a page ( that gives a brief description of how roads are managed in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

    Do the Scottish Executive, the Transport Directorate of the Welsh Assembly, and the Roads Service of the Department for Regional Development have the authority to replace distance and/or speed limit signs in Imperial with signs using only metric units? What are the issues and limitations associated with the scope of their authority in this regard?

    I should have written that the safety argument in Northern Ireland would focus on speed limit signs with distance signs added in for the sake of consistency.

    It has been argued by some in the past (as I recall) that a piecemeal approach to metricating road signs might “backfire” in the sense that, say, convincing the government in Northern Island to metricate road signs would take the pressure off the government in London to finish the job in the rest of the UK since the most forceful argument in terms of road safety would have been taken away.

    Given how intransigent DfT and the government in London have been on this matter, I confess I am swayed by those (see Michael Glass’ post) who argue a “bottom up” approach that begins with, say, just distance signs (as Ireland did initially) and in the parts of the UK outside of England, with arguments tailored to each region (safety in Northern Ireland; language in Wales; local independence and perhaps promoting “forward thinking” in Scotland, etc.)

    This would not be the first time a “divide and conquer” strategy leads to ultimate success!

  8. Mark Preston says:

    When I queried devolved powers I was told that although management of highways is devolved any legislation covering units of measure is not. This remains the responsibility of Westminster as a retained power and governs what is displayed on UK road signs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

    Having said that, part of the devolution legislation states that devolved powers may be transferred to these countries if they are requested having been agreed on by the assembly in question.

    In fact in Wales there is currently a move to ask for more powers to be devolved, this is supported by some parties in Cardiff and in Westminster. If the Welsh Assembly can agree on it in a vote a request will be made to Westminster who will then decide whether or not to devolve the powers.

    Northern Ireland is interesting in that it shares a land border with a country that has metric road signage. There is also an interesting view that Sinn Fein, wishing to bring Northern Ireland closer to the Republic might consider metrication of road signage in Northern Ireland a small step in that direction and might wish to pursue it. Presumably that wouldn't go down too well with Unionists in the assembly ??

  9. philh says:

    Re the statement by the Transport Minister in July 2002:

    " ... 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."

    Well, what about the confusion for metric educated young adults who were never taught Imperial? Don't they deserve some consideration also?

    If the change is not going to happen for a long time to come things will only get worse.

    Furthermore if the protracted delay means metric educated drivers gradually get used to imperial then they too will suffer the alledged confusion when the change finally happens.

    If the change is going to happen at all (as it should for all the reasons given in the article and more) it must happen sooner rather than later. No sensible analysis can justify putting it off in the hope that some magical transformation will occur in the minds of the British driver.

  10. The DfT and Local Authorities probably aren’t aware of the fast and cost-effective method used in Canada. (See John Frewen-Lord’s comment above). What method was used in the Republic of Ireland? Companies in the UK should be asked to tender for the supply, and fixing of adhesive signs.

  11. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The Department for Transport in fact had a contingent liability of £760 million in their 2008/8 budget for the metrication of traffic signs (speed and distance) which lapsed when the 2008 amendment to the EU units of measure directive was published. See page 377 of the budget -

    It is therefore reasonable to assume that this is the immediate cost that the department foresaw. [or alternatively, that having published the £760 million figure, they were bound to include it as a theoretical possible liability. It is of little significance since there was no commitment to the project - Editor]

  12. Philip Oakley says:

    The key is to identify a suitable intermediate method of signage, preferably that has safety benefits for all. It is folly to believe that the change could happen in a single step, but there should be fewer problems with say the inclusion, in smaller characters, of the metric equivalent - however it would need an agreement on the units of measure to be indicated e.g. kph, km/h, K, km.
    It would be necessary for the metric value to be clear to the casual reader without confusion. By keeping the initial metric lettering small, it should fit within the confines of the existing white space, and avoid zenophobic suggestions of a foreign takeover.

    One has to start somewhere.

  13. David Brown says:

    Regarding Philip Oakley's comments, there is no need to agree what symbols to use for metric units. The symbols are defined as part of the international system. They are m for metres, km for kilometres and km/h for kilometres per hour. Use of other symbols such as "kph" is simply incorrect - like a spelling error. The fact that this is not well understood by the British population shows just how poor our education system is when it comes to units of measure. That poverty of understanding is, I would suggest, a direct result of our failure to implement metrication and retire the obsolete units of measure.

  14. Robin Paice says:

    Philip Oakley's suggestion of an “intermediate method of signage”, while superficially attractive, is a repeat of the mistake that has bedevilled UK metrication ever since 1965: the belief that you can do it gradually, stealthily, voluntarily, hoping that nobody will notice and that it will all be over by the time opponents wake up. It doesn't work.

    Australia and most other Commonwealth countries succeeded because they decided on a "clean break", explained the reasons for the change, and then just went ahead and did it. UK governments have refused to learn this lesson, have continued to follow the policy least likely to succeed (the "voluntary/gradual" route), and have now all but given up on the project.

  15. Philip Oakley says:

    Robin's comments are well made. The problem is the lack of [ongoing] commitment in all the failed cases. At the moment there is no hint of a commitment even to make any 'next step'.

    I wholeheartedly agree with David's comment about there being standard units, but there does need to be space on the sign, which is where my comment started. It is my view that we are unable to make a complete conversion in a single step, rather we need to find a safe and useful stepping stone, from which it will be just as easy to go forward as back.

    I remember when the country decimalised the currency. One of the arguments against was that we should wait until the old folk died out. Well they still haven't all died out, so it does take a long time.

    The argument is not just between “clean break” and “voluntary/gradual”, but has at least the intermediate “positive step” option as well. A journey of a thousand miles(sic)...

  16. Alex Bailey says:

    It seems to me as if somebody in the DfT is actually working against stated government policy.

    The simple fact that "m" is still being used on road signs to denote "miles" despite a DfT memo as far back as 1991 (I think) stating that this was a problem that needed to be solved (and indeed would be dealt with in the near future) is a good example of a government department that is not planning ahead.

    Add to this the growing number of expensive electronic speed signs that seem to have no capacity to display numbers higher than 99 and you start to see a department that seems to be deliberately spending taxpayers money in a manner that is actually making the final cost of road metrication higher than it might have been if they installed signs that, although showing imperial measures, were at least made in a manner that they could be easily converted at a later date.

    It would have cost the DfT little or nothing to have made a few simple changes to existing laws in order to reduce the eventual cost of metrication; instead they actually seem to be building barriers.

  17. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I'd imagine the Unionists would fight a change-over just in Northern Ireland tooth and nail. The last thing they want to see is any change that appears to align the northern counties more closely with the Republic than with Great Britain.

    That's a shame, too, because converting Northern Ireland to metric would be a showcase for how conversion could be done cheaply, safely, and quickly in the UK.

    As a practical matter, though, all the control for road signs comes from Westminster, does it not? So, the change-over would have to have a scope that covers all of the United Kingdom.

  18. philh says:

    The last thing we want is for metrication to be caught up in the politics of Ireland. Things are bad enough in mainland Britain where it has been hijacked by Europsceptics.

    Hopefully politicians north and south of the border will, in time, see the practical merit of the change and view it as being of mutual interest upon which they can agree.

  19. Ken Cooper says:

    I don't think we should be taking "Sean's" point too seriously unless he actually provides a link to a source showing Sinn Fein's support for metrication of Northern Irish road signs.

    One has to ask why someone who professes to support metrication would be trying to link UKMA with Sinn Fein and their allies on a UK Weights & Measures site.

  20. derek says:

    There is a curious anomaly in section 82 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984:

    “Section 82 (1) Subject to the provisions of this section ..., a road is a restricted road for the purposes of section 81 of this Act if—
    (a) in England and Wales, there is provided on it a system of street lighting furnished by means of lamps placed not more than 200 yards apart;
    (b) in Scotland, there is provided on it a system of carriageway lighting furnished by means of lamps placed not more than 185 metres apart …”

    Section 81 defines a restricted road as one with a speed limit of 30 mph.

    And on costs, ARM say on their web site that they ‘converted’ 164 signs at Hastings for about £500, that is £3 per sign. Perhaps the DfT could employ them to do the conversion of UK's traffic signs to metric. This would bring the cost down to about £600 000, which is less than the amount paid each year by those who import or export their cars and have to replace speedos and odometers.


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