The Department for Transport, who once described metrication of road signs as “a waste of taxpayers’ money”, have themselves been condemned by a House of Commons Select Committee for wasting £71 million on building 66 motorcycle testing stations in order that learner motorcyclists can take the manoeuvring elements of the driving test at the requisite 50 km/h (kilometres per hour), which would be illegal on quiet residential roads in urban areas where tests used to be conducted in the UK.
The Select Committee’s report can be read at this link. The background is that the Second EU Driving Test Directive (91/439/EEC) requires Member States’ own driving tests to include an emergency stop at 50 km/h (which is the standard speed limit for urban areas throughout Europe – except, of course, in the UK, where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour). However, 30 mph equates to 48 km/h, which is a lower speed than that required for the driving test. Consequently it would have been illegal to conduct the motor cycle driving test on 30 mph roads in urban areas in the UK – as has been the practice in the past. So how could the DfT solve this problem?
There would appear to have been (at least) three possibilities:
- Negotiate an exception (derogation) to the Directive, so that the UK test could be conducted at 30 mph.
- Build special off-road testing stations, where speeds above 30 mph could be permitted – at a cost of £71 million.
- Raise the UK’s default urban speed limit to 50 km/h (and convert other mph speed limits to the appropriate km/h value). This would have entailed amending approximately 200 000 speed limit signs at a cost of ca £20 million1.
With regard to the first option, we can do no better than quote the Select Committee report verbatim:
“It is difficult to see why the Government failed to obtain a derogation from the 50 km/h speed requirement for certain elements of the Module 1 test. Testing riders at a speed which exceeds the standard limit in built-up areas is both inconvenient and confusing for candidates. Requiring test candidates to drive according to a scale of measurement not widely used in the UK is bizarre……. It is unacceptable that the Minister was unable to offer any satisfactory explanation for the Government’s decision not to seek a derogation.”
It may well be that, as was suggested by some witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee, the DfT wanted to build these testing stations anyway – for reasons unconnected with speed limits. On this view, it was convenient to be able to blame the EU for imposing an unnecessary cost on the long-suffering British taxpayer. The Committee added “It is tempting to conclude that other priorities may have coloured the Government’s decision to implement [test centres] in the UK.”
The third option – bringing the UK’s speed limits into line with those elsewhere in Europe – does not seem to have been even considered by the DfT – nor, for that matter, by the Select Committee or its advisers and witnesses. Yet it obviously would have been a far cheaper solution than building 66 testing stations. This failure to consider an obvious solution illustrates the imperialist, anti-metric mindset of those in charge of the DfT. The appearance is given, yet again, that the DfT is prepared to waste large sums of taxpayers’ money rather than admit that the changeover to metric road signs is inevitable, and that the longer it is postponed, the more it will cost.
1UKMA estimate based on the actual unit cost of the Irish changeover in 2005 (i.e. £100 per sign) applied to an updated DfT estimate of the number of speed limit signs. See also paragraphs 6.4 to 6.16 of “Metric signs ahead”, which can be downloaded at this link.
A summary of the case for converting the UK’s road signs can also be read on the UKMA website at http://www.ukma.org.uk/Campaign/policy/transport.aspx