The Department for Transport (DfT) has given in to anti-metric lobbying and backtracked on its earlier proposal that imperial-only height and width restriction signs should be replaced with dual metric/imperial signs within four years. This climbdown is despite the responses to its own consultation, which revealed widespread support within the industry for the proposal. It also flies in the face of its own cost assessment. The article concludes with a challenging question.
The DfT has just published amendments to the Traffic Sign Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD). They contain some useful “tidying up” amendments but, as we reported in an earlier article, they fail to tackle some of the major issues that critics of UK road signage have been raising for years. As the Local Government Technical Advisers Group commented in their consultation response1, “(we are) disappointed that the consultation is very narrowly defined and that the expected root and branch review of Traffic Sign Regulations has not been undertaken.”
Responses to the consultation¹
Phasing out imperial-only height and width restriction signs
When launching the consultation in 2009, the DfT published figures² showing that 10 – 12% of bridge strikes involved drivers of foreign lorries, which is “disproportionately high in terms of the number of foreign lorries on the road network.” From this it was inferred that the unfamiliarity of foreign drivers with the measurement units that appear on British traffic signs was a contributory factor, and that therefore the replacement of imperial-only signs with dual metric/imperial signs would have benefits. A cost-benefit assessment showed that in England and Wales the one-off cost of the change would be £527 000, whereas the benefits over a ten year period would be at least £2 335 000 – a net gain of £1.8 million².
22 out of the 63 local authorities that responded¹ to the consultation said that the change would impose significant additional costs that could not be afforded from current budgets. However, 24 local authorities indicated that a four year timescale would be sufficient, and the remaining 17 were ambivalent or made no comment. (The great majority of local authorities did not respond at all to the consultation).
Three local authorities and the Highways Agency pointed out that the DfT’s cost estimates were too low since they took insufficient account of the need for road closures in cases where signs attached to bridge arches need to be replaced. However, 19 authorities agreed with the DfT’s figures while the rest made no comment. A few authorities and individual respondents also pointed out that there were additional benefits not included in the DfT’s analysis.
Almost all the respondents who commented welcomed the principle of dual-unit signage even if they had reservations about financing it from their own resources.
Comments on the above:
- As one Scottish authority (Dumfries and Galloway Council) pointed out, the costs of implementing the proposal would fall on local government, whereas the benefits (which far outweigh the costs) would accrue to Network Rail, the train operating companies, rail passengers, the police, the NHS, insurance companies, road hauliers (especially foreign ones), and motorists and society generally.
- Most authorities appear to have assumed that they would have to make the changes within existing budgets. Based on past experience, this may be a realistic assumption, but if Central Government is imposing a new policy on Local Government, it is reasonable to expect that Central Government should make the resources available within the overall Revenue Support Grant settlement. One wonders whether the local authorities’ response would have been different if they had been offered a fair contribution toward any genuine increase in their costs.
- It is therefore disingenuous of the DfT to use the reluctance of a minority of local authorities to finance the project from their own existing budgets as an excuse for cancelling it. What did they expect?
Having said all this, it is pleasing to see the positive response of Glasgow City Council:
“Although the changes to height and width restrictions will incur additional costs, Glasgow has already been undertaking sign replacement or refurbishment.”
It is 17 years since the Regulations permitted dual units on height and width restriction signs and 7 years since the DfT Traffic Signs Manual recommended that all new or replacement signs should be dual unit3. If other highway authorities had followed Glasgow’s example, the problem would be well on the way to resolution by now. What is barely credible and certainly unforgivable is that the DfT’s amended Regulations still permit local authorities to erect new or replacement imperial-only signs with an expected life of 10+ years.
A number of other comments by the majority of respondents to the consultation have also been rejected by the DfT:
- 6 respondents (including the Institute of Highway Engineers) drew attention to the anomaly whereby vehicle length restrictions (sign 629.1) could continue to be imperial-only and suggested they should also be phased out in favour of dual unit signs.
- Ditto for ford depth signs.
- A few respondents requested that in-cab indications of vehicle height (required for high vehicles) should be dual metric/imperial. No response from the DfT.
- It was pointed out that the DfT proposal appeared not to include temporary width restrictions at road works (e.g. at motorway contraflows) – potentially a major hazard.
- 11 out of 12 respondents opposed allowing journey times rather than distances on cycle/pedestrian direction signs – e.g. “It is nonsense to put an arbitrary time for a journey when a precise distance can be given.” Nevertheless the DfT is going ahead with this sign as an option. (Fortunately, in the light of the overwhelming opposition to it, there is unlikely to be much take up).
On the positive side, many respondents argued for a dual-unit advance warning sign (red triangle) for height restrictions rather than the current option of a separate metric sign (not to be used in isolation). This has now been included in the new Regulations.
Finally, it is welcome news that the DfT has at last conceded that the current symbol “T” for “tonne” is incorrect and will no longer be permitted on new or replacement signs. The correct SI symbol “t” must be used instead. However, existing signs will still be legal until they wear out and need replacement.
But – are dual unit signs the right answer?
This question is posed in the hope of starting a debate, and MetricViews would welcome readers’ views.
Along with other supporters of completing metrication in the UK – and despite serious reservations – the UK Metric Association has hitherto accepted the principle of dual-unit signage for height and width restrictions. Faced with implacable opposition from the DfT, it was felt that dual-unit signs would be the only way of making any progress and getting metric units on to UK road signs. This latest setback raises the question whether dual units are the best answer – especially in the longer term.
The experience in the retail industry is that permitting both metric and imperial units in labelling and pricing has simply enabled people to ignore the unit they are not familiar with and to continue using the old unit. No progress is made in encouraging or persuading the public to adapt to metric units, and so, despite over 40 years of metrication, the UK is still split between two incompatible systems. For this reason, metric campaigners have therefore sought (alas unsuccessfully) to phase out “supplementary indications” from pricing and labelling.
As a result of this experience, metric campaigners have been opposed to signing road distances in both kilometres and miles. Quite apart from requiring larger signs (meaning that they would all have to be completely replaced rather than amended with overlays), they would perpetuate the problem that many motorists (and the media) would ignore the metric distance and continue to “think imperial.” Again, no progress would be made.
Moreover, it would be quite unthinkable to sign speed limits in dual units. Even if you could overcome the problem of equating rounded mph values with rounded km/h values, the possibility of catastrophic error if a driver mistakes a metric speed limit for an imperial one is too awful to contemplate.
So why then do we accept dual units on height and width restriction signs? It may have appeared at one time to be an expedient step in the right direction, but given the refusal of the DfT to set even a modest timetable for phasing out imperial-only signs, should we be considering a different approach to the signing of height and width restrictions?
I was struck recently by reading the following proposal that I came across in the blog of Hughster at
What Hughster suggests is that instead of supporting a transitional phase of dual unit signage, leading eventually to metric-only signage (which of course may continue to be postponed indefinitely), we should be advocating a full and direct changeover from imperial to metric . The steps would go like this:
- The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations would be amended to require in-cab height indications (in vehicles over 3.66 m high) to be dual metric/imperial.
- The TSRGD would be amended to require all new signage to be metric-only – that is, no new or replacement imperial-only or dual-unit signs would be permitted. Existing signs would continue to be legal for a transitional period.
- The TSRGD would also be amended to require any remaining imperial-only signs to be replaced within 10 years at the latest (the expected life of a sign). Whether remaining dual-unit signs should remain is debatable.
- At the end of this period, the requirement that in-cab indications should also show imperial units would then be removed.
One of the advantages of this neat solution is that it involves no public expenditure – thus removing the principal stated objection of the DfT to metric signs.
Is this proposal one that UKMA should be supporting?
¹ The responses to the consultation were obtained from the DfT as a result of a Freedom of Information Request and can be seen at this link (676 pages). However, the DfT refused to disclose its own analysis of the responses, which have therefore been analysed by UKMA. See this link.
² See pages 2-3 and page 11 of Annex D to the DfT’s consultation document, available at this link.
³ UKMA’s summary of the evolution of metric height and width signs (and the DfT recommendations) can be read at this link.