Metric Views looks at a successful but unsung project that took place during the early years of the UK’s metric transition. We speculate what might have occurred had this job been the responsibility, not of local government, but of the UK Department for Transport (DfT), and we draw attention to a paradox.
A visitor arriving from abroad could be forgiven for wondering if Britain is losing the plot. First, there are delays in the air, waiting for a landing slot. Then it is necessary to queue for several hours for a passport check. Finally, on the drive into London, there are unfamiliar symbols on the traffic signs (surely ‘m’ for distance can not be metres, and what can be the meaning of quotation marks, apostrophes and ‘yds’?).
Metric Views is not qualified to comment on the problems with landing slots or passport checks, but we believe that the archaic measures on our traffic signs are an embarrassment and difficult to explain away to a visitor. It is some consolation, however, that not all signage in the public domain appears stuck in a time warp.
If you live in a house, you will probably have a fire hydrant sign within 100 metres of your front door. They show fire fighters the location of a water supply, and are particularly useful when the hydrant cover is obscured, perhaps by snow or a parked vehicle.
Wikipedia provides a succinct summary of the facts about fire hydrant signage:
‘In the United Kingdom and Ireland, hydrants are located in the ground. Yellow “H” hydrant signs indicate the location of the hydrants. Mounted on a small post or nearby wall etc., the two numbers indicate the size of the water main (top number) and the distance from the sign (lower number). Modern signs show these measurements in millimetres and metres, whereas older signs use inches and feet. Because the orders of magnitude are so different (6 inches versus 150 mm) there is no ambiguity whichever measuring system is used.’
This does not appear to have deterred at least one supplier from incorporating units into the design:
Note that the upper number relates to the size of the water main serving the hydrant and not the size of the hydrant itself. All hydrant fittings are standardised, perhaps partly as a result of an incident on the night of 14 November 1940, when it is said that fire appliances were sent from Birmingham to assist with a conflagration in Coventry only to discover that the two sets of hydrant fittings did not match.
During the ten years from 1975 onwards, most hydrant signs in Britain were changed from Imperial to metric. The changeover continues to this day as surviving Imperial signs require replacement. The job has been done by local government, without fuss and at minimal cost, as part of the national project to provide the UK with a single, simple and universal measurement system, about which we comment later.
One can imagine what would have happened if this job had been the responsibility of the DfT:
1. Regulations requiring Imperial measures on hydrant signs would have been left in place, with no provision for local discretion on units.
2. The conversion would have been postponed for 25 years, ‘to ensure that most fire fighters had first received a metric education’.
3. After the point had been passed when a majority of fire fighters had been taught metric measures at school, an inflated estimate of the cost of the changeover of hydrant signage would have been prepared. Say, one million signs at £250 per sign, plus 10% to allow for an underestimate in the number, plus 25% for supervision, plus 65% for ‘optimism bias’, plus £125 million for preparatory work, publicity and project management: about £725 million. Totally unaffordable, of course.
4. A permanent exclusion of fire hydrant signs from any requirement to go metric would then have been sought.
There is a paradox in all of this. The national plan to provide the UK with a single, simple and universal measurement system was a principal reason for the metric changeover of fire hydrant signage, whereas it is just one of several reasons why it is in the UK national interest to convert road traffic signs¹. Yet it was lack of vision at the DfT that undermined some of the benefits of the progress with the metric changeover elsewhere in the UK economy. And now we see the consequences including, for example, excessive reliance on London’s financial sector for our prosperity, and performance in mathematics among 15 year-olds that is no better than the OECD average².
1. Reasons for converting road traffic signage include:
A single easy system (also a principal reason for converting hydrant signs). Consistent information for drivers. Consistency between highway signage and Ordnance survey maps. Compatibility with the Highway Code. Compatibility between vehicle manuals and road signage. Better understanding of incident location description on motorways. Consistency for industry. Cheaper cars. Greater safety for cross border traffic, to and from the UK. Fewer bridge strikes. Support for the UK’s reputation abroad as a place where it is easy to do business and also for its position as a major player in the global economy.
These are explained further in a booklet “Metric signs ahead”, available as a free download from www.ukma.org.uk
2. OECD (2010), PISA 2009 results: executive summary. (The OECD programme for international student assessment (PISA))
“Korea, with a country mean of 546 score points, performed highest among OECD countries in the PISA 2009 mathematics assessment. The partner countries and economies Shanghai-China, Singapore and Hong Kong-China rank first, second and third, respectively. The OECD countries Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Estonia, Iceland, Denmark, Slovenia and the partner countries and economies Chinese Taipei, Liechtenstein and Macao-China also perform significantly above the OECD average in mathematics.”
The UK performance score on the mathematics scale was 492, close to the OECD average of 496. The US score was 487.
Further information can be found at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-at-a-glance-2010_9789264095298-en