Ireland’s road signs revisited

In Ireland, the changeover from Imperial to metric of its highway distance signs began in the 1990s. This was followed by the change of speed limit signs, which took place over a week-end in January 2005. Seven years on, we take a fresh look at the outcome.

In this article, Ireland refers to the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is subject to UK traffic signs regulations.

The Chairman of the UK Metric Association (UKMA) visited Dublin and County Wicklow at that time of the changeover of speed limit signs, and his observations are reported in “Metric signs ahead” published in February 2006 and available for download on the UKMA web site. Metric Views has now visited Ireland for an update.

Distance signs

The changeover of distance signs took place over several years. To reduce the risk of confusion, all metric distance signs and were marked accordingly, and this practice appears to have continued. Tourist signs also seem to receive this treatment – shame about that “Km”.

On the Ring of Kerry

On the Ring of Kerry

During a week’s stay in Ireland, we saw only one Imperial distance sign: a yellow square AA sign from the 1930s fixed to the wall of a house. Whatever happened to all those historic finger posts?

Speed limits

The change took place over a single week-end, and all the new signs were marked “km/h”. It appears, as in the UK, that some individuals are not up-to-speed on metric conventions.

On the ring of Kerry

By hotel outside Killarney station

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Ireland used the opportunity of the changeover to review all speed limits and also to replace “national speed limit applies” signs (white disk with black diagonal bar) with numerical signs. This increased the cost above that of direct replacement.

Warning signs

Although Ireland uses square yellow or orange warning signs of the US/Australian pattern, these may be accompanied by a separate distance plates, as in the UK.

Height and width restrictions, and bridge strikes

Some dual height and width restriction signage remains depending on the circumstances. Could it be that consideration is sometimes given to UK drivers when specifying signs?

Killarney

On the Ring of Kerry

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

The Irish Railway Safety Commission published a comprehensive report on bridge strikes in 2009, which included commentary on the problem, and ran through various options for improvement. The report is well illustrated with photos showing dual-unit low-bridge signs. So imagine our surprise when reading that one of the ideas touted is a new road marking to warn drivers of a low bridge ahead – in feet only!

The report also states that caution is needed not to reduce the headroom by mistake when resurfacing the road, noting an example in Dublin where “the 50 mm of hot rolled asphalt effectively reduced the clearance by two inches and a goods vehicle driver who can today fit under the bridge, strikes the bridge tomorrow…”

Fortunately this stands as an interesting anomaly against a backdrop of some very good work by the Irish Department of Transport.

Other signs

Private signage seems to have taken a lead from road traffic signs. UKMA argues that this would happen in the UK when the change of road traffic signs takes place, thereby reducing some of the waste that arises from not having a single simple system of measurement for all purposes.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

We occasionally hear in the UK that metrication is destroying part of our national heritage. The Irish too are proud of their heritage, and normally avoid change without good reason, as these recent photos of post boxes illustrate.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

But they do not see road signs, most of which were less than 50 years old at the time of the metric changeover, as having any part to play in being Irish. Nor are Imperial measures, which were adopted in Ireland in 1824 at the same time as in Britain, seen as a vital component of the national identity.  As UKMA’s Chairman said in his report in 2005, “… people accepted the need for the change as part of the modernisation of the state. They wanted it to be done competently and to get it over rather than argue about the principle.”

Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
This entry was posted in General, Road signs, Technical, Transport, Views from abroad and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Ireland’s road signs revisited

  1. James Gladden says:

    QUOTE But they do not see road signs, most of which were less than 50 years old at the time of the metric changeover, as having any part to play in being Irish. Nor are Imperial measures, which were adopted in Ireland in 1824 at the same time as in Britain, seen as a vital component of the national identity. UNQUOTE

    There you have it. This single difference between the way Imperial is perceived in Ireland (remnant of the hated literal imperial rule by the foreign occupier) and the UK ('homegrown' system, reminder of former British glory) means there's precious little the Irish transition means for UK metrication. The Americans would be in the same situation as the Irish, but in an odd turn of events the system used by King George III is now an article of 'American exceptionalism'.

    (Yes, I know Imperial is hodgepodge of Continental measures, I know Metric is a much better contender for Britishness than Imperial, but I'm talking about what the man on the Clapham omnibus thinks.)

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  2. Han Maenen says:

    I am going to Ireland next week. When I arrived there in 1971 for the first time I landed in an Imperial country. Then, year after year, I saw metricaction progress. The one important holdout against metric is home interior: beds, tiles, carpets. A few years ago there were still a few old fingerposts in Dun Laoghaire, south of Dublin, which stated that the distance to Dublin is 7 miles.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  3. John Frewen-Lord says:

    "(Yes, I know Imperial is hodgepodge of Continental measures, I know Metric is a much better contender for Britishness than Imperial, but I’m talking about what the man on the Clapham omnibus thinks.)"

    How right you are James, and I personally believe that overcoming that mindset is the key to completing metrication in the UK (and, for that matter, in Canada).

    The UK resistance to metrication is embedded in a cultural perception that, somehow, metrication is 'foreign' (Lord Kelvin would be spinning in his grave at hearing that). Canada's resistance is embedded in the perception that, if the US is not metric, then, somehow, neither should Canada be.

    Both perceptions are a cultural shift from the mindsets that existed in, say, the 1970s, when metrication initiatives were in full swing (but never actually completed). If we could only go back and recreate those mindsets today...

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  4. Mark Preston says:

    I have just returned from an 8 day holiday in Ireland. I drove between Dublin and Galway and then throughout County Galway and County Clare and I noted many interesting things, some of which have been mentioned above. Most people, when asked about distances quoted kilometres, 99.9% of signs were metric only, in fact I only saw one mention of yards and one of miles. The press and TV only quoted metres and kilometres (and Celsius for that matter - never Fahrenheit), sports commentators quoted metres more often than not and all restriction signs used the 24 hours clock (a separate but connected issue). Tourist information panels were totally metric, road and cycle races that were taking place were in metric only and finally all toll booths showing maximum heights in metres only.

    In short, imperial is fast becoming a thing of the past, certainly for anyone under 30 and private companies and then media have fully complied with metric.

    In other areas there are strange things going on though - acres are predominant everywhere so is square feet when describing buildings. Milk seemed to be served in only metric measures but butter was always in 227 g and 454 g packs and even marked with imperial supplements. I also saw some prices marked per lb but nowhere near as much as they are here.

    As you would expect if legislation is passed then people comply and after a short period of time people wonder what all the fuss is about.

    I always though that the joint NI/ROI body tasked with cross border co-operation would move on metricated road signs in the North but it doesn't seem to have happened.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  5. Mark Preston says:

    Just to add another point to my previous posting, my google maps application on my mobile phone defaulted to metric although can only be imperial in UK. Lastly and oddly the road maps on sale were often with imperial scales ie 1"=5 miles or something, I can't remember exact figures but I calculated it was a crude conversion of 1cm=5km.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  6. Jake says:

    I have never really believed that the imperialists' problem with metric is their desire to hang on to former 'British glory'. Most of the old buildings and palaces that make Britain such an interesting place date from before the time imperial units were standardised in 1824, so it cannnot be that. I think it is simply a fear of modernity and change and a desire to hang on to the past whatever the cost. The country does admittedly have many problems with the economy at the moment and immigration issues may also play a part in people not wanting change, but a simple issue like having a single system of measurement for use by authorities and government to communicate with people seems so obvious to me that I simply cannot comprehend how the country has ended up in its current predicament of mainly metric but with a good measure of imperial still in circulation. It is as though we had decimalised the currency but still allowed supplementary pricing in pounds, shillings and pence with a second till for people who want to continue using the old coins. Sheer madness, surely?

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  7. WJG says:

    Are there unique identification numbers on Irish road signs? The sign with N 71 shown in the first picture has the number 0207 on its post/pole. Are there unique identification numbers on UK road signs? Being able to identify signs would aid the metication process and reduce costs.
    Its a little disappointing to see the dual height and width signs. We all know that we should not "duel with dual" and I wonder if the dual signs, and also the retention of km/h on speed signs, after seven years since the change, is because of the land border with Northern Ireland, which has Imperial road signs.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  8. michduncg says:

    @ Jake - I don't know how we got here either. I can just about remember a huge advertising campaign for the change over to decimal coinage, which crucially educated the entire population in the new system of currency. The abolition of the Metrication Board meant that the metric message wasn't delivered to the older generation, so for young kids like me learning metric at school, we often had to leave it on our doorstep because my Mum certainly wasn't metric at the time (I have of course convinced her since!) Furthermore the perception of 'forced' metrication driven by the EU has helped poison the metric system in the Press and in the minds of some people. HOWEVER - I do not think that the vast majority of people are averse to going metric. Most people would agree that its common sense that we use the same system as the rest of the world (or 97% of it!) Its just that in popular culture, especially with our ever-growing imports of US TV, the public are constantly presented with a lot Imperial measurements. I almost feel freakish when I refer to metric measurements in daily conversations, like I am trying to be superior or something. I have just sat watching the BBC Coverage of the England-Italy Euro Quarter Finals. Mentions of yards, feet, acres etc - not a metric measure in sight. I have also read many Scandinavian crime novels of late. I know darn well that the original Swedish text would't refer to peoples height and weight in feet or pounds, yet because the books are also aimed at the US market, the translations are in non-metric measures.

    As for WJG, yes, many of our major routes in the UK do have marker posts which are positioned every 100 metres and indicate the distance from the origin of the road in kilometres. This is to allow road users to report their position should they need roadside assistance. Our motorways have similar marker posts and also a larger marker board every 500 metres. This clearly shows that at some point metrication was on the agenda in the Dept of Transport and I do take some comfort from that!

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  9. Anonymous says:

    Interestingly (or confusingly) the speedometers on cars sold within the Republic do not have dual markings (i.e. km/h in large print followed by a smaller mph scale) so when entering Northern Ireland (which has signs marking the border with "Speed limits now in MPH", it's not possible to read you're driving speed. This isn't a problem for older generation of Irish as they have a feel and in many cases, I'm sure a better feel for miles per hour, but for younger generation of drivers, especially those who have recently passed their test would have no idea.

    Many cars in Canada (which uses km/h), especially those made by US manufacturers have dual marking speedometers--perhaps they should do something similar in Ireland as I cannot see the UK going metric on the roads any time soon--especially in the area of speed limits.

    Anyway, the difference in measurement systems is just one thing an Irish driver would find confusing in Northern Ireland (albeit slightly). The Republic is the only country in the Europe to not follow the Vienna Convention for signage. Instead they favour the yellow diamond type used in North America and Australia.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  10. John Steele says:

    Neither the US nor Canada require the dual unit speedometer but both allow it, and the majority of car manufacturers provide it. Unfortunately, there is no legibility standard for the secondary ring. It typically uses a smaller font and a lower contrast ink with the result that it looks remarkably like an afterthought. On most of my cars, it has been so hard to read that it is easier to prepare a card that converts the few values used on speed limit signs when driving in Canada.

    It is perhaps easier driving a km/h vehicle in the US, just divide by 5 (all the speed limits are divisible by 5) and multiply by 8, no fractions. I assume this would work in Northern Ireland too. For purists, 8/5 is not exactly right, but you can do it in your head and it is more accurate than the speedometer.

    On units, where the law has changed, it seems VERY sensible to include the units on the new sign as a constant reminder to people. I suppose the next time the sign needs replacement, the units could be omitted (10 years or so?). Neither the US nor Canada requires units, and we share a long land border. The US speed limit sign has the words "Speed Limit" and a number, Canada has "Maximum" and a number. Canada has a yellow warning placard with "km/h" which can be optionally attached under the speed limit sign. A lot are used in border areas as a reminder to US tourists.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  11. BrianAC says:

    @Anonymous
    A good point on confusion at the border. But I don’t see it as matter for the Irish Government to pander to the stupidity of the UK government. This especially so as the UK is supposed to be changing to metric anyway. The best solution here is for N.I. to push for an early change to metric ahead of (or independently of) mainland UK. This could be pushed as a H&S issue maybe.
    The Canada USA situation is different, USA has no metrication plans. However, I understand from other posts here that USA does not have km speeds on their speedos to pander to Canada being metric.
    The situation is little different from crossing the channel from mainland Europe to UK, speedos is Europe don't have MPH on them.
    Is there such a thing as a dual MPH/km speedo with MPH as the secondary unit? These would have to be specially produced I guess.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  12. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @BrianAC:

    As John Steele mentioned in the post above yours, most (though not all) cars in Canada have dual marked speedometers, metric predominant, with the MPH as the secondary scale.

    When I lived in Canada, a lot of cars passed through my household since 1977 when Canada converted. Cars that we had that were km/h-only included two SAABs, a Volkswagen Rabbit (Golf), and, surprisingly, a 1988 Jeep Cherokee (the one with the pathetic GM 2.8 L V6). I traded that in for a 1990 Cherokee with the 4 L straight-six engine, and that was dual marked (metric predominant). Interestingly, that same dual-marked speedometer was used on all Jeeps sold in Europe (and probably everywhere else in the world where Cherokees were sold).

    Anything from Europe (Volvo, SAAB, BMW, Merc, Audi, etc) was usually metric-only (exception - VWs made in Mexico), while anything from Japan, Korea and the USA (including models assembled in North America) was dual.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  13. John Steele says:

    @BrianAC

    The US does not require a secondary km/h indication but does allow it (see FMVSS 101). Canada is the reverse, they allow but do not require a secondary MPH indication (I think CMVSS 101 can also be found on the web). The (vast?) majority of US and Canadian vehicles have dual speedometers. (My only complaint above was that neither law has a readability standard for the secondary indication.)

    I don't know whether the US has "no" plan or a thwarted plan for metrication; it is certainly fair to say we don't have much of a plan. For highways, the Federal government pushed hard, the States resisted and got Congress to pass a bill saying FHWA couldn't force the States to go metric. For many years, the Federal government published the MUTCD (our equivalent of the Traffic Sign Regulations) with both metric and Customary sign dimensions and message content. It even includes a metric speed limit sign. However, none of the States would agree to use the metric, and in 2009, the MUTCD moved all the metric dimensions to an appendix, and removed the metric messages. There is no clear word on whether metric messages are still legal or not. If 50 States are determined not to use them, I suppose it doesn't matter. I find it amusing our Federal government wants to metricate the highways and the States resist. In the UK, the local councils (at least some) seem to have used metric and the DfT has fought them and said it was illegal.

    The US km/h speed limit sign has a lengthened body, the numeral enclosed in a circle, and "km/h" on a line below the circle, to make it distinct from a standard MPH speed limit sign. (Finding one is similar to finding a unicorn; metrication fared poorly here to State resistance. I have never seen one except as an illustration in the MUTCD.)

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  14. philh says:

    Re John Steele's comment above about approximate conversions.

    At the time of the Irish changeover motorists without a legible km/h scale on their speedometers were advised of an easy way to convert to mph. It went as follows:

    "Take the first digit of the speed limit and multiply by six."

    So for example a speed limit of 80 km/h would be 8 x 6 = 48 mph.

    This, in effect, simply multiplies the km/h figure by 0.6 which is about right.

    Needless to say of course far better for motorists not to have to bother with conversions at all. If km/h were used everywhere (including north of the Irish border), motor manufacturers could install a much neater and easy to read speedo on all vehicles for all markets and life would be much simpler and cheaper all round.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  15. Mark Preston says:

    I had a hire car in Ireland and so did my uncle, both were Japanese vehicles and both had speedos marked in km/h only.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  16. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Confucius said "That which I hear, I will forget, that which I see,I will remember and that which I do I will understand". The Irish are doing metric distances and they therefore understand them.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  17. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Martin is correct ... the Canadians are doing metric distances and temperatures and thus they understand them and not Imperial measures.

    On the other hand, once again I see an article on the BBC News web site about the recent storms and flooding in the UK where they write:

    "An inch of rain (25mm) fell in parts of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Birmingham and the Black Country, in just two hours."

    As others have said, it doesn't pay to "duel with dual". Maybe someday the British media will come to understand that.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  18. Michael Walsh says:

    As far as hanging on the the glory days of British imperialism the Unionists are top of the class, so I can't see them opting for metrication any time soon. Most drivers in the border areas – Unionist and Nationalist – don't pay the slightest bit of attention to speed limits anyway, so it doesn't make much difference.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  19. Sean says:

    Here in Australia we are completely metric and i find it very easy and all cars from the early 1970's have only km/h speedometer in them and all the street sign's are in km/h and most Australians don't understand imperial at all. My perrents found it very easy with metric when Australia changed over. You mite find it funny talking to someone in there 80's talking in completely metric and a lot of them say to me they found it easier in metric. My grandmother proffered metric over imperial when she was alive.
    It's very easy 30 feet 10 metre's 60 feet 20 metre's 90 feet 30 metre's.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  20. Han Maenen says:

    At present I am in Ireland. And I saw ' a last Mohican'. Going in a bus through Bantry there was one of the old road signs left that said 'Glengarrif 11', which means ' Glengarrif 11 miles'. It may have been preserved as a monument.

    Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  21. Emilio Sawaya says:

    I can understand why metrication is important for scientific and engineering purposes; but I cannot understand why some people feel the need to abolish miles for road signs and speed limits.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(3)
  22. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Michael Walsh wrote "Most drivers in the border areas – Unionist and Nationalist – don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to speed limits anyway, so it doesn’t make much difference." I am not convinced by his statement – the 80 km/h sign shown at https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@54.1150252,-7.3154835,3a,75y,184.66h,76.67t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sCLnrECyQ5FAz3MoZRjcB6g!2e0!7i13312!8i6656 is highly significant – it is the only indication that one is crossing the border. On the reverse side of the sign is a UK-style "National Speed Limit" sign. This sign clarifies whether a speeding driver will have to argue with the Police Service of Northern Ireland or with the Garda Síochána.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  23. Daniel says:

    Martin,

    I notice there is no speed limit sign on the Northern Irish side of the bridge. Does Northern Ireland have a lot of speed limit and distance signs? If not, then there won't be much to change.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
  24. Alex Bailey says:

    I do love this particular junction of the N1 heading north… https://goo.gl/maps/1z3UcPVnckS2

    You exit the motorway in Ireland, pass a “MPH” speed limit sign entering the UK on the slip road then turn rught where you’re almost immediately confronted by a “km/h” speed limit where you re-enter Ireland.

    I’m sure there are loads of examples of this, you cannot help but laugh!

    Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  25. Martin says:

    I live in the Republic of Ireland close to the border with Northern Ireland and driving a km/h only car into Northern Ireland is no problem. Basically, 110 km/h is roughly 70 mph, 100 km/h is roughly 60 mph, 80 km/h is roughly 50 mph, 65 km/h is roughly 40 mph and 50 km/h is roughly 30 mph, 30 km/h is roughly 20 mph. Simple.

    Likes(1)Dislikes(1)
  26. Jake says:

    @ Martin in the Republic of Ireland:

    Perhaps you lived through the transition from mph to metric on the roads in Ireland, so you will be quite familiar still with the 'old money'. But visitors driving between the Republic and the North will not necessarily be familiar with mph in the North, unless they are Americans or possibly Canadians from a border area with the USA. I am sure you would agree that for a relatively small region such as Northern Ireland it would have made much more sense to metricate the road signs at the same time as the Republic. I realise that that would probably have been impossible to do because metrication has been turned into a political issue in the UK, despite the fact that British schoolchildren have learnt metric units at school since the early 1970s. But my heart sinks when I see all those signs erected on the northern side of the border to say that 'nothing has changed over here'. Those signs cost money and could have been new metric speed signs for the northern side. What a waste of money!

    Likes(5)Dislikes(0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *