Metric traffic signs – an issue that goes round in circles but will not go away

The reply to a recent parliamentary question prompts thoughts about joined-up government in relation to measurement units.

On 26 November 2012, Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport), provided this written answer to an MP’s question* on the metric changeover of UK road traffic signs:

“There has been no spending by this Department (including the Highways Agency) on the metrification (sic) of traffic signs in the last three years and there are no plans to change the law to allow the conversion of traffic signs in Great Britain to metric measurements. Traffic signing in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and subject to separate regulations.”

Unambiguous, and demonstrating clearly the UK Government’s lack of concern about the impact of road traffic signs on the wider picture of the use of measurement units in the UK. However, it leaves the door open to a single, simple and logical system of measurement units for all road traffic signs in the island of Ireland. Or does it?

Regular readers of Metric Views will be aware that the Republic of Ireland, having converted distance traffic signs to metric in the preceding years, changed its speed limits in January 2005.

In 2007, in response to an enquiry relating to this issue, the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Road Service, replied as follows:

“… the responsibility for traffic signs policy in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. However, … the metrication issue is a matter of national interest and hence the responsibility of the UK Government. This is reinforced in the fact that ‘units of measurement’ and ‘UK Primary Standards’ are reserved matters under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”

He continued:

“I am advised that the UK Government has no plans to change distance and speed measurements and speed limits on traffic signs to metric units. Unless and until the UK Government’s position on this issue changes, distance measurement and speed limits on traffic signs in Northern Ireland will remain in Imperial units.”

So the Governments of the UK and Northern Ireland appear to be selective in their application of joined-up policy on measurement units. For traffic signs, we are told, units have to be common between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But generally, a two-system measurement muddle is accepted, with most of the UK economy, including education, science, engineering, manufacture, medicine and trade being metric, but traffic signs remaining Imperial.

It is almost as if we were driven onto a roundabout forty years ago and, despite many changes of driver since, we are still going round. Alas, Mr Baker seems unlikely to steer us to the exit.

* Written Answers – Transport: Road Signs and Markings (26 Nov 2012)
Lumley: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much his Department has spent on the metrification of transport signs in the last three years; and what plans his Department has to convert transport signs to metric measurements in the UK.

Parliamentary report

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51 Responses to Metric traffic signs – an issue that goes round in circles but will not go away

  1. Rob says:

    I have a small rear window sticker printed from my home computer that reads-Drive the change km/h UK metric! Is anyone out there printing a similar sign on a commercial scale yet?


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