“No more imperial-only vehicle signs” says UKMA

In its response to a Department for Transport consultation the UK Metric Association has recommended that the erection of new vehicle height, width and length restriction signs that display only feet and inches should no longer be permitted.

On 1 May the Department for Transport (DfT) launched a much anticipated consultation on the proposed revision in 2015 of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (These are the regulations that determine the design and positioning of road traffic signs on highways throughout Great Britain.  They are accompanied by a Traffic Signs Manual and working drawings (in millimetres) of every sign).  The closing date for submissions was 12 June.

Unfortunately, the consultation was limited to minor points of detail, and did not address the major issues identified by UKMA in its leaflet Traffic Signs 2.0.  The preface to the DfT consultation includes the following statement:

 “We have engaged with stakeholders throughout the traffic signs review and the draft Schedules are based on the recommendations in ‘Signing the Way’. The questions in this consultation are therefore seeking clarification on points of detail to enable delivery. We will consider amendments in light of comments received but we cannot provide new or significantly different regulations or sign designs.

 Please note the new TSRGD will not make any changes to the units of measurement used in the UK traffic signing system. The Government has decided to retain the imperial unit system for this purpose, and this matter is therefore out of scope of this consultation.”

In its response, which can be read at this link, UKMA commented that “it is regretted that short term political considerations have outweighed the requirements of road safety”.

In view of this blatantly political warning, UKMA decided not to repeat its call for changes to the units on existing signs but rather to comment on the availability of existing designs for the erection of new or replacement signs.

For many years the DfT has recommended that all future height and width restriction signs should include both metric and imperial dimensions.  For example, the 2004 update of the Traffic Signs Manual includes the following recommendation:

 “Metric heights may be shown in addition to imperial heights at any bridge. This is recommended for all bridges on main routes and on roads used frequently by foreign drivers.”

By 2008 this had been strengthened to

 “The sign to diagram 629A is a combined metric and imperial version of the width limit sign. … It is recommended that this sign is used in preference to the sign to diagram 629.”

UKMA reasoned that since the DfT’s professional view is clearly that imperial-only signing of height and width restrictions is undesirable on safety grounds, it would be acceptable and “within scope” to recommend that the option to continue to use imperial-only signs for new and replacement signs should be withdrawn.  This is the main thrust of UKMA’s recommendations.

UKMA’s submission is accompanied by a Freedom of Information survey of current practice in the signing of vehicle dimension restrictions in the UK.  The report can be read at this link.  One of its main conclusions was that

 “This study has also found widely varying practices when it comes to signage of vehicle restrictions by highway authorities around the UK. There is inconsistency between the signs permitted in the TSRGD and the recommendations within the Traffic Signs Manual, and numerous authorities are unaware of the latest guidance, with one still believing that the 1994 regulations are still current. Some authorities choose to disregard the advice of the Traffic Signs Manual on the basis that it is only guidance and its recommendations cannot be enforced.”

The report then goes on to revive the DfT’s 2009 proposal (subsequently cancelled in 2010 by the new government) that Highway Authorities should be required to replace all imperial-only vehicle restriction signs within a reasonable period.  The upfront cost of this proposal would be tiny, while the potential long term benefits (especially in terms of reduced bridge strikes) would be substantial. (See this link for more details of this failed proposal).

What happens next?

The DfT’s consultation document promises that a summary of the responses to the consultation will be published within three months.  Final decisions will then be made and the necessary secondary legislation laid before Parliament in February 2015, with a view to coming into effect in March.

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17 Responses to “No more imperial-only vehicle signs” says UKMA

  1. Cliff says:

    This seems a very feeble response by the UKMA.
    The UKMA should be demanding the eradication of imperial road signs altogether. For as long as imperial road signs are allowed to be used the majority of the public will continue to see the imperial units as normal and the SI units as alien and there will never be a transition. Who can blame the public for not changing when they are not advised or encouraged to change by governments that are more interested in retaining power than seeing progress and a mass media that supports such laissez faire attitudes? Most people will continue with what they're used to, even if they don't fully understand it, rather than change to something they are made to believe is not normal or foreign.
    I saw a World Cup-related article the other day in a national tabloid in which the headline went on about an "inch-perfect 51-yard goal". In Brazil! What does that really mean? 45 metres? 50 metres? I looked in the Readers Comments section of the article to see if anyone challenged such a nonsensical statement but nothing was mentioned about it. I can only assume that the huge readership of that paper see such ridiculous measurements as normal. The use of dual units of measurement has caused such a mess in the UK. It shouldn't be allowed to continue in any shape or form.

  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    It is possible that the reluctance to use a prohibition signs rather than a warning sign could be due to the need for a prohibition notice needed for a prohibition sign, whereas no such notice is needed for a warning sign. Here are some examples of warning signs on three different bridges in three different local authorities close to where I live:




    In all three cases there is very good reason to get prohibition orders in respect of these bridges.

    Finally, the use of single and double apostrophes to symbolise feet and inches in contrary to ISO 31 and to EU directive 80/181/EEC - both specify the letters "ft" and "in", having reserved the single and double apostrophes to denote minutes and seconds of arc.

  3. Erithacus says:

    @ Cliff

    UKMA does indeed advocate "the eradication of imperial road signs altogether" (see http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/MSA.pdf), but as the DfT's consultation document specifically ruled out the issue of measurement units, it would have been pointless and ineffective to argue the case in this submission.

  4. M says:

    Improvements are currently being made at a junction on the A5 Wall Bypass.
    The junction is a double roundabout where 2 other main routes, the A5127 and the A5148, intersect the A5.

    A brand new height restriction warning sign has been installed at the A5127 North exit.

    One might have expected that, since the authority carrying out the work is the Highways Agency, they would follow best practice as laid out in the Traffic Signs Manual, but no, the sign is in feet and inches only.

    It is clear that merely recommending the inclusion of metric units on these signs is not enough. Metric units need to be made mandatory.

  5. John Frewen-Lord says:

    It's interesting that the DfT forestalled any discussion on measurement units as part of this process, almost as if they knew there is mounting opposition to the use of imperial signs, and wanted to avoid having to confront that issue at this time.

    What I find disturbing is the message issued by the Prime Minister (PM) over the last few days (and widely reported in today's Sunday papers), that children and new immigrants in the UK must learn all about Magna Carta (MC). Now either the PM is ignorant himself on what's in MC, or he chooses to ignore MC himself, which is somewhat hypocritical.

    As we know so well, Clause 35 of MC decrees that there shall be only one measure throughout the land. Yet the PM is on record as advocating two - one for road signs (along with draft beer and cider), and different one for everything else.

    A wise politician knows that an issue or problem that refuses to go away must be dealt with at some point. Perhaps the PM could take the trouble to understand that the use of imperial road signs in an otherwise metric UK (and often far more metric than we realise) is an issue whose time has come to resolve. Will the PM reflect on this two-faced approach vis-à-vis MC, or will he continue to pretend it doesn't exist?

  6. Jake says:

    Looking through the links provided in the above article, I come to the conclusion that the DfT and local authorities throughout the UK should really hang their heads in shame at the plethora of different traffic signs often available to provide the same information. The comparison with continental road signs is a real eye-opener. Variety may be the spice of life, but surely not when it comes to safety-critical information on road signs for drivers. The UKMA have done an excellent job in drawing attention to this shambles. The simple fact that at least two generations of Britons have now been schooled in metric units tells me that the authorities really should wise up to this reality and consider replacing the old-fashioned imperial units with metric ones, to bring us into line with the best international practice. The articles in the links show that some of the changes needed could be carried out at very low cost indeed, e.g. treating yards and metres as equivalent, as with tons and tonnes, and simply using vinyl overlays to modernise the 'yds' on signs to 'm' for metre, until a sign comes up for replacement, when it can be replaced by a sign displaying metres. This work is long (decades) overdue and I hope we will at last see progress in this area in the near future.

  7. Wilfred says:

    The following appeared coincidentally in Thursday's Guardian:
    You can send an e-mail to France in seconds but try plugging your hair dryer in there. Your iPhone's out of juice but everyone else has Galaxy leads. It's a headphone jack but a phono socket. Your tiffs should be jpegs. Modern life is littered with trivial, jargon-dependent incompatibilities, ..."
    And some not so trivial ones too. Like, as we know, feet and inches (or ' and ") on road signs in the UK and the USA and metres in every other country in the world one is likely to visit and in UK sport, science, engineering, construction, manufacture and so on.
    Fortunately, solving the problem of feet and inches on UK road signs is simple and would save money, which is more than can be said for the incompatibility of domestic power supply systems around the world..

  8. BrianAC says:

    Wilfred brings up an interesting point from the Guardian newspaper.
    How is it that they can and do so readily complain when other countries do things 'differently' from us, yet when the EU (like the UK is not part of the EU) brings in streamlining legislation 'we' always oppose it and complain about 'them' ruling us?
    Being 'different' is our thing, no matter what problems it causes. The DfT, by being different from just about every other country in the world, (including our own!!), is putting lives at risk and our country made a laughing stock for the rest of the world.
    A point of note though Guardian, EU laws now dictate (thankfully, but no thanks to UK input) that all mobiles and similar devices will use a standard power plug, the micro USB port. Few in the UK understand this, and no publicity from the tabloids nor consumer groups makes sure ignorance reigns supreme. Articles like this could help, but that would not be cricket, would it?

  9. BrianAC says:

    @ John Frewen-Lord 2014-06-15 at 19:12

    Your point on Magna Carta was not lost on me at the time either. At least the PM stopped short of the requirement to know 'miles' and 'pints', so assumed they won't drive to the pub for half a litre. If he had, and along with having to 'know football', that would really stuff me for joining the human race.
    I think I am better off outside it.

  10. Jake says:


    I would be very surprised if the Prime Minister knew very much at all about Magna Carta, other than that it was an early bill of rights for barons. However, the clause to which you refer, which states that 'there shall be one measure througout the land', is very potent since, as history shows, weights and measures varied enormously from one town and region to another and standard measures have always been essential for fair trading and understanding. Given this, why is it then that today we mark the price of goods sold by length by the metre while a length of roadway where a distance has to be shown is marked in yards? These are both lengths and two different measures are used for marking them. There is most definitely not one measure throughout the land in the UK as far as length is concerned. Before the Prime Minister further expounds the virtues of Magna Carta, perhaps this minor detail should be drawn to his attention.

  11. John Steele says:

    In fairness, for hundreds of years after Magna Carta, you had (at least) three different gallons, used for wine, ale, and corn (grains). I think the MC meant the wine gallon was the same everywhere, the ale gallon was the same everywhere, etc. It took until 1824 and the Imperial gallon to have one and only one gallon, the same, everywhere.

    In fact, two of your obsolete gallons are why the US gallon and bushel have no sensible relationship. We use the wine gallon for all liquids, and the bushel (8X) of the Winchester gallon for all dry goods. One from column A, one from column B.

  12. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The sheer number of variations in the pied and the livre in France in 1789 was one of the triggers for a total reform of the French system of measurement. The result was the metric system.
    When the Kingdom of the Netherlands was set up 1815, they decided to have a single system of measure throughout the country and chose one based on the metric system (with which they were familiar, having been an integral part of France between 1807 and 1814). When the German Empire was set up in 1871 and the Kingdom of Italy was set up in the same year, both needed a single system of measure throughout their territories and both chose the metric system as their new system of measure.
    In The United Kingdom, things were different – the Tudors enforced a single system of measure on the country – for example the statue mile of 1760 yards replacing the London Mile of 5000 feet. At the time the English system of measure was probably the best managed in Europe which is why the Scots were happy to ditch their system of measurement in favour of the English system in 1707.
    Given that the English system worked, there was little impetus to change – indeed in 1905 it was argued that the imperial system locked existing customers into British exports. In 1965 it was realised that this was no longer the case and the Engineering industry requested a change-over to the metric system. Unlike the Tudor monarchs, the British Government tried to please everybody and not spend any money on keeping things on an even keel. As a result they have held to ransom by certain Eurosceptic groups.

  13. Mark Williams says:

    In response to Erithacus:

    The DFT tried to rule out responses on units of measurement. Quite frankly, they will try to rule out anything which they do not want to see or which prevents their staff spending all day slacking. This is, after all, the permanent civil service which the prime minister (head of the civil service) has described as not fit for the 21st century. The DFT mandarins managed to head off the UKMA on this subject---the caveats in their response are probably too subtle to make it into the summary of responses. But individuals need not be so restrained. For example, here is my `member of the public' response to question 3:

    3A) Is there anything more we can do within TSRGD to reduce sign

    * Yes


    Delete `CYCLISTS DISMOUNT' sign (table 41, item 44) as part of a general policy to obviate use of English text on signs as this is meaningless to non-English speakers and illiterate English speakers.

    Do not prescribe secondary traffic lights beyond the stop line to which they apply.

    Remove signs with weight, width, height, length in imperial units.

    Convert to fully metric speeds and distances by default and without further permission as per. . This would remove `m' as an ambiguous and dangerous abbreviation for imperial mile(s) and `yards' which are meaningless to British natives and international visitors alike. It would also reduce the size of traffic signs by removing the need for regional translations and replace the word `for' with internationally recognised symbols {traffic signs must be easily seen and assimilated by road users, consistency with Vienna convention}.

    If you don't ask; then you won't get. If you do ask; then you probably won't get, either. But if hundreds of others also ask, then there would at least be some pressure to include it in the summary of responses. I think the main body of UKMA's response was very strong and deserves to be distilled into the summary of responses. Whether the DFT will then dismiss it as falling foul of the `cannot provide new or significantly different regulations or sign designs' stricture is another matter.

  14. Wilfred says:

    Tonight I watched Michael Mosley on BBC4 in, "The story of science: power, proof and passion", describing the teaching of anatomy in medieval times. He gave an example of the teacher who would point to the dissected corpse while reading the following from the text book written by Galen over 1000 years earlier: "The liver has three lobes". The student would look where directed, see something different from that described, and dutifully write in his notebook, "The liver has three lobes".

    So it is today at the DfT. The new transport minister arrives and Sir Humphrey intones, "Britain has one of the finest systems of traffic signs in the world." The new minister makes a note, and sometime afterwards these words appear in a press release from the minister's office.

    If he or she looked around on our roads, the minister would see this to be untrue, as the cover of UKMA's new report illustrates:
    Better still, they should read the report.

    On the other hand, medieval methods probably go well with the medieval measurement units favoured by successive transport ministers and the DfT.

  15. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Thanks to Wilfred for pointing out the Vehicle Dimensions Signs Report. Very well done!

    Let's hope the next round of changes to the regulations will lead to a directive to replace Imperial only signs with metric-only signs.

    Note: Section 4.3 of the Vehicle Dimensions Signs Report seems to start off incorrectly. Should it not in the first sentence refer to "length" (instead of "width")?

  16. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Interesting story from Florida in the USA where one European professor managed to get some metric speed limit signs posted near his university underneath the standard mph speed limit signs:


    Ironically, US law allows for metric speed limits signs (unlike the UK). Maybe someday over here we'll finally do a full conversion. In the meantime it's nice to see signs (pun!) of metrication popping up here and there in America.

  17. BrianAC says:

    @ Ezra Steinberg says: 2014-09-01 at 20:35 Interesting story from Florida ...
    There are a few interesting differences shown here between UK and USA.
    The article says "In the U.S., we hold true to the Imperial System of measuring distance in feet, yards and miles."
    Something new there, USA uses 'yards'.
    Now the differences are the pro metric undertone of all the articles, no matter how powerful the Imperial content, that using metric is not illegal in USA as it is on the roads in UK, that the USA actually has a department to promote metric, and metric only instead of dual, that there is no media outcry when a metric unit is used when 'they' think something like 'stones' sounds better.
    No doubt there are swings and round-a-bouts in the issue, but the lack of anti-ism is a great help in moving everything forward.

    The articles also indicate that the USA is far more metric that many realise, its just a pity they cannot remove the UK sameness about letting it all be driven by public demand, that just cannot work and serves only to deepen the muddle.
    In the UK, so long as metric has that illegal tag moving forwards will be impossible.


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