During the past few weeks, there have been many news stories about the removal or modification of certain metric traffic signs by an elderly gent from Huntingdon and his friends. Their inability to see beyond the narrow remit they have set themselves has become very clear. In this article, Ronnie Cohen puts forward a contrary view.
The use of miles and other non-metric units on traffic signs has an enormous influence on Britons’ choice of measurement units. The use of non-metric units on official road signs is not just a transport issue. It affects almost every aspect of daily life in the UK.
An oft-repeated government claim is that, “Road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope ….” Really?
This implies that the system of medieval units used on road traffic signs is a self-contained system without any effect outside the road network and that the rest of society can go fully metric while the medieval units on the roads can stand alone. Two measurement systems, side by side, used for different purposes. If this is such a great idea, why has only one country persevered with it for over forty years?
So let’s see where miles are actually used. Beyond their use for speed and distance signs, car specifications and reviews, speedometers and odometers, miles are also used in the following aspects of daily life in the UK:
- Wind speeds in UK weather reports
- Television programmes and documentaries, of which the current Planet Earth II series on BBC1 is a good (or rather bad!) example
- Non-profit and commercial websites
- Online maps, commercial atlases, maps featured in articles
- Distances to places shown on websites
- Everyday conversations among British citizens
- Travel distances (e.g. train journeys, plane journeys)
- Sports races (e.g. horse racing, motorcycle racing, motor racing)
- General media reports and news
- Vehicle and projectile speeds
- Some signposts
- Transport projects, such as high-speed rail and airport expansion plans
- Area descriptions and features (e.g. pleasure piers, beaches, distances to city centres, road distances, runway lengths, etc.)
- Legacy train systems (e.g. plaques/markers with references showing miles, chains and yards, train speed limits)
- Mileage allowances (e.g. pence per mile)
- Taxi fares and tariffs
- Private sector speed limit signs
- British books, magazines and newspapers of all kinds, especially the non-specialist media
- Public debates and government communication with the general public
- Dialogue in films produced in the UK and the USA, the two big users of the mile
- Police reports about traffic offences
- Tennis serving speeds
This is a long list but probably not an exhaustive list of the common day-to-day use of miles in the UK.
Transport Ministers and their advisors can not really believe that “road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope”. They must, surely, see the enormous influence of official road signs on the way that Britons think about distance and speed, and its huge impact on the British media and political and media perceptions about Britons’ understanding of metric units.
Transport Ministers have also said that “The significant costs involved for the UK in changing the measurements used on signs, replacing signs, providing safety and publicity material and the consequential costs for businesses and other organisations would far exceed any benefits … and clearly consideration must be given to ensuring that costs are not disproportionate to overall benefits.” The greater costs to the UK economy of having two measurement systems, neither fully understood, have always been ignored.
Paradoxically, the Government accepts metric measures on the incident location and marker system on motorways and major A-roads yet resists the use of metres on emergency exit signs provided for safety reasons in UK tunnels. Presumably each is considered local in scope.
Finally, it should be pointed out that this issue has implications for the UK’s survival as a trading nation with a large and healthy manufacturing industry. To improve its productivity and to survive in a metric world, the UK needs a workforce that is familiar with metric units. And familiarity comes, not from studying textbooks, but from daily use. Which is where road traffic signs could make a significant contribution, if only they were metric.