Read it before?

Ronnie Cohen, one of our regular contributors, compliments the UK Department for Transport (DfT) on its policy for dealing with enquiries relating to the oft-postponed metric changeover.

We hear that the normal processes of our national government have almost ceased as a consequence of the demands of Brexit, and cuts in budgets and staffing resulting from ‘austerity’. How then is the DfT able to continue to respond to enquiries from the public? Ronnie believed he had the answer, in particular for enquiries relating to the metric changeover, and on 9 January 2017 he made a Freedom of Information request in which he asked the DfT:

“Do you have a formal procedure for dealing with requests about the metrication of road signs? If so, what is it? Can you please provide me with the standard letters and templates you use to respond to members of the public who enquire about the metrication of road signs.”

The DfT responded on 2 February 2017 by providing him with a document called “Standard Lines” and told him:

“The team within the DfT that deals with correspondence about metrication, among other related subjects, is the Traffic and Technology Division. To this end, we have developed standard lines for correspondence on the metrication of road signs, a copy of which is attached. I should add that these lines may not necessarily form the final reply but will be adapted to suit the response to the specific request received.”

Among the most common topics and corresponding “standard lines” are:

Vehicle Dimension Signs

“Changes in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (TSRGD) concern specific signs, these being the height, width and length restriction signs showing imperial measurement only. Such signs already in use, can remain in place until they become life-expired, or need to be replaced during routine maintenance. At that point the dual-unit equivalent should be used as prescribed by TSRGD.

The Department’s view is that displaying dual measures of height, width and length restrictions make it easier for drivers and are designed to help improve safety on our roads. There are no plans to duplicate any other type of traffic sign.”

Other road traffic signs

“In early 2007, the European Commission held a public consultation on amending the Units of Measurement Directive (80/181/EEC). As part of that consultation, consideration was given to the scope of the Directive and derogations for continued use of certain imperial units for specified purposes, including the mile for road traffic signs.

The then UK Government responded as follows:

Road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope and speed limits are applicable to specific roads or part of a road or to specific areas.  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 in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives. The principle of proportionality requires that action at Community level does not exceed what is required to achieve the EU’s objectives and clearly consideration must be given to ensuring that costs are not disproportionate to overall benefits.

The outcome of that consultation was an EU Directive (2009/3/EC), published in the Official Journal in May 2009, which removed any obligation on the UK Government to set a date to end the use of the mile as the primary unit of measurement for road traffic signs.”

OR

“We do not consider that diverting funding from high priority areas for the metrication of traffic signs is justified – not least as there is no evidence that the use of the mile presents a safety risk to road users.”

Metrication and Education

“By way of background I would first explain that the move from imperial to metric dates back to the establishment of the Metrication Board in 1969, which was responsible for the adoption of the metric system in the UK. In 1974 the then Department of Education issued guidance that metric should become the preferred system in schools. The introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989 standardised the method of teaching measurements in state schools. The National Curriculum aims to provide a broad and balanced education in all subjects. In mathematics, pupils are primarily taught the metric system from the age of five. However, they also learn the rough metric equivalents of imperial measures still in daily use.

The detailed primary and secondary mathematics curriculum can be found on the on the Qualification and Curriculum Development Authority’s website at: www.qca.org.uk/

Sounds familiar? If you have ever contacted the DfT to call for the conversion to metric measures of road signs, you have probably come across these or similar texts. But, if you intend to do so, expect a copy-and-paste job. The DfT will, of course, adapt its response to suit your query. And if you have encountered other standard paragraphs, you may wish to share them with our readers.

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5 Responses to Read it before?

  1. Daniel Jackson says:

    It still amazes me that the DfT went out of its way to actually make illegal the use of metric speed and distance signs. I understand the argument of the cost to change millions of signs, but what cost is there in allowing metric signs and if local communities and business wish to erect public metric signs, why should this be illegal?

    They could have made it completely legal which would have allowed for a slow but sure changeover and at some point completing the changeover would have cost less. This is the way Ireland did it.

    Go along the inner Irish border and you see huge sides on the UK side advertising the signs are in imperial but on the Irish side all they have is a simple speed limit sign. Talk about cost and wasting money.

    This:

    https://c8.alamy.com/comp/E4J26X/sign-at-the-border-between-the-republic-of-ireland-and-northern-ireland-E4J26X.jpg

    compared to this:

    https://e3.365dm.com/17/11/1096x616/skynews-irish-border-ireland-border_4170990.jpg?20171130222731

    https://www.irishtimes.com/polopoly_fs/1.2711556.1467747861!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/box_620_330/image.jpg

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  2. Jake says:

    So it is the Traffic and Technology Department that answers the letters. I wonder if that Department has ever considered consulting other departments of government to see whether metrication of road signs is an issue that impinges on other areas of measurement or whether savings across departments or educational benefits for the public at large could be achieved as a result of coordination in the field of metric use. I doubt very much whether it has. That would probably be too much to expect of a minister.

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  3. BrianAC says:

    Oh dear, this one is going to wind me up! I hate "Standard form" letters and the even more obnoxious political "Sound bytes" which has come very much to the fore recently. Yes, I certainly have read it before, in fact I even know the (non)answer before I ask the question!
    I fully understand the need for consistency in replies but not when they are misleading and mis-truths (lies). More importantly they often do not even answer the question asked, but give a 'standard answer' anyway.
    On Daniels point, there is no doubt as to which side of the divide is considered 'normal' and which is considered to need 'explaining' to the drivers.
    On Jake's point, departments not talking to each other is one of our greatest failures (IMO). Emails, texts, standard replies and even perfunctory phone calls all help to isolate people and departments. There is nothing quite like face to face discussions to illuminate the mind.
    The other point raised in a 'standard reply' from the article is 'fixed objectives', limited to, but never exceed the target point (in this case EU directives, not it seems any ambition to meet any UK requirements??). Do not use initiative, do not pass go, do not step over the red line. We have them all.
    What bugs me the most is our leaders in particular seem to use universal soundbytes (I do use bytes not bites as we are now in the digital age, it is in the emails!). Leaders of other countries however always seem to give a meaningful answer, thoughtful, factual, intelligent, knowledgeable as opposed to our waffle.

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  4. Michael Glass says:

    The standard answers above reveal that the Department of Transport will change outdated signs if they are " life-expired, or need to be replaced during routine maintenance". It might help if people advised the Department of signs that are "life-expired" or need to be replaced for other reasons, such as safety.

    Obvious candidates for this would be any remaining height and width warnings that are only in feet and inches, like the one featured here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/11218071/Metric-measurements-to-be-used-on-road-signs-for-first-time.html

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  5. Jake says:

    @Daniel Jackson:

    I believe it is the case that metric speed and distance signs are not 'provided for in law', and so are not authorised, rather than that the DfT has 'made them illegal', though you might argue it amounts to much the same thing. There is no problem with private businesses or persons using metric signs. Metric height restrictions feature prominently in many car parks and at petrol stations. And of course metric must now be shown on new or replaced bridge height restriction signs.

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