Readers have commented recently on the obstacles to the transition to metric-only signs on Britain’s roads. This has prompted Metric Views to offer answers to some Frequently Asked Questions on this subject.
In 2006, the UK Metric Association (UKMA) produced a report ‘Metric signs ahead’. This advocated the change of UK’s road signs to metric, provided an estimate of the cost, and looked at the way the task had been tackled successfully in a number of Commonwealth countries and in the Republic of Ireland. The report produced a bewildered response from the Prime Minister, a dismissive reply from the Secretary of State for Transport, and a grossly-inflated cost estimate from his civil servants. Since then, events have followed a predictable course. In particular, the Traffic Signs Policy Review, which was billed as the most radical shakeup of road traffic signs for over forty years, failed to consider the radical option of metric-only signs, and then lost impetus. The Traffic Signs (Amendment)(No 2) Regulations and General Directions 2011, which originally promised savings from dual (imperial and metric) height and width restriction signs, also seem unlikely to deliver.
In the absence of credible responses on key issues from official sources, Metric Views is happy to offer answers to some of the FAQs put by readers.
FAQ 1. When was it first proposed that the UK’s road signs should be changed to metric?
Metrication of road signs was implicit in the original decision in 1965 that the UK should adopt the metric system as the primary and eventually the only measurement system for all official and legal purposes. However, it was not until the late 1960s that firm plans were made – with a target date of 1973 for converting road signs. However, following the change of government in 1970, the Minister for Transport Industries, John Peyton, postponed the target date, which has never been reinstated.
FAQ 2. Has a change on this scale been carried out successfully before on UK roads?
The system of British road signs was first developed around the turn of the twentieth century, but its most radical overhaul came between the Second World War and the Worboys Report of 1964. The final report of the Worboys Committee detailed a set of traffic signs that was an enormous improvement over its predecessor. It received widespread congratulations from the press, industry and motorists themselves. Britain, at last, conformed to European standards, and made full use of the technology then available to make large, detailed and colourful signs. Since then, the acclaimed system has been tweaked several times, but no need has ever been identified to change anything on a large scale, other than the system of measurement used. The full story can be found at: http://www.cbrd.co.uk/histories/wartoworboys/
FAQ 3. Would the costs involved for the UK in changing the measurements used on road signs, replacing signs, providing safety and publicity material and the consequential costs for businesses and other organisations exceed any benefits?
The costs are relatively easy to quantify (and inflate) and fall largely on government and the transport industry. The benefits are often less quantifiable, and involve the whole UK economy. An example is the problem of school leavers’ lack of familiarity with metric length and distance measures, particularly when entering the world of work.
On signage of height and width restrictions, a recent cost-benefit assessment showed that in England and Wales the one-off cost of the change to dual signage would be £527 000, whereas the benefits over a ten year period would be at least £2 335 000 – a net saving of £1.8 million. (Source: pages 2-3 and page 11 of Annex D to the DfT’s consultation document, http://ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/rtc2011-12-annex-d.pdf)
FAQ 4. What is likely to be the cost of changing road signs for distance and speed from imperial to metric units?
The UK Department for Transport (DfT) prepared a report in November 2005 “Estimating the cost of conversion of road traffic signs to metric units”. (Source: The National Archives http://tinyurl.com/7bqczxa)
The estimates in the report gave an average cost of £1400 per road sign. This figure has regularly been called into question. For example, in 2009 in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of Transport, Chris Mole, said “Driver Location Signs were introduced in 2003 and approximately 16 000 signs have been installed on 80% of the motorway network at a cost of £5.9 million. ….”. Thus, the average cost of driver location signs was £370 each. (Source: House of Commons Hansard http://tinyurl.com/6ohjtsp)
Last year, the Spanish government changed all their speed limits signs in a single day for €250 000, in order to promote fuel economy. They changed about 6000 signs by using vinyl overlays. This cost an average of €41 or about £35 per sign. (Source:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12663092)
The estimate of the cost of conversion to metric of speed and distance signs given in ’Metric signs ahead’ is in the range of £41 million to £160 million with a most likely cost of £80 million. This gives an average cost of £160 per sign, which is close to the actual cost of the change of speed limit signs in the Republic of Ireland in 2005.
FAQ 5. In this age of austerity, is there any room in the transport budget to pay the up-front cost of changing road traffic signs?
Few would claim that the transport budget is free of waste. For example, the House of Commons Transport Committee noted that £71 million had been spent on building 66 motorcyclist testing stations in order that learner motorcyclists could take the manoeuvring elements of the driving test at the requisite 50 km/h. This speed would be illegal on the quiet residential roads in urban areas where tests had previously been conducted, yet the Department had preferred to build the centres rather than seek a derogation of the requirement. (Source:http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmtran/442/442.pdf)
FAQ 6. It has been recognised for many years that there are benefits to the UK economy from having a single simple and widely understood measurement system used for all public purposes. Are there also benefits specifically for motorists from the transition to metric-only road signs?
The report ‘Metric signs ahead’ outlines a number of benefits for motorists from the transition. These include:
- Consistent information
- Compatibility with the Highway Code
- Compatibility between vehicle manuals and road signage
- Emergency incident location
- Calculation of fuel consumption and engine efficiency
- Sensitivity of speed limits
- Cross border traffic, to and from the UK
- Consistency with OS mapping
FAQ 7. Is there robust evidence to show that the metric changeover can be carried out without adversely affecting road safety?
There is evidence from abroad that the metric conversion of road traffic signs can be done safely. This was the experience in the 1970s in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and in 2005 in the Republic of Ireland. More recently, Spain provided further evidence that speed limit signs can be changed safely.
FAQ 8. Can we learn from the experience of other countries?
Yes – but only if we don’t leave it too long, because officials in Commonwealth countries with experience of the changeover are likely now to have retired (and are certainly not immortal!).
FAQ 9. If the change to metric road signs is required by the EU, then should not the EU pay for it?
The EU directive relating to units of measurement permits indefinitely both metric units and the mile, yard, foot and inch on UK “road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement”. Clearly, this is a matter for the UK government. If it can be shown that the transition to metric-only road signs is in the UK national interest, then the UK should expect to pay for it, rather than other countries.
FAQ 10. Could the nations of the UK go their separate ways?
Although the directive mentioned in FAQ 9 permits metric or imperial road traffic signs for distance and speed, the implementation of this directive is a matter for the UK Government, and is not currently devolved.
FAQ 11. Is there any country in the world, other than the UK, where metric road traffic signs for distance and speed are banned?
Not as far as Metric Views is aware.
Readers may have their own questions on this contentious topic. Please pass them on to Metric Views and we will see if we can provide answers.
A copy of UKMA’s report ‘Metric signs ahead’ may be downloaded free at: http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/MSA.pdf