Road speed units mix-up could have been fatal

We begin the year with a cautionary tale – a recent incident that highlights a possible consequence of the UK’s ongoing measurement muddle.

A recent real-world court case involving a high-profile Premier League footballer, who was charged with speeding, has been widely reported in the media. This news story has been covered by Fox News, the London Evening Standard and many British national newspapers. Mesut Özil, an Arsenal player, was driving back home from training in his Mercedes-Benz G-Class car along the M1 motorway when he was pulled over for speeding. He was driving at a speed of 97 mph but wrongly thought that he was driving at 97 km/h, which would be equivalent to 60 mph and well within the motorway speed limit. The top speed limit in the UK is 70 mph.

Özil wrote to Bromley Magistrates Court and this is what he said:

“When attempting to rationalise my actions, I believe it was the combination of the empty road, with no other vehicles to gauge my vehicle’s speed against, and the misapprehension that I was travelling kmph (sic) rather than mph.

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions the motorway was effectively empty. The only explanation that I can give is that due to the absence of other vehicles on the road, my concentration must have momentarily lapsed.

The vehicle I was driving has very low engine noise and it is automatic transmission.

I am a German national and I am obviously used to driving vehicles that would display speed in kilometres as compared to miles per hour.

I do not suggest that this in any way excuses my driving on the day at all — I fully accept that the speed my vehicle was travelling is wholly unacceptable.”

Bromley Magistrates Court fined Özil £1,000, gave him six points on his driving licence and ordered him to pay £100 in costs and a £100 court surcharge. He has escaped a driving ban.

He surely cannot be the only foreign driver who mixed up kilometres and miles. How many other times has this happened on British roads? This case has been widely reported by the media because it involved a famous footballer. Fortunately, the roads were almost empty and nobody was hurt. However, it could have been fatal. When other foreign drivers confuse kilometres and miles, drive too fast as a result and get caught for speeding, these cases do not get reported.

It is the first time I have heard of a speeding case involving a mix-up of kilometres and miles. If we had fully converted our road signs to metres and kilometres in the 1970’s as planned this case, and others like it, would have been avoided.

For years, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) has claimed:

“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. Only if it did would this Government reconsider its policy in this respect – at which point we would, of course, produce a comprehensive estimate of the likely costs involved.”

This case disproves the DfT’s claims and proves that there is a potential risk of confusing kilometres and miles, especially by foreign drivers driving British cars who are used to thinking and using kilometres. After the Özil case, will it now reconsider?

Sources:

9 thoughts on “Road speed units mix-up could have been fatal”

  1. Unless this was the first UK spec vehicle he’d driven for some time his excuse doesn’t hold water. If he believed the primary display was km\h he’d have been breaking speed limits on almost every journey.
    I take your point about foreign drivers but the vast majority of those will be professional lorry drivers who will be well aware of the UK’s archaic speed limit units.

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  2. Of course DfT is spouting rubbish. The UK could easily start converting distance signs to meters (like for warning signs where distances are actually calculated in meters anyway, I believe) and kilometers for longer distances just by applying decals with ‘m’ and ‘km’ on them. After all, social distance signs all say ‘Keep 2m apart’ or similar, so clearly the British public understand metric already.
    On top of that, Northern Ireland may eventually get that border poll and join Ireland, at which point all their road signs will get converted straight away. And if Scotland goes independent, I’ll wager they will convert road signs as well just to reinforce their commitment to the EU as they move to join that club.
    That will leave just England and also Wales (though not as a happy partner in that case, more than likely) to wallow in Victorian Era fantasies of Rule Britannia using dead Imperial units. So much then for Global Britain! 😦

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  3. I’m not really convinced by his argument. There is no way he could be driving 97 mph (156 km/h) and thought he was driving 97/km/h or 100 km/h. Anyone who drives a car can feel that difference. If he followed the signs which show 70, then he should have been driving at 70 km/h as a “70” in a red circle would mean 70 km/h to him.
    More likely he saw the “70” sign, ignored it and acted like he was on a part of the Autobahn where there is no limit. Other parts of the Autobahn that has a restriction, the restriction is usually set to 130 km/h. 70 mph is just over 110 km/h. If he went 130 km/h, a difference of 20 km/h, he may not have been noticed or if he was, it wouldn’t have made it to the news. I’m sure a lot of continental drives who don’t know what 70 means just drive the speed they are use to, be it 120 km/h or 130 km/h, both of which are over the limit.
    The situation is worse when the English go to the continent and speed because they interpret a 60 km/h sign as 60 mph on a back road.

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  4. Daniel@ makes a good point. There are plenty of safety issues due to the use of Imperial road signs in the UK when drivers cross the Channel in either direction. And, as we have learned from Brexit, most HGV drivers are European with limited English (who as it happens now hesitate to even drive to the UK for fear of future long queues at Dover).
    So, what will happen if the UK (with or without Northern Ireland and Scotland depending on future events) tries to rejoin the EU (which is not out of the question, especially if Labour wins the next general election)? All of those nifty exceptions that the EU granted to the UK as a former member will not be restored. That will I am certain include requiring the UK to ditch Imperial, which a Labour government would not oppose in any case.
    With metric road signs in place hauliers could be confident that their drivers would fully understand the warning and restriction signs everywhere in the EU, including the UK!

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  5. Daniel wrote: If he followed the signs which show 70, then he should have been driving at 70 km/h as a “70” in a red circle would mean 70 km/h to him.”
    Unless I’m very mistaken, there are no signs which show 70 as you enter a motorway in Britain. But I otherwise take your point.

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  6. It might be worth reminding readers about how the EU directives regarding units of measure evolved. The initial treaty that set up the European Economic Community (EEC) which was signed by the six founder members – Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands came into force in 1958. In 1960 the metric system was overhauled and relaunched under the name “SI”. It took some time for SI to become accepted and in 1971 the EEC passed Directive 71/354/EEC which officially made SI the system of units to be used throughout the EEC. The directive proscribed a number of units including the “metric horsepower”, erg, poise, dyne, angstrom, curie etc.
    The United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark joined the EEC in 1973. At the time the UK’s metrication program was in full swing and the intention was for the UK to have fully adopted SI by 1975. Under the conditions for admission, the UK was required to have aligned all of it laws with the EEC directives within five years (1978). When it became apparent that the UK was not going to finish her metrication program in time, Directive 71/354/EEC was superceded by Directive 80/181/EEC which came into force on 1 January 1980. This directive essentially repeated the earlier directive, but skipped out the bits about the units of measure that had been proscribed (that bit was history), but allowed imperial units to be used under certain conditions by those countries where they were authorised on 21 April 1973. In practice this meant allowing the UK and Ireland to continue using imperial units in many consumer areas.
    Under EU procedures, Directive 80/181/EEC (along with a large number of other directives) are reviewed every ten years. During the review of 1997/8, it was agreed that as from 1 January 2000 the metric system would be rolled out more fully in the UK, leaving miles, mph and pints of milk and pints of beer/cider as the only places where imperial units could be used for formal purposes.
    The next review of Directive 80/181/EEC is in 2027/8 (to take effect on 1 January 2030). Until then it is probable that the exemption regarding miles, mph and pints will remain in place on the basis of “why make more work than is necessary”. If the UK were to rejoin the EU before this review (or if Scotland were to be admitted as a new member), it is possible that they might be permitted to retain miles, mph and pints, but if they [re]join after the review, they might find themselves in the same position that the UK was in in 1977.

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  7. Funny how third world countries can change over to km/h without any problems, still can’t blame the EU anymore for holding back on metrication, I guess it’s going to happen just look at social distancing during this Covid-19 pandemic all measurements are in metres and even during the announcements made by government is in metres, now I know that this isn’t about the topic being mentioned, but look at it this way how many people have complained about using metres for social distancing? How many people complain about height and width being in metres? Nobody complains about metric being used along side imperial for shopping , no matter what happens long after Brexit is a footnote in history books, we will be dealing with metrication for a long time, either we can join the 7.5 billion other people using it, or we can be with Liberia, Myanmar and the US? Welcome to the 21st century it mostly metric.

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  8. @Lee Kelly
    Actually, the global situation is worse for British enthusiasts of Imperial units than you might be suggesting.
    For example, this Wikipedia article points out that Myanmar (Burma) is now predominantly metric:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar_units_of_measurement
    This other article also points out that Myanmar has more or less converted to metric (see the table in this section):
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication#Other_English-speaking_countries
    The information above seems to be a little out of date, so maybe both Myanmar and Liberia have made even more progress by now towards metrication.
    And then there is this interesting NIST article from this past October about busting metrication myths:
    https://www.nist.gov/blogs/taking-measure/busting-myths-about-metric-system
    So, at worst, the situation when it comes to everyday “person in the street” use of “Imperial” has dwindled to a few islands in the Pacific plus the USA and maybe Liberia, with the UK something still of a muddle (damn those road signs) and Canada even more so (but thankfully they have metric road signs! 😉

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