Communicating road measures is confusing

The Department for Transport has released road statistics for 2007 – and something jumped out at me as rather odd.  All the headline figures are given as kilometres but in the UK we measure road distances in miles.

The national travel survey for 2006, also from the DfT, reported in miles.  The road statistics report cited headline figures in kilometres when it debuted last year, but the discussion often mentioned miles and speed is indicated in mph.

The UK has a permanent exception from the EU direction on metrication in respect of road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement, so why does the DfT choose kilometres as its reporting measure? 

The government was considering metrification back in the 1960s but cost of change is a big issue as is driver education (although there is no information on the number of drivers who have received no education in imperial measures).

It is reported that the EU is not pressing for the UK to complete the metrication process.  But some, such as the UK Metric Association campaigns for a complete change over, whilst others, such as the British Weights & Measures Association oppose the compulsory use of metric measure.

Apparently the topic has been discussed regularly in parliament since 1818 and admittedly the current system remains an odd mix of the two systems. 

Think Metric highlights the difficulties for many adults who were educated in the imperial system.  The body also points out the challenges for children who are taught one system at school but find family and older people, plus the world outside, do not use metric consistently.

The case of the Metric Martyrs sums up how the British press like to use compulsory metrication as an anti-EU argument, with a test case on the sale of fruit and veg due next January.

This week, another battle has emerged over the acre as a measure of land (since the 13th century).  It is claimed it will be banned by the EU from 2010.  I’m sure most British people have no idea the actual size of an acre, but we do like to resist change being portrayed as forced on us from outside.  Mind you, the US is even more resistant to metrication than we are. 

I confess to being someone who thinks in imperial measures – and recall many amusing DIY moments with my dad where we started in one system and got ourselves confused by linking into the other.  Although most hardware products are sold in metric, we still thought of a piece of 4″x2″ wood as right for doing the job.

My mum always measures material in yards – actually stretching out her arm and measuring the length from her nose, bizarrely.  When I drive in France, I mentally convert the distances and speedometer back into Imperial – and as for clothes and shoe sizes, I’m just totally lost.

Mind you, I hardly remember “old money” since decimalisation happened when I was at an age young enough to convert.  And I wouldn’t have a problem with shifting to the Euro in practical terms as I hate having to swap between two currencies whenever I’m off to France.

I think it is the muddled approach that is most confusing and this affects clarity of communications.  As a nation we muddle through resisting the simpler metric system and sticking with our rather quaint measures.

But would many of us know a perch from a chain or a peck from a bushel?  And do you know the conversion rates from imperial to metric?

FYI: 1 kilometre = 0.6214 mile (which is 1760 yards).  An acre is equal to 4,840 square yards, whilst a hectare is 10,000 square metres, or more than twice the size of an acre (2.4711 to be exact).

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “Communicating road measures is confusing”

  1. >The Department for Transport has released road statistics for 2007 – and something jumped out at me as rather odd. All the headline figures are given as kilometres but in the UK we measure road distances in miles.

    Only the road signs are metric. UK government has been completely metric since 1995. Roads are specified, designed and measured completely in metric.

    >with a test case on the sale of fruit and veg due next January.

    It’s not a test case. The law has been tested already with earlier ‘metric martyrs’ (shouldn’t they be Imperial Martyrs?).

  2. Only the road signs are metric. UK government has been completely metric since 1995. Roads are specified, designed and measured completely in metric.It’s not a test case. The law has been tested already with earlier ‘metric martyrs’

  3. I meant to say “only the road signs are Imperial”.

    >The government was considering metrification back in the 1960s but cost of change is a big issue

    Metrication was assessed back in the 1960s as essentially self-financing, but we implemented the bits that saved money and are now reluctant to do the one or two things that cost money. The cost of converting road signs is highly contentious, with wildly differing figures being bandied about. If you look at the way the Canadians, Australians and the Irish ACTUALLY did it (pretty economically) you get figures that are much lower than the huge Department of Transport figures. Any way you do it, it’s a tiny fraction of the annual road maintenance bill and it would all be spent in Britain and provide employment at a time when the economy is depressed.

  4. what a mess, im 40 years old and always use imperial , if its metric i convert it to imperial, whether its petrol or whatever, my sons 9 years old and they only teach metric in school so ive taught him imperial myself, it annoys the school but i dont care! they should have left it alone it was perfectly ok as imperial,and the government should tell europe to get stuffed!!

  5. Dear Steve,

    It seems you have a problem. When you want to denigrate the inventor of the metric system, you will have to go to London because that’s where the inventor of the metric system is buried. It’s unfair of you to blame the Europeans or even the French for what is, after all, an English invention!

    See http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/CommentaryOnWilkinsOfMeasure.pdf for details of the invention of the metric system.

    Good luck, and if I hear of an anti-metric demonstration at St Lawrence Jewry Church in London where Bishop John Wilkins, the inventor of the metric system is buried, I will suspect that you are involved. 2018 April 13 will be a good date to plan for because this will be the 350th anniversary of the invention of the ‘universal measure’ in London.

    By the way, if you feel really strongly about not using the metric system at all, might I suggest that the article, ‘Don’t use metric!’ that you can find at: http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/DontUseMetric.pdf will help to get you started.

    Cheers,

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

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