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ROAD SIGNS AND THE METRIC MUDDLE

(Footrule Jan 2001)

WRITING to a local authority in order to complain about metric road or pedestrian signs can bring either frustration or reward. William Scott has sent us a file that is a classic case of the series of evasions, digressions and deceptions to which one may be subjected, ending up back where one started - furious and frustrated.
His opening letter was to the Head of Transportation at the East Lothian Council HQ in Haddington, requesting confirmation that, in view of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions of 1994, certain pedestrian signs in North Berwick which indicate distances only in kilometres are unlawful.

THE reply failed to answer the question, merely making the excuse that "as a large number of visitors to East Lothian are from other countries it was considered beneficial for metric distances to be included where a destination was a particularly way from the town centre". (As this is a common excuse, in most cases it is worth the rejoinder that (a) the vast majority of the public served by these signs - whether local or visitors - are British who prefer imperial measures, especially the elderly who do not understand metric, and (b) fully half the overseas visitors are from the USA and the former dominions, who understand imperial perfectly well, and (c) people take holidays abroad in order to enjoy different cultures - the British don't expect Continental countries to put yards and miles on THEIR signs!).

HERE, however, Mr Scott rightly stuck to the main issue: "Do the signs bearing only metric measurements comply with the law? That was the question I asked and I should appreciate a simple, straightforward reply". Back came another equivocation: "…I can confirm that…the 4 signs with metric distances do not fully comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations …However, these signs are solely for the direction of pedestrians and are not intended for road users". To say "do not fully comply" is another weasel phrase, intended to bamboozle. Either they comply or the don't! This is the authorities' euphemistic way of admitting that they are breaking the law, because the can't do so honestly. Furthermore, it is irrelevant whether the signs are intended for the benefit of pedestrians or road users. Mr Scott made both these points in his reply, concluding that he looked forward "to hearing that you intend to have the offending signs removed or amended to comply with the law".

EAST Lothian Council then found a fresh refuge from legality by responding with: " "You may not be aware that the Scottish Executive is currently amending the 1994 Traffic Signs Regulations. Therefore appropriate action will be taken dependent on the content of the new regulations". It is unfortunately true that, because the Scottish Executive is so servile towards the EU, the new regulations North of the Border could well permit metric-only traffic signs.

HOWEVER, meanwhile, Mr Scott took the only route still open to him, by writing to the County Procurator Fiscal (Scottish public prosecutor), enclosing copies of the whole correspondence and inviting his formal opinion "as to whether the head of a local authority department can flout the law in such a way or not". The reply was a predictable brush-off saying: "My remit is, inter alia, the prosecution of crime in the public interest and I have taken the view that should you have difficulty with the decision to await new regulations then this is not a matter within my remit but one which you should take up with the elected members of the Council".

MR Scott heroically returned yet again to the fray, as follows: "To save the time of the elected representative that I shall approach, I should be grateful if you would provide some information that I am sure will be helpful to him.
(i) Is the display of the finger-post signs a criminal offence?
(ii) What is the penalty if convicted of displaying such signs?
(iii) Can you quote a precedent to justify no action being taken against the Head of Transportation?
(iv) Are there any circumstances that you know of where existing laws might be ignored on the chance that at some future date the illegal activity will become lawful?

THE Fiscal's reply was a "jobsworth" classic, failing to answer any of these questions but recommending Mr Scott to consult his solicitor or report the offending signs to the police or to his local Councillor, and concluding: "On a more general note, all persons and organisations with very few exceptions are subject to the rule or law. The Head of Transportation is not an exception. As to your final paragraph, each case must be adjudicated on its merits". This last sentence means nothing and the previous sentence is plainly untrue. The worst of it is that we have to pay for all these useless jacks-in-office.

EQUALLY maddening was a letter received by Mrs Rosemary Wickenden from Mr Malcolm Tuck, Traffic Manager, East Sussex County Council, Bexhill, in which he said: "Due to the need for road signs to be understood quickly and the large number of 'older' drivers who understand the imperial system, the UK has been given dispensation to continue the use of miles, miles per hour, feet and inches for the time being". "GIVEN DISPENSATION"? By whom, precisely? And how long is "for the time being"? And at what age does one qualify as an "older" driver? And how many "younger" drivers DO NOT understand miles and MPH? Is it not a fact, indeed, that "younger" drivers generally understand miles and miles per hour BETTER than kilometres and KPH, despite their metric education? BWMA will consider undertaking surveys on this question.

PATRICK CARROLL successfully conducted a pioneering one-man campaign against metric road signs in Lowestoft as long ago as 1996. His letter of complaint in April that year about "Slippery Slope Ahead" signs at the Ravine drew this reply from the Council's Head of Construction Services: "You are quite correct in your observation that the sub-plate to each of these signs should give the distance in yards not metres. I have issued an order that the plates be removed and, when available, new plates substituted". The same official kindly replied to a similar complaint in June that year concerning a public toilets signs at Kirkley Cliff: "I shall arrange for the sign to be amended". Then in January 1999 he wrote, thanking Mr Carroll for "bringing to my attention the error on the sub-plates to a number of signs. I have discussed this with Persimmon Homes and they have assured me that the sub-plates will be changed as soon as they take delivery of the correct signs".

NEXT, in April 1999 he received a less helpful letter from the Property Services Manager in reply to a complaint about finger signs on the sea-front, claiming that "Since the promenade and sea-front are not classified as Highway, it is considered the EC Directive 89/617 and the Traffic Regulations do not apply". Mr Carroll quickly corrected this nonsense, whereupon it was confirmed by the same official that "The signs on the sea-front which indicate distances in metres will be changed to imperial measures"" Mr Carroll later turned his attention to offending pedestrian signs associated with the Cabinet War Rooms: the following is quoted from the reply by Iain Forbes, Corporate Manager (Transportation), City of Westminster: "You are correct in stating that all traffic signs (including pedestrian direction signs) which state a distance should do so either in miles, fractions of miles or yards. This is set out in the Department of Transport's Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1994. However, the remaining signs for the Cabinet War Rooms which include distances given in metres are attached to the walls of buildings in the vicinity, which are not covered by this regulation. Under these circumstances there is nothing further I can do. However, I do feel it is fair to point out that London is also a very popular destination for tourists from a large number of European countries where the metric system is fully understood…"

ONCE again, what is recommended in the William Scott saga above as the "rejoinder" ((a), (b) & (c)) applies to that feeble excuse. The other excuse about exemption for metric signs if fixed to walls of buildings must also be demolished. But elsewhere, Patrick Carroll's campaign shows that persistence pays, and there is no justification for any metric directional or distance signs anywhere in Britain.

AUSTIN SPREADBURY from Enfield had a similar success in October 1999, receiving this reply from the responsible project engineer to his complaint about the A41 Bicester Toucan Crossing Cycle Network Route 51: "I would agree that the supplementary distance plates should have been stated in yards not metres. These observations have been passed on to our contractor for action. Thank you for bringing this anomaly to our attention so that the situation can be addressed."
Patrick Nugent of Altringham and Chris Robinson of Stockport have had similar successes. Mr S Tamblin of Wellingborough, however, sent us a cri de coeur, wondering why "so many local authority publications and press releases slavishly use metric measures? I enclose a photocopy of Northamptonshire County Council's roads helpline. It does not appear at all strange to them that, while they deal in metric distances, the public navigate the highways by imperial road signs. Of course, this confusion extends to other government bodies…Contradictions exist within the Ordnance Survey's products: road atlases that have spot heights in metres but contours in feet and distances in miles.
The OS road atlas (Phillips 1997) states that maps are drawn to a scale of 1 to 190,080 or 'about 3 miles to 1 inch'; but in fact that is EXACTLY 3 miles to 1 inch!" (Then why not show that - as it can't be just ignorance, it must be because they've become so politicised that they daren't admit to the flecibility and convenience of imperial scales for mapping purposes.) He continues: "Even more curious was my discovery in a book store of one of their tourist maps, drawn in the crude style of the 1:50,000 maps but scaled to '1:63,360' - ie 1 mile to 1 inch!"

MR A E Lott, a chartered engineer from near Reading, was angered by the blue direction signs with white lettering, showing distances to various attractions in metric measures only, in the mystical town of Glastonbury of all places! "There is considerable scope for action by any [BWMA] members in the Glastonbury area to have these signs removed".

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