Independence Minutiae: Weights & Measures

(Title Image: via Wikipedia)

In another look at minor issues relating to Welsh independence, it’s time to consider something that’s long lurked in the background as a conflict between traditionalists and reformers: weights and measures.

Weights and measures are currently non-devolved and have been included as a reserved power in the draft Wales Bill. As it’s a common standard across the UK (even Europe) as a whole that’s entirely sensible. Though with independence, Wales would be able to set its own rules and regulations (within reason).

It’s a particularly important issue because it ensures customers know much of a product they’re getting, it standardises distances between locations and helps determine what a safe speed limit is for multiple forms of transport.

Since joining the European Union, the UK has used both metric and imperial measures for goods and services. With appropriate ramping by the right-wing press, this made metric martyrs of some traders who prefer, or would prefer the choice, to use imperial measures only.

Most of the EU, in fact most of the world, uses the metric system. It’s only the UK and some Commonwealth nations that still persist with imperial units – though many display metric units alongside imperial.

The only countries in the world that haven’t officially adopted the metric system in some way are the United States, Myanmar and Liberia.

Scotland’s Future addressed it in a particularly blunt tone (pdf p323) – “The existing system will continue on independence”. That presumably means an independent Scotland would have/will eventually keep displaying both imperial and metric units.

The same will probably go for Wales, so that’s the end of it surely?

Not really, as there’s an argument to switch wholesale from imperial to metric in all walks of life, many of which might fundamentally alter daily tasks.

The imperial system is irrational and based upon a series of archaic and random standardised measurements. Metric uses one unit of measurement throughout and a decimal system to produce more accurate fractions.

There are almost no advantages to the imperial system, other than saving the expense of teaching those people old enough to only know imperial units the metric system. However, we still use imperial measurements in certain circumstances; for example, we’re still more likely to give our height and weight in feet/inches and stones/pounds respectively.

In addition, with regard weather forecasts (Independence Minutiae: Weather Forecasting), Fahrenheit – an imperial measure – is arguably easier to understand; if it’s 80°F you know it’s going to be warm because it’s higher up a 0-100 scale.

However, Fahrenheit isn’t very good when it comes to scientific measurements. In those circumstances O° Celsius – the metric freezing point of water – is easier to understand than 32°F. Kelvin is even more accurate for scientific studies, but likely to be completely lost on the public at large.

One particular area worth focusing on is transport.

The Republic of Ireland had gradually started to adopt the metric system since it joined the EU in the 1970s, and switched road measurements to metric in January 2005. This meant speed limits were given in kilometres-per-hour and distances in kilometres/metres instead of miles-per-hour and miles/yards.

A consequence of this is that speed limits on Irish motorways rose from 70mph to 120 km/h (75mph) in order to use a round figure, while every single road sign which gave a measurement – some 35,000 in total – had to be replaced at a cost of €30million.

As metric road measurements are used throughout the EU – even in many Commonwealth nations which retain imperial measures in other walks of life, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand – switching road signs to metric would bring Wales in line with the rest of the world. It would make life easier for foreign drivers here and vice versa, but it’s unlikely to have any other benefit.

It has been considered for the UK many times in the past, but has always been dropped. The last time it was seriously raised was in 2006, when a report from the UK Metric Society recommended switching road signs to metric, estimated to cost £80million at the time.

From March 2015, new road signs for weight and height restrictions will give both imperial and metric units in the UK. The problem there is signs might become overcrowded with numbers and difficult to read when travelling at speed.

Also, tram systems and high-speed rail lines in the UK tend to use metric-only, while domestic rail lines still use imperial measurements. Most sea-travel measurements are still based on imperial units like knots and nautical miles.

Road signs have a natural 10-15 year shelf-life anyway, and any switch to metric could be phased in when the signs are due to be replaced, starting with trunk roads if decision-makers decided to go ahead with it post-independence.

It’s probably not entirely necessary though unless there were a groundswell of political and public support for the move, or some move by the EU to force metric units on all member states. So the only conclusion at present, in the words of the Scottish Government, is that, “The existing system will continue on independence”.