It’s past time to switch to the metric system

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

The United States stubbornly refuses to join hands with the rest of the world in one simple area: measurements. The metric system is used everywhere in the world except for America, Myanmar and Liberia. Why? No one knows!

Try asking an Englishman how far away the tube station is, or asking an Italian how tall he/she is. We, as Americans, wouldn’t be able to fully understand their answer without pulling out our phones and doing a units conversion. It makes travel much more difficult for Americans, and it must cause foreigners a lot of stress when they come to America only to discover we use a completely different language when it comes to distances, heights, weights and temperatures. Additionally, global corporations wouldn’t have to make separate packaging based on sizing units in the United States, which would be a huge convenience for world trade.

Our system — called the imperial system — is composed of various units that often seem to have no logical relationship to one another. Twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, 1,760 yards in a mile. The metric system, by contrast, is incredibly efficient to use. You just multiply or divide by some factor of ten. 10 millimeters in a centimeter, 100 centimeters in a meter, 1,000 meters in a kilometer. Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius and boils at 100 degrees Celsius. It’s just logical.

Instead, the metric system is used for a few select measurements in the United States, but only some. This is a result of a failed attempt to implement the metric system nation-wide in 1866 and on other occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries. The metric system is used for soda, drugs and even military communication, but basics like street signs and temperatures remain distinct.

Obviously, the United States would have some growing pains to accommodate a new system, which is part of the reason the Metric Conversion Act 1975 didn’t work so well. For example, every car would have to be switched from miles to kilometers — which would obviously be a major adjustment. However, in the grand scheme of things, changing our driving habits would be a small sacrifice to make things easier and safer globally.

The use of two different systems was the root cause in the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter. A miscommunication between U.S. run NASA and other organizations involving incorrect data meant that the spacecraft probably ascended to about 57 kilometers instead of 150 kilometers, burning up in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Public health officials have also raised concerns about the rise of drug mis-dosing due to our incomplete embrace of metric, according to The Atlantic. Children are of particular concern since they’re often prescribed liquid medications given by parents at home. Researchers have recently called for a metric-only standard for children’s medication. They hope that without tablespoons and teaspoons, parents will be able to dose correctly as prescribed (in metric). ECRI, a nonprofit that studies effective medical procedures and processes, ranked medical errors related to pounds and kilograms as No. 7 on their Top 10 Patient Safety Concerns. ECRI now recommends that the U.S. health-care system eliminate all non-metric body-weight scales because too many serious errors have occurred when health-care providers calculate medication based on a patient’s weight but fail to convert body weight from pounds to kilograms.

Not using the metric system not only weighs the United States down on a global scale, but it even inflicts a bit of self-harm on the country. While the country would certainly have to undergo an adjustment period to switch, the benefits would be more than worth it.