WASHINGTON — THE United States government has made grindingly slow progress in moving toward metric measurement, and the American public and private industry remain stubbornly resistant to conversion, a congressional report says.
``The government cannot achieve conversion by becoming a metric island in a nonmetric nation,'' General Accounting Office (GAO) investigators wrote. ``Without greater nonfederal support, the agencies will increasingly face the risk of discouragement.''
More than 128 years after Congress first authorized metric measurements, the US remains the only officially nonmetric industrialized country. Only the US, Burma, and Liberia still use the system of feet, gallons, and pounds, according to the US Metric Association.
Even so, US stores are filled with items like 2-liter soft-drink bottles, and the size of an automobile engine is now measured in cubic centimeters or liters instead of cubic inches.
President Clinton told a 1993 metric conference that US stubbornness could hurt trade with other nations that want products in metrics, particularly as trade barriers come down.
``To improve our balance of trade and to succeed in the international marketplace, America must produce goods and services that fit the needs of other nations,'' the president said.
In a report made public last week, the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, found that encouragement weak. The report focused on a 1988 law requiring federal agencies to eventually adopt metrics in procurement and construction - even highway signs. The GAO particularly criticized the Education Department for not taking the lead in helping the public understand metrics.
``Education has made very little progress since our review three years ago,'' the GAO investigators wrote.
Assistant Education Secretary Thomas W. Payzant says the department ``fully supports'' metric conversion but is prohibited by law from requiring local schools to put metrics in the classroom curriculum. Mr. Payzant says the Education Department was working toward a public awareness campaign and better use of metrics in products. That didn't satisfy George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
``I am very concerned that metric education, which is really the first step in our conversion process, has not been aggressively pursued,'' says Mr. Brown, who requested the GAO report.
Other major agencies having problems converting to metrics in procurement are the Defense Department and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Both cited a lack of equipment and parts available in metrics.
NASA says it will never convert the space shuttle or space station to metrics because of cost, and the Defense Department has granted waivers to build entire ships without using metrics.
Strong resistance to conversion remains in private industry because of the cost and among a public concerned about a change that could be confusing, the GAO found.
How to make highway signs metric, for example, is still being studied after the Federal Highway Administration encountered stiff resistance when it first raised the idea in 1992.
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas introduced legislation last Wednesday that would prohibit the federal government from forcing states to change the signs.
``Use of the metric system makes sense as we face global competition and nearly all of our trading partners use this system,'' she says. ``However, changing a highway sign from 65 miles an hour to 110 kilometers an hour for the sake of being consistent with our trading partners seems silly.''
The goal of using metrics in all federal building construction by 1994 has generally been met, the GAO found. And the Highway Administration will require state road departments to use metrics by Sept. 30, 1996, or risk losing their share of $18 billion in federal highway aid.