US millimeters its way toward metric units

At one time, the idea sounded easy: Have the United States abandon the awkward conventions of inches and pounds that harken to medieval times and adopt the modern metric measurements used by virtually all the world's industrial nations. But old habits die hard. Ten years after President Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 to help usher America into the metric age, the old English measurements are still the favorite of most people. For many American skeptics, the metric system is a wonderful idea whose time may never come. Although many industries have adopted metric measurements to some extent, even metric's staunchest proponents in the US admit it may be a distant day before the system gains wide public acceptance.

``It's not as far along as a lot of people thought it would be be 10 years ago,'' admits Alan Whelihan of the US Commerce Department's office of metric programs. ``But it's spreading, and a lot more widely than people think.''

Indeed, the US is gradually, if slowly, going metric. While public acceptance of metric measurements has moved along in fits and starts, US industry has quietly changed over to metric measurements. Virtually every automobile part in the US is now fashioned to metric specifications. Alcoholic beverages were first to be packaged in metric-sized containers; soft drinks have since begun to follow. Metric sizes routinely precede English measurements on the containers of many supermarket goods. By one estimat e, 32 percent of the nation's 500 largest industrial corporations market at least one metrically scaled product.

Experts say the biggest factor in the gradual shift has not been US government efforts, which began officially encouraging voluntary changeover to metric measurements with the 1975 act. Instead, the impetus has come from American exporters.

``Companies have to adjust to other countries' standards if they want to sell abroad, and, for most other countries, that means metric,'' says Albert Navas, president of the American National Metric Council, an industry-funded organization set up to encourage the spread of metric measurments.

Indeed, metric measurements are beginning to creep into places where they were once rejected. Florida, for example, has begun posting speed-limit signs on many of its roads that list both miles and kilometers per hour. That, Mr. Navas says, is partly a concession to the large number of Hispanic immigrants arriving from countries where metric measurements predominiate.

But he also takes it as a positive sign that the metric system is gradually winning tacit popular acceptance.

``The metric movement is less militant now than it once was -- people used to feel it was being shoved down their throats,'' Navas says. ``Well, we're not going to try to get football fields measured in meters. They'll always being yards. All we're saying now, is, if it makes sense, use it. If it doesn't, don't.''

Metric advocates say a key to long-term, widespread acceptance of the system is education about metric measurements at the elementary and even preschool level.

Canadians, introduced to the metric system 13 years, have begun voting with their wallets on metric measures.

Earlier this year, a Canadian court ruled that stores could sell in metric or Imperial, as the old Canadian system is known. Store owners around the country are reportedly stampeding back to the old system.

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