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A Kinder, Gentler Metric System Campaign New Program Promises To Be More Consumer-Friendly Than Past Efforts

The federal government is going after Robert Young and millions of people like him who aren’t fans of the metric system.

Having persuaded most big manufacturers to gradually switch over to metrics over the past 20 years, the U.S. Department of Commerce is championing a new metric campaign aimed at people like 57-year-old Young, a Maryland businessman.

Young admits measuring by metrics is a must if a business intends to compete globally. But for day-to-day use, from measuring food weights to distances, he echoes many who feel metrics are confusing and a waste of time.

“It doesn’t matter which system is used, if the clothing fits, you’ll wear it,” argued Young, manager of business development at M-Cubed Information Systems in Rockville. “If metric fits American businesses, they’ll wear it. All this (debate) is much ado about nothing.”

The campaign to change such attitudes takes higher profile this week, starting with a town hall meeting in Atlanta today and Friday. Town hall meetings are also slated by the Commerce Department’s Metric Program for the cities of Boston, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas.

It also plans traveling displays and television ads for children.

“Consumers use metric process every day - 35 millimeter film, two liters of Pepsi just spills off the tongue,” said Ralph Richter, a staff organizer of the “Toward A Metric America” program. “But they don’t have a firm grasp of what they are saying.

“If a sign says one and a quarter mile, they don’t want it to say two kilometers,” he said. ” … And housewives who’ve been doing grandma’s recipes for years aren’t too excited by converting and don’t see any immediate benefit.”

Richter and his colleagues are first to admit they face an uphill battle with the general public. Unlike the government’s campaign of the late 1970s, however, he and his colleagues say the new campaign promises to be more consumer friendly.

The town hall meetings, for example, will include the familiar panel discussions with economics and marketing specialists. But heavy emphasis will be placed on practical skills and consumer interests.

There will be training sessions for math, science and vocational education teachers who are not proficient in metrics. There will be workshops for consumers on how to get the most for their money using metric measurements.

The United States currently stands alone as the only industrialized country that continues to measure distance by the foot and weight by the pound. Under International System of Units, commonly known as the metric system, we would measure distance using meters and weight by kilograms. Business leaders insist America’s embrace of the metric system will be key to its ability to compete worldwide.

Regardless, average consumers like Young don’t seem concerned with the broad picture as much as how metric conversion will influence their personal lives.

“The IRS doesn’t ask how many kilometers we drive, they ask us how many miles,” said Young with a laugh. “And until they force us to keep score using metrics, I will continue to put miles on my tax forms.”


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