Unwelcome changes

I remember in elementary school having to start learning the metric system, and expecting that within a few years we would have to convert completely to that system. I wondered how I would ever get to have a feel for how long things were in centimeters or how much things weighed in kilograms. I was used to measuring teaspoons and tablespoons and cups, from helping my mother in the kitchen, and I didn’t look forward to having to think in liters and milliliters.

Of course, it never happened. Science class was the only place I actually had to use metric measurements on a regular basis. Most packages in the grocery store have metric measurements on the label, but I pretty much ignore them. My recipes call for 15 oz. cans of beans and tablespoons of margarine and cups of rice. The only aisle where the metric system takes over is soft drinks. (And liters were the easiest to begin with anyway, because they’re close to quarts.)

I’m really not all that good at estimating sizes, but I know about how tall five or six feet is because I’m in between. I know a meter is a little more than a yard, so I know I’m between a meter and two meters tall, but I have to use a calculator to figure out that I’m about one and two thirds meters tall. (I did try to do it in my head, but I must have lost a digit somewhere doing the math because I came out with the wrong answer.)

I have a rough idea how far an eighth of a mile is (at one time, at lesat, that was a standard city block). I know the feel of the weight of a gallon of milk, which is eight pounds. I know how to use my thumb to estimate an inch, and while my size 9 foot is less than twelve inches, I know by how much it is less than a foot well enough to use it for rough estimates. The thought of losing all those “rules of thumb” is quite unsettling.

All that came to mind this morning because I read about a completely different kind of change that will soon affect the population of an island nation on the other side of the world. In some ways it is a less comprehensive change, because it only affects driving, not cooking and clothing and just about every measuring instrument in the country. On the other hand, the potential for disaster during the first days of the change is much higher, as people forget and accidentally revert to old habits.

Unless opponents of the change succeed in stopping it, on September 7 drivers in Samoa will have to switch to driving on the opposite side of the road. Like 70% of the world, Samoans currently drive on the right side of the road. It may seem odd that they would switch to join the minority on the left side, but the idea is to be on the same side as their larger neighbors, Australia and New Zealand.

The objective, according to the prime minister who is pushing the measure, is to increase the pool of available inexpensive used cars. Many Samoans have relatives in Australia and New Zealand, and getting their hand-me-down old cars would be a big cost savings. If those cars can continue to drive on the left side of the road, that is.

Of course, the advantage for poor people hoping to get inexpensive cars from a left-sided country translates to a big disadvantage for the current owners of right-sided cars in Samoa. When the traffic laws change in September, the resale value of their vehicles will drop overnight. They also have safety concerns on their side, as many roads in Samoa are dangerous as it is, and the confusion caused by the big switch is likely to cause a number of accidents.

I have no idea which way the court challenge to the law will go, but I’m glad I don’t have to make that kind of big change in my driving habits. If I ever have to learn to cook using metric measurements, I will at least have time to get used to it. Even if all the familiar measuring tools disappeared overnight, I could take my time measuring the rice and margarine to be sure I got it right. Driving doesn’t offer that kind of take-your-time-and-get-it-right, at least not unless all the other drivers are going to take it just as slow.

Most countries that have made a similar switch did it decades ago. Back in the 1970’s when some African countries switched from left to right, my guess is that people just about everywhere were less dependent on cars that they are today. The longer that people become used to doing things a certain way, and the more those habits affect a larger part of more people’s lives, the harder it is to finally change.

I really have no idea whether the U.S. will finally convert to the metric system. It’s hard to imagine that one country will remain a holdout in an increasingly globalized economy. But considering the size of the U.S. economy as a percentage of that global economy, and how long we’ve managed to go on with our familiar but unintuitive system, I don’t see change happening in the foreseeable future.

But if we’re going to change, delaying it longer won’t make it any easier in the end.

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