Imperial Road Truckers

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

I’m not a fan of “reality shows,” but I have been unable to resist one guilty pleasure—Ice Road Truckers. This program is on the History Channel. I can’t help it, I have to watch it each week to observe what new cinematography methods will be employed  in an attempt to eschew metric (SI) units from the program. How will the producers innovate to obscure the fact that Canada and the rest of the world is metric. The female member of the household looks at me with disdain, comments at her disbelief and dissappointment, shakes her head, and retires to another room.

The first time I watched the program, I realized that it featured two Canadian truckers Hugh “The Polar Bear” Rowland and Alex Debogorski, who were driving in Canada. What’s more important than distance, mass (weight), temperature, and volume to truckers? Clearly, if they are in Canada, then the roads would all have distances in Kilometers, the weight of their cargoes would be in Kilograms, liquid loads would be in Liters, and the temperature would be in Celsius. Is this a program where Americans will finally be forced to confront metric units?—not exactly. The Canadian truckers were in Canada, but you couldn’t tell it from the measurements. Early on in its run (no pun intended—really), the program showed a quick cut to a Canadian “Interstate” exit sign. It happened so quickly I could not make out what it said. When I went back frame for frame, it was clear, the exit had km on it. When discussed on the program, temperatures were in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, and weights in pounds. Of course when the program would cut back to Alaska, there was no need for obfuscation and conversion.

Now and then some SI units would get through, but not very often. I recall Hugh Rowland delivering 40,000 liters of something in one program. It was a metric bust for me when during one season the Canadian truckers were imported into Alaska. The apparent success of the program led to the Ice Road Trucker (IRT) producers persuading some of the truckers to drive trucks in India. Whoa!–that’s a metric country, I had to see how that went. Again the producers did their best to obscure metric units.  Bags of cement and other dry goods were generally in 50 kilogram burlap sacks, immediately they became 100 lbs or so. The next year the IRT “summer vacation” was in South America, still metric there. It was then that the producers finally allowed a discussion between Rick Yemm and Lisa Kelly concerning how many kilometers more they needed to go to drop off a load. Now and then the metric world outside of the US was not obscured.

This season has produced some of the most hilarious and surreal viewing so far (at least for The Metric Maven). Hugh, Alex and Rick are all trucking in Canada this season (2012).

What occurred in a recent Ice Road Truckers episode put me in mind of the absurdity found in the Monty Python sketch Buying A Bed. In this sketch, one bedding salesman always multiplies the actual number meant by ten, and the other salesman divides the actual value by three. Neither use the actual values. As you can imagine, this causes considerable confusion on the part of the couple purchasing the bed, as they attempt  to figure out the actual dimensions and prices involved.

In the Ice Road Truckers episode aired on 2012-07-15 this dialog occurs:

Dispatcher:  You’re going to take an excavator to Iklavic. The load is only good for 30,000 and you’re going to be really close to 30 with the excavator.

Alex: Very good.

Dispatcher: So once you’re loaded, make sure you go to the scale.

Alex: I will, thank you, very good.

Is this gross weight in kg or lbs or just gross?
Reading on Canadian Truck Scale

Alex then heads over to the scales to weigh his truck with the load. The readout of the scale is shown, which reads 15,500 kg. Two indicator lights are below, with GR and Kg lighted. So I assume we are talking kilograms. GR probably means gross weight, which should be the total weight with the load and driver. Alex then tells the audience: “I’m 15,000 pounds overweight which means I may be too heavy to go down the road, which means we won’t be able to go.” No, no, I protest, I just saw a readout for kilograms on the scale, what’s with Alex stating the value in pounds? Alex obtains a permit which allows him to drive overweight at his own risk. Alex heads out of town with his overloaded vehicle.

We then see a sign which clearly reads: “WINTER ICE ROAD, MAXIMUM WEIGHT 30 000 kg” and Alex repeats what the sign states, but offers no units.

Looks like kg to me
Winter Ice Road Sign with 30,000 kg Limit

Alex  then continues: “Since our weight is over the limit, I’ve gotta be careful about coming on the ice and coming off the ice.”  We then see a sign giving the weigh limits on two ice roads.

Second Sign, I'm sure they're both kilograms
Second Ice Road Sign 35,000 kg

The Tuktoyaktuk Ice Rod is open with a maximum weight of 35,000. I’m assuming Kilograms from the second entry on the sign. Considering these are ice roads, one might expect them to be more explicit. Wouldn’t weight be a paramount number on which to have a handle? Falling through the ice in a truck is generally fatal.

Alex then instructs us: “Because the loads this heavy I have to stick to the center of the road and drive with more caution.” But how heavy is the load?  I saw a scale with 15,500 kilograms. Alex says he’s 15,000 pounds overweight. The ice roads indicate they can handle 30,000 kg. Who’s on first? I have no idea what’s going on.

The narrator then interjects: “Stopping on the ice increases a drivers chance of breaking through, and with this overweight excavator, Alex has 15,000 extra reasons to keep moving.” But, but! Mr. Narrator is it kilograms or pounds!? Metric Mavens want to know! If it’s Canada, shouldn’t it be kilograms?! I’m completely certain that 15,000 kg does not equal 15,000 lbs. As Alex drives across the ice, the Narrator informs us: “He’s driving an overweight truck over thin ice, with a load that’s 15,000 pounds over the safe limit. It is?—what is the total weight?–I’m confused. Alex finally delivers his road—and I will never have any idea what the mass values are. Is this American television production at its best or what. I’m voting for the what.

Throughout the program I watch for metric Easter eggs. A quick flash of a map occurs in a Canada sequence. When I freeze it, indeed the values on the map are in kilometers.

Quick! Nothing Here To See!–except kilometers

The map is shown so quickly, I’m sure there’s little chance an American would notice the values, and would probably assume miles.

During another sequence, Rick Yemm is smoking a cigarette outside of a clinic and we are bravely shown a reminder that it is Canada. The sign indicates one should not smoke within eight meters of the entrance.

For the convenience of Americans, it has 25 feet in parenthesis. The Alaska segments have no problem showing lengthy shots of the road signs with miles on them. Just make sure to only show metric signs quickly most of the time when in Canada.

IRT appears to be the only program where metric units intrude upon Americans at all. The producers do their best to turn the program into Imperial Road Truckers, but clearly they are wearing down a bit it seems. More and more metric seems to be slipping through. It is interesting to hear warnings of 100 kilometer per hour winds along with the few other metric intrusions each week on an American television program. I wish the producers could just accept metric and use it exclusively in the Canadian parts of the program. I’ll keep watching, with more hope than good sense, and wonder just how many more years of a non-metric The United States we will have. Too many for my lifetime is what concerns me, and should concern more Americans.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

13 thoughts on “Imperial Road Truckers

  1. Without actually watching this episode all I can do is guess, but I think that scale only shows the weight of one set of axles, or half the load. They don’t have to weigh the whole truck at once they can simply weigh each set of axles then sum them. 15,500 kgs is ~36k lbs, which would line up with the weight of just the truck portion (steer axles + drive axles) or if they were _really_ overloaded (for the ice) just the drive axles or trailer axles.

    However I am in no way defending the shows lack of acknowledgment of metric, and their lack of knowledge in interpreting them. This is by far my biggest annoyance with all these heavy industry reality shows (IRT, AxeMen, Gold Rush, etc) is how the editors know nothing of the actual industry and will use random B roll that doesn’t even fit the scene. This 15,500kg scale may not have even been of this particular instance, and they just use stock footage for a scale measurement, and 15k was there conveniently.

    Also the truck could have been 15k lbs over weight, or roughly 36,800 kgs total, where a 15,500 kg reading could have easily been one set of axles on the truck.

    Basically it comes down to a lack of communication between the actual camera men who experienced the event, the writers, and the editors and a lack of knowledge by the writers and editors.

    But yes, actually using metric in the show would make sense, then they can simply provide American equivalents for people to relate to.

  2. Seeing the signs in this article the drivers are well within the load limit and are pretending they are over load. I agree it would be more educational to show and talk in original units and show how they convert multiply 2,2 lbs. on the U.S. side of the border.

    • Exactly, the producers are using people’s ignorance of how measurement works to make it seem that the truckers are risking their lives when they aren’t.

      • I think the whole show is scripted. Nothing is real and the dialog was written without making sure everything matched, like goofs in movies.

        The writers may not have been aware of Canada being metric when they filmed there. Maybe when the producers found out they decided just to quickly pan the scales and signs so no one would see them and notice. How many viewers are going to freeze frame over the signs and scales to check the units?

        Here is a link to the program on IMDB:

        If you want answers, bring up the subject there. Expose others to the fact that the metric is being hidden. Link to this webpage.

  3. I love the fact that you watch that show for the exact same reason as I do. Cheers.

  4. I don’t watch this show at all, but I see a lot of other shows imported from America on Discovery and National Geographic. (I’m in Norway) It’s often really annoying when they don’t make it clear what units they are speaking about. Often, they’ll state a temperature in “degrees” without clarifying whether they mean Celsius or Fahrenheit. Other times they’ll state a large mass without being clear if they mean ton (2000 lbs) or tonne (1000 kg).

    Then, today watching an episode of Bang Goes the Theory (A BBC science program), they were talking about tsunamis and comparing them with ordinary waves. They first stated that the distance between the crests of normal waves at a beach is usually around 100m, and then compared that with tsunamis where the distance can be as much as 300 miles. So it seems they are fine with metric units for small distances, but confusingly switch to miles for longer distances.

    They also did another segment on the show I saw today about food energy, talking about calories. They explained the difference between “food calories” or kcal and “scientific calories” (cal), while completely ignoring the kilojoules measurement that was clearly visible on the nutrition panel they showed.

    To their credit, though, they do generally use Celsius, kilograms and litres throughout.

    • If English language programs are broadcast all over the world without translation to the local language and also use either USC or imperial (depending on whether it is US or British Empire), the producers of the programs will not change their ways if there are no complaints by the viewers.

      The producers may feel that everyone on the world understands USC/imperial and only uses metric because they are forced to.

      If people like you refuse to watch the programs and can convince your TV providers to stop broadcasting the shows that don’t speak metric, then and only then will the American producers get the message and stop using USC/imperial in programs sent outside the US or the UK.

      As long as they have a market they will continue to push USC.

    • I just noticed I used the term ‘half a dozen’ to describe the number of times Ive been to Canada….Rats!

      • Yeah, you want to be careful, ern… use such a term once more and you might find yourself counting in dozens without realising it, and from there the way to leaving the decimal SI for its duodecimal equivalent, TGM, is so short…

        Happy dozen-first of December, all. 😉

    • Actually, the later model American cars don’t show the two units together on the same display like they use to. However, there is a way to set the interpretation of the scale. You will need to switch the display so the scale shows kilometres per hour.

      Check your owners manual for changing the display.

      If the information is not there, it may be in the service manual.

      If you can’t find it in their literature, contact their offices and ask them directly. It might not be information readily available, but it can be done.

      Once done, you can even leave it that way for driving in the US.

      • I’ll keep it in mind next time I go back to Canada, thanks!

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