Kilometres per hour

For the South African airport with IATA code KMHA, see Johan Pienaar Airport. For the Canadian TV Series, see km/h (TV series).
A car speedometer that indicates measured speed in kilometres per hour.
Countries by handedness of traffic, coupled with the distance/speed unit
  Right-hand traffic, kilometers
  Left-hand traffic, kilometers
  Right-hand traffic, miles per hour (for speed limits) and kilometers (for distances)
  Right-hand traffic, miles
  Left-hand traffic, miles
Automobile speedometer, indicating speed in miles per hour (MPH) on the outer scale and kilometres per hour on the inner scale. In Canada it is the outer scale that is indicated in km/h and the inner scale in MPH, if the latter appears at all.

The kilometre per hour (American English: kilometer per hour) is a unit of speed, expressing the number of kilometres travelled in one hour.

The unit symbol (not abbreviation) is km/h Worldwide, it is the most commonly used unit of speed on road signs and car speedometers.[1][2]


Although the metre was formally defined in 1799, the term "kilometres per hour" did not come into immediate use – the myriametre (10,000 metres) and myriametre per hour were preferred to kilometres and kilometres per hour. In 1802 the term "myriamètres par heure" had appeared in French literature[3] and many French maps printed in the first half of the nineteenth century had scales in leagues and myriametres, but not in kilometres.[4] The Dutch on the other hand adopted the kilometre in 1817 but gave it the local name of the mijl.[5]

Notation history

Several representations of "kilometres per hour" have been used since the term was introduced and many are still in use today; for example, dictionaries list "km/h", "kmph" and "km/hr" as English abbreviations. The SI representations, classified as symbols, are "km/h", "km h−1" and "km·h−1".

Kilometres per hour as an abbreviation

The use of abbreviations[Note 1] dates back to antiquity, but abbreviations for "kilometres per hour" did not appear in the English language until the late nineteenth century.

The kilometre, a unit of length, first appeared in English in 1810,[6] and the compound unit of speed "kilometers per hour" was in use in the US by 1866.[7] "Kilometres per hour" did not begin to be abbreviated in print until many years later, with several different abbreviations existing near-contemporaneously.

  • 1889: "k. p. h."[8]
  • 1895: "km:h"[9]
  • 1898: "km/h"[10]
  • 1899: "km./hr." [11]
  • 1900: "kms./hr."[12]
  • 1902: "k.m.p.h."[13]

With no central authority to dictate the rules for abbreviations, various publishing houses have their own rules that dictate whether to use upper-case letters, lower-case letters, periods and so on, reflecting both changes in fashion and the image of the publishing house concerned.[25] For example, news organisations such as Reuters[26] and The Economist[27] require "kph".

In Australian unofficial usage, km/h is sometimes pronounced and written as klicks or clicks.[28]

Kilometres per hour as a symbol

The use of symbols to replace words dates back to at least the late medieval era when Johannes Widman, writing in German in 1486, used the symbols "+" and "−" to represent "addition" and "subtraction".[29] In the early 1800s Berzelius introduced a symbolic notation for the chemical elements derived from the elements' Latin names.[30] Typically, "Na" was used for the element sodium (Latin: natrium) and H2O for water.

In 1879, four years after the signing of the Treaty of the Metre, the CIPM proposed a range of symbols for the various metric units then under the auspices of the CGPM. Among these were the use of the symbol "km" for "kilometre".[31]

In 1948, as part of its preparatory work for the SI, the CGPM adopted symbols for many units of measure that did not have universally agreed symbols, one of which was the symbol "h" for "hours". At the same time the CGPM formalised the rules for combining units – quotients could be written in one of three formats resulting in "km/h", "km h−1" and "km·h−1" being valid representations of "kilometres per hour".[32] The SI standards, which were MKS-based rather than CGS-based were published in 1960 and have since then have been adopted by many authorities around the globe including academic publishers and legal authorities.

The SI explicitly states that unit symbols are not abbreviations and are to be written using a very specific set of rules.[32] M. Danloux-Dumesnils[33] provides the following justification for this distinction:

It has already been stated that, according to Maxwell, when we write down the result of a measurement, the numerical value multiplies the unit. Hence the name of the unit can be replaced by a kind of algebraic symbol, which is shorter and easier to use in formulae. This symbol is not merely an abbreviation but a symbol which, like chemical symbols, must be used in a precise and prescribed manner.

SI, and hence the use of "km/h" (or "km h−1" or "km·h−1") has now been adopted around the world in many areas related to health and safety[34] and in metrology.[35] It is also the preferred system of measure in academia and in education.[36]

Regulatory use

During the early years of the motor car, each country developed its own system of road signs. In 1968 the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals was drawn up under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council to harmonise road signs across the world. Many countries have since signed the convention and adopted its proposals. Speed limits signs that are either directly authorised by the convention or have been influenced by the convention are shown below:

Automobile speedometer, measuring speed in miles per hour on the outer track, and kilometres per hour on the inner track. In Canada "km/h" is shown on the outer track and "MPH" on the inner track.[39]

In 1972 the EU published a directive[40] (overhauled in 1979[41] to take British and Irish interests into account) that required member states to abandon CGS-based units in favour of SI. The use of SI implicitly required that member states use "km/h" as the shorthand for "kilometres per hour" on official[Note 2] documents.

Another EU directive, published in 1975, regulates the layout of speedometers within the European Union, and requires the text "km/h" in all languages,[42] even where that is not the natural abbreviation for the local version of "kilometres per hour". Examples include:

In 1988 the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration promulgated a rule stating that "MPH and/or km/h" were to be used in speedometer displays. On May 15, 2000 this was clarified to read "MPH, or MPH and km/h".[43] However, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard number 101 ("Controls and Displays") allows "any combination of upper- and lowercase letters" to represent the units.[44]


Conversions between common units of speed
m/s km/h mph knot ft/s
1 m/s = 1 3.6 2.236936 1.943844 3.280840
1 km/h = 0.277778 1 0.621371 0.539957 0.911344
1 mph = 0.44704 1.609344 1 0.868976 1.466667
1 knot = 0.514444 1.852 1.150779 1 1.687810
1 ft/s = 0.3048 1.09728 0.681818 0.592484 1

(Values in bold face are exact.)

See also


  1. The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines "abbreviate" as "Make short (chiefly now of writing part of a word for whole ...)"
  2. Until 2010, the directive covered "economic, public health, public safety or administrative purposes"; since then it covers all aspects of the EU internal market


  3. Develey, Emmanuel (1802). Physique d'Emile: ou, Principes de la science de la nature. 1. Paris.
  4. "France Pittoresque: Haute Pyrénées". Languillermie et Rambox. 1835. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
  5. de Gelder, Jacob (1824). Allereerste Gronden der Cijferkunst [Introduction to Numeracy] (in Dutch). 's-Gravenhage and Amsterdam: de Gebroeders van Cleef. pp. 155–156. Retrieved 2 March 2011.
  6. "The Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  7. Frazer, John F. (November 1866). Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts. LII. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute. p. 314.
  8. Harrington, Mark W.; Rotch, A. Lawrence; Herdman, W. J. (May 1889). American meteorological journal: A monthly review of meteorology, medical climatology and geography. 6. Meteorological Journal Company. p. 226.
  9. "Power consumed on electric railways". The Street Railway Journal. 11 (2): 116–117. February 1895.
  10. Bulletin – United States Geological Survey, Volumes 151–152. USGS. 1898. pp. ix.
  11. Whipple, F. J. W. (1899). "The Stability of the Motion of a Bicycle". The Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics. 30: 342.
  12. Launhardt, Wilhelm (1900). The Theory of the Trace: Being a Discussion of the Principles of Location. Madras: Lawrence Asylum Press.
  13. Swinburne, J (July 1902). Saunders, Lawrence; Blundstone, S. R., eds. "The Electric Problem of Railways". The Railway Engineer. 23: 207.
  14. Figee, S. (1903). Observations Made at the Royal Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Batavia. 24. Government of Netherlands East India. p. 196.
  15. Hobart, H. M. (1910). Electric Trains. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company. p. xix.
  16. Ball, Jack (August 1911). "Foreign Notes on Aviation". Town & Country: 26.
  17. Dodd, S. T. (January 1914). "A Review of Some European Electric Locomotive Designs". General Electric Review. 17 (1): 1141.
  18. 1 2 "Data on Mixed Motor Fuels of Interest for American Export Trade". The Automobile. 33 (15): 709. October 1915.
  19. "Tractive resistance tests with an electric motor truck". Engineering and Contracting. 46 (25): 560. December 1916.
  20. al-Jawwīyah, Maṣlaḥat al-Arṣād (1921). Meteorological Report for the Year [1916?]. Ministry of Public Works, Egypt. p. xvii.
  21. Candee, A. H.; Lynde, L. E. (1922). "French Railway Begins Electrification Program". Railway Electrical Engineer. Simmons Boardman. 13: 392.
  22. Blakemore, Thos. L. (1927). Pressure Airships. Ronald Press. p. 230.
  23. Aircraft Year Book. 15. Aerospace Industries Association of America, Manufacturers Aircraft Association, Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America. 1933. pp. 391–393.
  24. Bulletin. Central Electric Railfans' Association. 1939. p. cxii.
  25. Truss, Lynne (2003). Eats Shoots and Leaves. Profile Books. pp. 188–189. ISBN 1 86197 6127.
  26. Reuters Handbook of Journalism (PDF). Reuters. April 2008. p. 278.
  27. "Style Guide". The Economist. 27 September 2011. Retrieved 9 December 2013.
  28. "klick". Oxford English Dictionary. June 2012. Retrieved 9 July 2012.
  29. O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Johannes Widman", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
  30. "The History of Chemical Symbols" (PDF). Greenville, South Carolina: BJU Press. Retrieved 18 July 2012.
  31. Quinn, Terry (2012). From Artefacts to Atoms: The BIPM and the Search for Ultimate Measurement Standards. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-19-530786-3.
  32. 1 2 International Bureau of Weights and Measures (2006), The International System of Units (SI) (PDF) (8th ed.), p. 124, ISBN 92-822-2213-6
  33. Danloux-Dumesnils (1969). The Metric System: A Critical Study of its Principles and Practice. The Athlone Press of the University of London. p. 32.
  34. "RLO: SI Units". School of Nursing and Academic Division of Midwifery; University of Nottingham. 1 December 2006. Retrieved 21 July 2012.
  35. "Information and Harmonization". International Bureau of Weights and Measures and International Organization of Legal Metrology. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  36. "OLA Editorial Style Guide" (PDF). Burnaby, British Columbia: Open Learning Agency (OLA), Government of British Columbia. 2000. Retrieved 26 July 2012.
  37. "Conspicuity and Signs: Road signing". International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 2012. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  38. "Department of Transport / An Roinn Iompair" (PDF). November 2010: 1. Retrieved 16 July 2012. Archived April 28, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  39. "Maintenance Required Indicator" (PDF). Retrieved 4 August 2011.
  40. "Directive 71/354/EEC". 18 October 1971. on the approximation of laws of Member States relating to units of measurement
  41. The Council of the European Communities. "Council Directive 80/181/EEC of 20 December 1979 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to Unit of measurement and on the repeal of Directive 71/354/EEC". Retrieved 7 February 2009.
  42. "Directive 75/443/EEC". 26 June 1975. on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the reverse and speedometer equipment of motor vehicles
  43. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (May 2000). "Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; FMVSS 101--Technical Correction--Speedometer Display". Federal Register. 64 (94): 30915–30918.
  44. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (101: Controls and Displays) (PDF). p. 237.
  45. 1 yard ≡ 0.9144 m and
    1 mile = 1760 yards thus
    1 mile = 1760 × 0.9144 ÷ 1000 km
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