Americans in every state except Arizona and Hawaii will lose an hour of sleep this weekend as the nation ushers in daylight saving time, and you may join me in wondering why we’re torturing ourselves. Why do we use one time-keeping system for 34 weeks and a different system the other 18? Why not pick one and stick with it?
In recent years, 15 states, beginning with Florida in 2018, have passed laws or resolutions to stay on summer time throughout the year, if federal law is changed to allow it. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has gone one step further, introducing legislation to put the entire country, except Arizona and Hawaii, on perpetual daylight saving time.
My first instinct was enthusiasm for more evening sunshine and an end to springing forward and falling back. But the longer I looked at the idea, the less I liked it. There are interesting arguments for going all in on daylight saving time and, in my view, even better arguments for saying goodbye to daylight saving time. But our current split system, for all its frustrations, remains the best answer for the United States.
This column is about a problem we shouldn’t fix.
Daylight saving time is a way to align the hours of daylight with the hours that people are awake. In winter, people generally rise in the dark and go to bed in the dark. But in summer, the sun rises before most people do, and that is something of a waste.
Benjamin Franklin is often honored for originating the concept of daylight saving time in a 1784 letter in which he proposed that Parisians should rise with the sun in summer rather than staying in bed until noon. Franklin estimated this would save 64 million pounds of candles, because people who rose earlier would go to sleep earlier, too.
A better candidate for the honor is William Willett, a British businessman who proposed in a 1907 essay, “Waste of Daylight,” that changing the clocks would be easier than changing human behavior. “Everyone has given utterance to regret that the clear, bright light of an early morning during Spring and Summer months is so seldom seen or used,” Willett wrote.
Willett wanted to golf in the evening. George Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist who independently proposed the idea, wanted to hunt for bugs. When Germany became the first nation to establish daylight saving time, in 1916, the official rationale was a version of Franklin’s old argument that adjusting time would save money, by reducing the use of artificial lighting. But the popularity of daylight saving time, which gradually spread around the world over the following decades, has always rested on Willett’s insight that people enjoy the sunshine.
The United States formalized six months of summer time in 1966. States were allowed to opt out, but only Arizona, Hawaii and Indiana did so. Congress extended daylight saving time in 1986 and again in 2005, so that it now runs from the middle of March until early November.
Mr. Rubio wants to include the rest of the year, too. That would be too much of a good thing.
Proponents of perpetual summer time make some reasonable arguments against springing forward and falling back: It’s annoying. It’s particularly painful for parents with small children. It’s even deadly: Studies show that the annual shift to daylight saving time causes a brief but reliable increase in heart attacks, strokes and workplace injuries.
There is also a basketful of studies purporting to show that summer time is better than standard time: Evening sunshine is said to save electricity, encourage consumer spending, avert automobile accidents and even deter some kinds of crime.
The estimated benefits, however, range from modest to dubious. When Indiana moved onto daylight saving time in 2006, researchers concluded that reductions in the use of artificial light were offset by increases in air conditioning. Moreover, it’s hardly clear the calculus would be the same in the winter, when evening light would come at the expense of morning sunshine. Fewer auto accidents in the evening might come at the expense of more in the morning.
The argument against permanent summer time is easily summarized: In the winter, the sun would not rise much before 9 a.m. in major cities, including Indianapolis and Seattle. The effect would be even more extreme in the northwestern corners of each time zone. In northwestern Michigan, for example, sunrise would arrive as late as 9:42 a.m.
The country tried permanent summer time before and did not like it. It was adopted as an energy-saving measure during World War I and World War II. Each time, it was quickly abandoned after the war. In 1974, Congress moved the United States onto summer time for two years to conserve oil. Clocks were moved forward on Jan. 7, 1974; people started their days in darkness and an angry backlash began. In the fall, standard time was restored.
Let Us Help You Manage the Switch to Daylight Saving Time
Clocks move forward by an hour on Sunday, March 15 in the U.S., and Sunday, March 28 in the U.K. and Europe. Here are some tips for how to adjust:
- Why do we have to lose an hour? How can you prepare for the time change? We help you plan for the end of daylight saving time.
- For parents of small children, ‘springing ahead’ means more than just an hour of lost sleep. But the right plan can help ease the change.
- Be sure to drive carefully this coming week: The risk of having a fatal traffic accident increases in the week following the spring daylight saving time reset.
- Why is changing the time by an hour so difficult on the body? These tiny creatures may help you understand.
Russia adopted permanent daylight saving time in 2011. The morning darkness in northern Russia was not popular. Three years later, the country switched to permanent standard time.
Some scientists think we’d be better off keeping standard time, too.
A growing body of research shows that messing with the natural rhythm of daily life takes a significant toll on human health. Hours are not arbitrary lines in the temporal sands. Late sunrises delay chemical changes that get the body up and going in the morning; late sunsets delay the chemical changes that prepare the body for sleep.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has endorsed the abolition of daylight saving time, arguing that it is “less aligned with human circadian biology.”
But we make all sorts of choices that aren’t optimal for our health, and the popularity of daylight saving time is a reasonable argument against abolition.
A 2019 AP poll found that less than a third of Americans want to keep the current system, but there’s no consensus about what would be better. That’s the nub: We have a choice of three imperfect alternatives. And eight months of daylight saving time, for all its flaws, delivers the best available compromise: sunshine on summer evenings, and on winter mornings.
When the alarm clock rings on Sunday morning, grin and bear it.
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