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Can’t We Just Stop Resetting Clocks Twice a Year?

Daylight saving time makes people healthier and happier and might even save a little energy. Abolish standard time!

Can’t We Just Stop Resetting Clocks Twice a Year?

Daylight saving time makes people healthier and happier and might even save a little energy. Abolish standard time!

Keep it where it is.

Photographer: Sebastian Kahnert/DPA/AFP/Getty Images
Photographer: Sebastian Kahnert/DPA/AFP/Getty Images

This coming weekend, most of the U.S. will add an hour to the clocks for the shift from daylight saving time back to standard time. This is a terrible idea. The switch from daylight saving time (not “savings” time) is part of a ritual of murky origin whose benefits rest on shaky evidence. The reasons nowadays offered for maintaining the shift are spurious. The moment has come to do away with standard time and stay on daylight saving all year round.

Here some history might be instructive. The idea for daylight saving time is usually credited to George Vernon Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist who gave a paper in 1895 proposing the device as a means to reduce the use of artificial light. His colleagues ridiculed the paper for proposing to overturn the way humans had marked time for millennia. They also claimed that Benjamin Franklin had suggested the same thing more than a century earlier, an assertion that’s often repeated but is probably not true.

In the early years of the nation’s history, time was largely a local phenomenon, varying from place to place according to social custom. In the middle of the 19th century, however, railroads and telegraphers began to press for standardization of time throughout the country. And despite the Civil War, which heavily disrupted the nation’s day-to-day sense of time, they mostly succeeded.

But as business fought for standardization, confusion reigned. The law was not immune. Buyers sued sellers for delivering goods late, when the real problem was that the two parties were calculating time under different systems. The criminal law was implicated too. In 1895, a Texas appellate court had to decide whether the expiration of a trial jury’s term occurred at midnight by the railroad clock or midnight by the sun. If railroad time applied, a convicted murderer would go free. The judges decided that “the meridian of the sun” was the proper method of calculation. “An arbitrary standard set up by persons in business will not be recognized,” they declared.

Nevertheless, the U.S. adopted daylight saving time during World War I, believing, along with allies and enemies alike, that the change would save electricity by allowing workers to grab an extra hour of daylight. (“Everybody expresses the liveliest satisfaction,” reported the British papers after Germany’s changeover.)

But Americans didn’t like having a system of counting the hours forced upon them. When the war ended, so did nationwide DST. Some localities stuck with the new timing system. For instance, during spring and summer there was an hour’s difference in time between New York City and upstate. Others resisted. In 1923, the Connecticut legislature voted to make it illegal for a business establishment even to display the hour in daylight time. 1 Nevertheless, in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought DST back, once more to save energy.

Contrary to myth, farmers hated it. The agricultural lobby led the successful fight to repeal DST (over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto) after the end of the first world war. And farmers were not alone. In 1946, a judge in Kentucky found daylight saving time unconstitutional. That same year the supreme court of West Virginia held that sellers of liquor could stay open according to standard time, notwithstanding local ordinances purporting to force them to change their hours to accord with daylight saving time.

The resisters eventually fell into line. Daylight saving time became nearly universal, and, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, in most cases legally required. Nowadays, DST is simply part of the background. We take it for granted, and complaints are few. Although “spring forward” causes grumbling about the lost hour of sleep, people seem happy with the extra hour of daylight. The question, then, is why shift at all. There are good reasons to stick to one schedule or the other — and daylight saving time is the better choice.

For one thing, the shift to and from standard time probably doesn’t save energy at all, although daylight saving time is probably a little better for this purpose. For another, as the legal scholars Steve P. Calandrillo and Dustin E. Buehler argue, year-round daylight saving time would probably reduce rates of street crime, which tends to take place in darkness. 2

Then there are our bodies. Our circadian rhythm needs time to adjust — and doesn’t get it. An hour of sleep is added or subtracted and we are expected to go about our business for the next week as though nothing has happened. The effect is hard to measure directly, but we can look at the results. 3 In perhaps the best-known result, a number of studies show an increase in automobile accidents as drivers adjust. 4 Many researchers also claim that the biannual change causes a modest increase in heart attacks. (Others are skeptical.) 5

So we seem to be doing harm, both to society and to our physical selves, all in the service of a back-and-forth shift driven by little but myth and habit. So I’m hopping on the bandwagon. Congress, I’m talking to you. If you want to help us in our daily lives, let’s agree to abolish standard time and grab as much daylight as we can.

  1. Most of the examples in text are drawn from original sources, but the Connecticut tale comes from David Prerau’s enjoyable history of the battle over daylight saving time.

  2. See pages 80-84 of this article.

  3. Happily, the shift seems to have no effect on our taste for taking risks.

  4. See also the studies collected at pages 75-78 of this article. For a recent dissent, see this study.

  5. In addition, a well-known study published in the American Economic Review in 2000 found the time change to have a significant negative effect on financial market indices, although later work has cast considerable doubt on that result. (Note that there may well be some market effect from seasonal affective disorder.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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