Falling back: Why we'll probably keep switching the clocks – The Washington Post Leave a comment

It’s that time of the year again. We change the clocks back and we whine about it.
What might be done to improve things? Well, before we can talk about possible improvements, let’s review the rules pertaining to changing the clocks and their benefits and drawbacks.
We start observing standard time on the first Sunday in November, according to the Uniform Time Act of 1966 and some amendments. This week, we turn the clock back an hour Sunday morning. Then, on the second Sunday in March, we will go back to Daylight Saving Time.
Not everyone does it, because the act allows states not to observe Daylight Saving Time. Of the states, only Arizona and Hawaii don’t observe Daylight Saving Time (although parts of the Navajo Nation in Arizona do). A state cannot stay on Daylight Saving Time, however; the best it can do is appeal to the Department of Transportation to be moved to a different time zone, which could have the same effect.
To state the obvious, Daylight Saving Time doesn’t save time and it doesn’t save daylight. In fact, the problems associated with wanting to switch the clocks stem from the fact that there just isn’t enough daylight to go around in the winter. That problem is more acute the farther one is from the equator. In Miami, on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year), the sun rises at 7:03 a.m. and sets at 5:35 p.m., while in Fairbanks the times are 10:58 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. (both standard time). Most of us live at less-extreme latitudes, so let’s look at Washington: Here the sun rises at 7:24 a.m. on the shortest day and sets at 4:50 p.m.
But north and south aren’t the only factors that affect daylight: our position in the time zone also can have a large effect. Let’s compare Indianapolis, in the far western end of the Eastern time zone, with Boston, at the far eastern end. At the winter solstice, the sun rises at 8:02 a.m. in Indianapolis and sets at 5:23 p.m., while in Boston the times are 7:10 a.m. and 4:14 p.m. You really notice the dark winter afternoons in Boston and you really notice the dark winter mornings in Indianapolis.
Now let’s look at some proposed solutions.
Several states have passed or are considering laws that put them on permanent Daylight Saving Time, and several senators of both parties have proposed similar legislation in Congress. That might be acceptable if you live in Boston (or Chicago, at the far eastern end of the Central time zone), but the good people of Indianapolis would not see the sun rise until after 9 a.m. for a few weeks in the winter. I don’t think they would like that.
Lawmakers consider keeping daylight saving time year-round.
Another possibility is to stay on standard time all year, but then you have those dark afternoons in Boston and Chicago, and furthermore, on standard time the sun would rise at 4:06 a.m. in Boston in June, which means you’d have to get up by 3 a.m. to do anything at sunrise.
As an aside, due to peculiarities of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and its orbit, we lose far more daylight in the mornings at mid-latitudes after the beginning of standard time than we lose in the afternoons as the days continue to shorten. The switch to standard time is on the latest possible date this year, but the latest sunrise (in early January) in Washington is still 42 minutes later than it will be on Sunday, while the earliest sunrise (in early December) is only 11 minutes earlier than Sunday’s.
So what is to be done? Well, the people of Fairbanks show that it is possible to adjust to very early sunsets or very late sunrises. There just isn’t much advantage in shifting daylight around when you have only three hours and forty-two minutes of it on the shortest day. But in the Lower 48, in the mid-latitudes where most of us live, we complain.
So why not just live with whatever the geographic cards have dealt us with respect to time changes? Well, switching the clocks is a royal pain, and some of us hate doing it. But it’s not only inconvenient; myriad studies show small but significant increases in stroke, heart attack and other diseases and in death rates after changing the clocks, particularly after the spring forward change. Other studies have shown increased risk of accidents after the spring time change.
But Daylight Saving Time reduces energy consumption, doesn’t it? Well, that’s doubtful, too, and if it does save energy, the amount is very small at best.
So I am not optimistic that this nutty business of changing clocks, which became widespread only a little more than 100 years ago, will be going away soon.
My guess is that opposition to the proposed federal legislation to adopt permanent Daylight Saving Time in the United States will make it difficult to pass. Another option, to allow each state to choose whether to adopt permanent daylight or standard time, would result in chaos and is thus also improbable. Moreover, these arguments are not new; they are as old as Daylight Saving Time itself. So prepare to do some whining, and above all, make sure you get enough sleep.
The author, David Policansky, is a retired scientist who previously served as associate director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology at the National Research Council.
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