The Continuing Story of Daylight Saving Time*
Earlier this year I wrote about the perennial debate over daylight saving time. I’ve dipped my toe into some controversial topics, but this one generated the most heat — pros and cons. Clearly, people are passionate about time. As daylight saving time is coming to an end this weekend and we’re once again thrown in the cold dark winter (in the Northeast), below is a refresh of my piece from earlier this year.
This weekend daylight saving time will end until next spring — but unlike springing an hour forward in March, we will get an extra hour back to watch more political ads flooding our televisions or grabbing an extra hour of sleep. News reports abound over our biannual change to the passage of time, like CBS News’ recent report, “Daylight saving time ends on Sunday, renewing debate over tradition.” Whether it should it stay or should go is once again debated, legislation to change the system is introduced or passed, articles are written, polls are taken — and nothing changes. But why? That’s what we’ll explore below.
Time is on my Side, Yes it is?
Daylight saving time doesn’t exist because of any Newtonian principle of aligning to absolute time. It was because of public policy — more specifically, a law enacted by the federal government in 1918 — made it so. After the United States adopted the system of changing clocks twice a year, early press reports hailed it a success.
The original argument in favor of an annual change from standard to daylight saving time was energy conservation and even though the results have been mixed, the annual ritual of changing clocks has stuck around. In other words, we’re doing this to ourselves — throwing off your children’s (and your) sleep schedule and experiencing a collective national why-do-we-do-this-to-ourselves Groundhog’s Day twice a year.
One thing is clear: Americans don’t like changing their clocks twice a year. A recent AP poll found that a nearly 75% of the country is opposed to shifting from standard time to daylight saving time annually. However much we may dislike it, we can’t seem to agree on the solution. Although and overwhelming majority wants to end the biannual change, 43% percent believe we should stay in standard time, while 32% believe we should make daylight saving time permanent. A quarter of the country believe we should leave the system just as it is.
One thing is clear: Americans don’t like changing their clocks twice a year. A recent AP poll found that a nearly 75% of the country is opposed to shifting from standard time to daylight saving time every year.
These mixed results are likely driving the status quo. The U.S. Senate — not usually known for its nimble, flexible, and quick-acting ability to pass any legislation — recently passed a bill ending the annual ping pong game of moving forward and back our clocks every year. They settled on simply making daylight saving time permanent — joining 32% of the country who support that solution. See Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington praising the chamber’s bipartisan effort to change time.
However, the proposal has stalled in U.S. House of Representatives. As Representative Frank Pallone, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee recently said, “We haven’t been able to find consensus in the House on this yet. There are a broad variety of opinions about whether to keep the status quo, to move to a permanent time, and if so, what time that should be.”
Even the states are split. As the chart below FiveThirtyEight project illustrates, more than a third of the states have enacted legislation/resolution to make daylight saving time permanent if Congress takes action.
In the age of political polarization, we’re even polarized on agreeing to what the time is and should be. After the U.S. Senate recently passed making daylight saving time permanent, it was not universally embraced — especially by health experts.
Experts found there are health benefits to one consistent and standard time throughout the year, but don’t like the Senate’s solution. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine shifting back and forth annually is bad for our health. An October 2020 article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that “Shifting from standard time to DST has been associated with increased cardiovascular morbidity, including risk of myocardial infarction stroke, and hospital admissions due to the occurrence of acute atrial fibrillation.”
In the age of political polarization, we’re even polarized on agreeing to what the time is and should be.
Therefore, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine states, “the U.S. should eliminate seasonal time changes in favor of a national, fixed, year-round time.” However, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine disagrees with the U.S. Senate’s solution. The academy argues that making standard time permanent is more beneficial to overall health. Put simply, they’d keep the earlier summer sunsets for the earlier winter sunrises. As they argue “Current evidence best supports the adoption of year-round standard time, which aligns best with human circadian biology and provides distinct benefits for public health and safety.”
Policy Failures of the Past Shade Policy Changes in the Future
Past policy failures also shade any future policy change. Simply put, the last time the country attempted to change the current daylight saving time resulted in failure. When the United States implemented a two-year pilot program eliminating the biannual changing of the clocks and making daylight saving time permanent in 1973, support quickly evaporated. As the chart below illustrates, there was broad support for a permanent daylight saving time before the federal government enacted it. After the policy change was enacted, support for the measure eroded— dropping 37% in little over three months. That made the eventual course correction inevitable. Congress and the President reversed course and repealed the law before the pilot was completed.
The switch to a permanent, year-round daylight saving time meant much later sunrises in the winter in many parts of the country. That resulted in kids going to school in the dark. As the New York Times said at the time, “The experiment, however, ran afoul of public opinion — parents became concerned about traffic accidents involving their children, who were going to school in the predawn darkness on winter mornings.” While several schools adjusted their start times to a later in the morning to accommodate the new time change, it wasn’t universally done. Unless we are willing to adjust the start of school across the nation, this will likely to continue to be a central reason for not moving to a permanent daylight saving time.
So, this may be like the fight around the Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare — where opponents of the biannual change may be going through the motions, but may not actually want the status quo to be disrupted.
What’s the Right Time: It’s Relative to Location
The question for the nation is which time is too hot, which is too cold, and which (if any) is just right? The answer is the optimal system of time is relative to where you live. Given the earth is round, it depends on your coordinates and location. Check out the Farmer’s Almanac for a good explainer.
A Boston area cartographer, Andy Woodruff, developed some really interesting maps to illustrate how the various time changes impact our day in relation to the sun. He measured the number of days or early morning sunlight and later evening sunlight each region would get over the course of the year if they used the annual daylight saving time change, made daylight saving time permanent, or made standard time permanent.
So instead of a permanent daylight saving time, how about a permanent standard time? If you are in Fairbank, Alaska with midnight sunsets in the summer it may not mean much. What would that mean for New Yorkers? More early morning and fewer evening daylight hours throughout the year.
Woodruff found the current annual shift from standard time to daylight saving time provides more balance between early morning and late evening sunlight hours throughout the year in places like New York State. If you switch to a permanent daylight saving time you gain more evenings with extended sunlight, but gain many more mornings in the dark. It flips in favor of early morning sunlight if you move to a permanent standard time.
The Challenge of the “Just Right” Time
Below is another map created by Andy Woodruff applying the optimal situation by region — abolish daylight saving time and use only standard time (in gold), keep the current system (gray), or make daylight saving time permanent (turquoise). This, no doubt, complicates any policy solution.
Time is whatever we make it. Like a mechanic with a motor, we’ve been tinkering with time since the dawn of mankind. We’ve used solar time — when noontime is at the sun’s highest daily point in the sky. Given that point is constantly changing depending on where you stood in the world made scheduling between communities/locations difficult — even within close proximity to one another. As the world began getting smaller through technological advancement like trains and electronic communication, it made schedules a complicated Rube Goldberg-like machine.
That’s why we constructed and moved to a standardized time to begin with. The growth of railroads resulted in establishing common time zones to better manage rail travel to avoid confusion during travel. It wasn’t easy. Not everyone loved it at first, but we did it.
We also alter time for specific sectors. A friend — who served our country in the Navy — noted they lived 18 hour days on nuclear-powered submarines, while we land-bound civilians went about our 24 hour day existence. (But since 2014, the Navy adjusted the time back to 24 hour days much to the overall happiness of submariners.)
On some level it comes down to whether we want to adapt our schedules that have developed in the wake of daylight saving time or do we just continue to alter the very notion of time itself?
For example, if we eliminate changing our clocks twice a year, should we shift the start of the school day depending on the sunrise throughout the year? Or do we just try the 1970s again and send kids to school in the dark? Right now, before the end of daylight saving time, my two young children wait for the school bus each morning in the cold and dark — a dangerous situation. The question is how do we want to solve this problem? We may tinker with time, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
If we go with a permanent standard or daylight saving time, we’ll still have sleep disruption and jetlag because of various time zones — although the disruption won’t be on a major societal scale. Or we can go crazy and implement a Swiftian modest proposal that was forwarded in the 1970s called “USA Time” — i.e. a single time zone for the country from the East Coast to the West Coast. That may result in more consistency, but of a foolish kind.
Annually switching from standard to daylight saving time is much like many compromises we make in a pluralistic society. We compromise on policies big and small. Reminiscent of the famous political scientist, Robert Dahl and his study “Who Governs”, government must balance competing interest groups — all which makes changing the current structure more difficult.
Annually switching from standard to daylight saving time is much like many compromises we make in a pluralistic society. We compromise on policies big and small. Reminiscent of the famous political scientist, Robert Dahl and his study “Who Governs”, government must balance competing interest groups — all which makes changing the current structure more difficult. The original reason for imposing an annual daylight saving time may have been energy conservation, but society adapted to the change and change is difficult. Agriculture, education, energy, science, health, entertainment, retail, sports, culinary, and various other sectors all have differing perspectives which make the status quo more likely.
Perhaps the biannual shifting of time is the best solution for now — or the imperfectly perfect solution.
Why haven’t we changed a system most of the country doesn’t seem to like? It could be, in part, because we live in a pluralistic society with many competing interests, so we end up with the imperfectly perfect solution. At this moment, the current system — warts and all — may be “just right” enough.
*Apologies to the Beatles and their song, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” This piece is a refresh of an earlier report entitled, “What Time is it? Pluralism, Policy, and Our Illusive Goldilocks-Like Attempt to Get Time ‘Just Right’” on March 18, 2022.