Saving daylight an illusion, yet it guides our time system

Most of us, at least those of us who work the most common hours on weekdays, lost an hour of sleep last weekend and woke up Monday morning groggily to darkness once again. We will likely get over the jolt to our routine when the weather finally turns warmer and we can enjoy that extra hour of sunlight in the evening this summer.

However, daylight saving time (DST) is coming under fire as many are questioning the need for this time shift that began sporadically in the United States about a century ago after being introduced in Germany during World War I to conserve coal.

Of course, the measure doesn’t really save daylight, as the name proclaims. It just shifts daylight hours from the morning to the evening. The earth still continues to orbit the sun while spinning on its axis, meaning we still see the same amount of sunshine whatever time system we use to gauge our daily life.

In 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the time shift became the law of the land, at least in states that chose to opt in, starting on the last Sunday of April and ending on the last Sunday of October each year. Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan extended the start to the first Sunday in April and about 20 years after that, President George W. Bush, as part of an energy savings policy, extended it again to what we observe now.

Although the energy savings component has been a constant justification for the change, energy use, just as daylight, may also merely shift. Studies indicate a slight reduction in energy demand in the evenings during daylight saving time, but also that any savings are offset by more energy demand in the morning.

The time shift has had many other advocates over the years, including recreational sporting interests, barbecue proponents and chambers of commerce officials who thought the increase in evening daylight would increase retail sales and meals out at restaurants. However, the economic boost has also been disputed by some studies and may not even be applicable in the 24/7 shopping environment of the modern world.

When the concept of daylight saving time was implemented about a century ago, the whole concept of a standard time system in the United States was still relatively new at that time. Just three decades earlier, standard time in time zones was instituted in the United States and Canada. Prior to Nov. 18, 1883, time of day was a local matter as most cities used some form of solar time identified by a well-known local clock, for example on a church steeple or in a jewelry store.

The 1966 Uniform Time Act, which set daylight saving time, over time gained nearly as much acceptance as the national standard on time set in 1883, although two states, Arizona and Hawaii as well as Puerto Rico, still opt out of daylight saving time. For vague reasons, the law allows states to opt out of daylight saving time, but doesn’t allow states to opt for daylight saving time in months when standard time is the norm.

That’s why there is a push to change the federal law. While states could just decide to opt out of DST to eliminate the clock changes, state officials are pushing to make DST the norm all year long.

Recently, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reintroduced a bill to make daylight saving time the norm year-round with no more time changes twice a year. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) introduced matching legislation, called the Sunshine Protection Act, in the House.

The Florida Legislature had earlier voted to make year-round daylight saving time permanent last year. California voters overwhelmingly approved a similar proposition last November. However, the federal law would need to be changed to allow these measures to take place in those states.

These are two southern states that don’t have such wide swings in hours of light from winter to summer. If Minnesota switched to permanent daylight saving time, sunrise would come as late as 8:44 a.m. on the darkest days of December in our part of the state.

Although states could opt out of daylight saving time, there could be social consequences if a close neighbor is different. In May 1965, a year before the national standard was set, St. Paul decided to join the schedule of most of the rest of the nation in observing daylight saving time, but Minneapolis kept following a later date set by state law. The incompatibility only lasted two weeks, but it brought turmoil to the Twin Cities during that short episode.

While history shows a uniform time standard is a plus, scientific research points to many reasons avoiding the two clock changes each year is also a plus.

Research has shown health problems associated with the changes in time as people aren’t as adaptable in their daily rhythms as they may seem. Accidents, heart attacks and strokes tend to occur in greater numbers around the shift.

Even the act of changing clocks may have a negative effect. A Utah State University economist theorized that turning the clocks forward and backward each year results in $1.7 billion of lost opportunity cost each year in the United States. His calculations assumed that people spend about 10 minutes changing clocks instead of doing something more productive.

If people agree that a uniform time is ideal, picking a system to use may still be up for debate. Arguments could be made for both time options if the United States were to go to a time system that stayed the same all year.

A study by the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration found that violent crime was down 10 to 13 percent during periods of daylight saving time. Likely one reason is that for crimes in which darkness is a factor, muggings for example, the extra hour of daylight meant an hour of lost opportunity. Apparently, criminals aren’t early risers.

On the other hand, the national PTA is against a change to permanent daylight saving time. School is in session during extended periods of standard time so the organization is concerned about student safety by adding another hour to the colder, dark mornings when they are walking to school or the bus stop.

Although changing to a uniform time standard is one of those rare proposals that have bipartisan support, a debate over which standard to use may stymie the measure since this isn’t a pressing issue.

For most of us, we may not think of the concept of time as an illusion, as some theoretical physicists do, but deep down we realize the concept of saving daylight is merely an illusion, an illogical concept.

That’s why so many of us, contrary to expectations, dread the start of daylight saving time and welcome the clock change in the fall. Even if we enjoy an extra hour of evening daylight, those emotions surface because we lose an hour of sleep in the spring and gain an hour in the fall. In our sleep-deprived society today that matters more than which part of our 24 hours gets sunshine.