Health News Digest

March 12, 2007

Spring Ahead, Fall Back, Roll Over, And Play Dead:  What You Might Not Know About Daylight Saving Time

Saving time


By  Michael D. Shaw

While it is true that the notion of daylight saving was first conceptualized by Benjamin Franklin, it is less well known that the idea was presented quite sardonically in a 1784 essay of his entitled An Economical Project. The essay, written in Paris, implied that the good citizens of the City of Light never woke before noon, and thus were unaware that there was indeed sunlight as early as 6:00 AM.

As such, much precious daylight was being wasted, and worse, far too many candles were consumed. Better that people rearrange their schedules. He proposed a number of whimsical regulations to this effect, including:

  • A tax be laid on every window built with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.
  • Candles rationed to one pound per family per week, and the regulation enforced by the constabulary.
  • Guards posted to stop the passage of all coaches, etc. upon the streets after sunset except those of physicians, surgeons and midwives.

As it happened, though, some took Franklin’s essay seriously, which brings us to the latest iteration that we experienced on March 11th. Daylight time now begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. This is a significant change from the former (1986) rule of first Sunday in April to last Sunday in October.

What is peculiar here is that unless you tend to follow this sort of thing, you likely knew nothing about the change until a week before it would take place. To be sure, Sec. 110 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which mandated this change, was publicized far less than the three previous daylight time adjustments (1966, 1972, 1986). Could this be because there is no scientific rationale for the entire business?

Indeed, the Act provides for reversion to the 1986 rules should this latest tweak prove unpopular, or if energy savings are not proven.

Report to Congress.–Not later than 9 months after the effective date stated in subsection (b), the Secretary shall report to Congress on the impact of this section on energy consumption in the United States.

Right to Revert.–Congress retains the right to revert the Daylight Saving Time back to the 2005 time schedules once the Department study is complete.

However, those in search of scientific reality won’t have to wait nine months. A definitive study from UC Berkeley—Does Extending Daylight Saving Time Save Energy?—concludes that it does not.

Common sense will tell you that any energy savings realized by increasing the number of daylight hours is simply voided because residential power consumption shifts to earlier in the day. Moreover, individuals also burn more gasoline on leisure drives during these bright spring and summer days.  Besides, there’s a lot more than just lighting consuming electrical energy these days (and nights).

Congress passed the first DST law in 1918 and repealed it the next year. President Franklin Roosevelt imposed year-round DST for three years during the Second World War. In 1966, Congress approved a uniform DST standard for the whole country. In the 1970s, President Nixon had the nation go on DST for 15 consecutive months to conserve energy.

As the oil crisis unfolded, and as the White House tried to mitigate the worst effects of the OPEC embargo (remember gas lines?), it quickly became apparent that DST neither lowered the price of oil nor encouraged citizens to expend less energy.

According to Forrester Research, the DST switch will cost the average company $50,000 in time and labor expenses; that’s a total of $350 million for the 7,000 publicly traded companies in the U.S. Even Craig Stevens, press secretary for the Department of Energy, has some doubts: “The jury on the potential national energy-savings of extending daylight saving time is still out.”

Yes, there are economics behind DST, but energy has little to do with it. The real proponent of DST, a lobbyist of great skill, was Abraham Lincoln Filene, namesake of the famous Filene’s department store chain in New England.

As recounted by Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, urban businessmen were the leading supporters of DST in the United States. Motivated purely by self-interest, and the idea that workers would go shopping on their way home, these executives nonetheless couched their arguments in defense of yeoman farmers and the agricultural industry.

One pamphlet stated that DST would benefit the men and women who worked the land because: “[m]ost farm products are better when gathered with dew on. They are firmer, crisper, than if the sun had dried the dew off.” Riiiight…

Some contend that the switch to a November fall back was done to accommodate the candy industry. After all, a brighter and longer Halloween means more kids scarfing up more treats.

Unfortunately, there are also consequences of DST. According to Stanley Coren, a sleep expert at the University of British Columbia, the number of traffic accidents and fatal industrial mishaps increase on the Black Monday following the Spring switch to DST. Apparently, for some people, the loss of one hour’s sleep is enough to dampen their reflexes. Needless to say, there is no balancing heightened awareness at the Monday following fall back.

Since it is unlikely that DST will be removed completely, as it should be, enjoy those brighter barbecue summer evenings, but don’t believe the political hype!