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Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Daylight Saving Time Mess Just Won't Go Away

On March 12, most of the US and Canada will wake up to an hour stolen. Europe will suffer the same loss two weeks later—a victim of the persistent and unpopular practice of switching to daylight saving time. Much of the world has avoided or abandoned the practice, but in the US and Europe, lawmakers have been unable to stop the clocks from changing.

Nations started switching between standard time in winter and daylight saving time in summer during the First World War, as they sought to cut energy costs—an extra hour of daylight in the evening meant less time with the lights on. In the US and Europe, the practice caught on and persisted. But it’s facing more and more pushback. 

“Globally, the debate is fixed—there are more countries not changing the clocks,” says Ariadna Güell Sans, co-coordinator of the Barcelona Time Use Initiative for a Healthy Society, an organization focused on time-related policy. Research has shown how moving the clocks forward and back, even by just one hour, negatively affects the economy, road safety, and health. Still, the US, Europe, and a few other nations are finding it hard to break the habit. The issue, says Güell Sans, is whether we stay on standard time or daylight saving time forever.

A year ago, the US Senate passed a bill to move the clocks forward an hour permanently. But it was not taken up in the US House of Representatives, which would also need to pass the bill before sending it to the president’s desk. A group of senators reintroduced the measure in early March 2023 to try again.

Europe is also trying to end the clock changes, but crises have halted the move: First it was Covid-19; then, for the past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has commanded the bloc’s attention. The European Parliament voted in 2019 to stop changing clocks, but it didn’t get the approval it needed from the European Union’s other legislative body, the European Council. The Council then shoved the issue to the EU’s executive, the European Commission, for an impact assessment. 

Progress has been slow—and that’s bad for a number of reasons. More light at night leads to fewer collisions on roads during the evening rush hour. That’s why Steve Calandrillo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who has studied the economics of daylight saving time, says he’s an advocate for permanently adopting it. “Darkness kills,” Calandrillo says. “And sunshine saves.” There are economic benefits to this too. A study published last November argued that an extra hour of daylight in the evening could reduce collisions enough to save around $1.2 billion annually in the US alone. 

Extra daylight while people are awake may also make them spend more money. “Americans are less willing to go out and shop in the dark,” says Calandrillo. A 2016 report from JPMorgan Chase & Co looked at spending in Los Angeles at the beginning and end of the daylight saving time period and compared it to Phoenix, Arizona, which doesn’t change its clocks. The research found a 0.9 percent increase in daily credit card spending per capita in Los Angeles in March after clocks jumped forward relative to Phoenix, and a 3.5 percent decrease in November once they fell back. 

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But other researchers argue it makes more sense to permanently settle on standard time instead—including Güell Sans. Spain, where she lives, is an outlier in its time zone; it syncs its clocks with central Europe instead of the UK, which sits directly above it and is an hour behind. Spaniards sleep nearly an hour less on average each night than other Europeans, in part thanks to this time zone quirk, which originated during World War II to put Spain on time with Nazi Germany. A permanent switch to daylight saving time would mean darker mornings in Spain in winter—posing the same road collision risk darker evenings can bring in other places. 

Plus, extra evening daylight can mess with people’s sleep. A 2019 US study compared sleep patterns of people living on opposite edges of the same time zone, where the sun rises and sets at  different times. It found that an hour of later daylight decreased sleep by an average of 19 minutes. 

While the US and Europe are stuck—over both abolishing the seasonal resetting and which time to settle on—shifts have happened elsewhere. Argentina stopped switching to daylight saving time in 2009. In Mexico, lawmakers decided to do away with clock changes after 2022 (though its law exempted some cities along the northern border that may still change to sync with the US). Arizona and Hawaii already do not switch clocks to daylight saving time, and some parts of Canada also don’t make the switch.

In the US, lawmakers in individual states have tried to take things into their own hands. Delaware passed a law in 2019 to permanently adopt daylight saving time, but this was contingent on bordering Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland doing the same. Ontario passed similar legislation in 2020, but the shift only takes effect if its neighbors, Quebec and New York, do the same. British Columbia is waiting for Washington, Oregon, and California to make a switch with it. At the state level, there’s the same hunt for consensus. 

An extra hour of daylight might be welcome news for many, but unless US states and neighboring countries can work together to reach an agreement, people will continue to face a return to darkness.

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