While most people have complained numerous times about there not being enough hours in the day, there is one day a year when that is factually correct. Specifically, daylight saving Sunday – when Americans collectively spring their clocks forward for an hour at 2 a.m. local time. Well, except for the good people of Arizona, Hawaii, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico, where daylight savings time is not observed. Their clocks will stay exactly the same – and Arizona will go from being in the Mountain Time Zone to being in the Pacific Time Zone.
Most people have been taught at some point that DST was invented for farmers. The time shift, most kids learn, was to make it easier for them to work later in the evening during the summer growing seasons and to have extra daylight hours during the winter months, so their children could help out around the farm before school. But while farmers’ schedules were indeed involved in the initial DST talks in the early part of the 20th century, they were not the leading driver.
Early advocates of DST, like Ben Franklin, didn’t argue the institution of more “summer time” in order to make it easier for farmers to work, but because it would give people more hours for leisure in the evening during the war months. Second, farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries pretty much worked sun-up to sun-down regardless of what the clocks said, and held their children home from school if they needed help on the farm. And third, the earliest attempts at DST were driven by something very specific: World Wars I and II, when DST was referred to as “War Time” and was an attempt at marshalling resources for the war effort. As it turns out, when you are trying to get a civilian population to ration goods and consume less, changing the clocks is highly effective.
But DST didn’t manage to find a firm and permanent foothold until 1966 with the passage of the Uniform Time Act, which required time zones and the annual “spring forward, fall back” cycle – though it allows states to opt out as long as the entire state does so. Thus far, only Arizona and Hawaii have bowed out.
Ever since then, the subject has been incredibly divisive, with some people bemoaning the annual switches as a plague triggering incorrect microwave times and late arrivals as they struggle to figure out what time it is. Others, notably PYMNTS’ CEO Karen Webster, note that the minor inconvenience of a 23-hour day and the need to reset a few clocks pales in comparison to the 25-hour day in November, which is seen as “the best day of the entire year.”
But beyond the standard cost-benefit analysis associated with DST, the argument has started to run deeper, with foes of the practice claiming that it’s not just annoying: Critics claim that changing the clocks is unhealthy, an economic menace, out of step with the times and should either be abandoned or should go into effect year-round.
The Case Against Daylight Saving Time
Light levels tend to affect human behavior – in fact, DST exists to take advantage of this fact. In the 1970s during the oil crisis, the U.S. briefly went into DST year-round, because the data showed that keeping the sun up longer in the day meant that people used less electricity and less gas, and actually even ate less. During an energy crisis, the ability to change consumer behavior without having to make any requests of already panicked people waiting for hours at gas pumps turned out to be a critical advantage. Had the energy crisis lasted slightly longer, there might be no debate about DST today, because it likely would have gone into effect permanently.
But it didn’t, which means science has had close to 40 years to observe the effects of changing the clock back and forth – and the results are, in many ways, less than encouraging. There are health effects, starting with the car accidents that spike in the evening when the clocks roll back in the fall, and in the early morning when they roll forward in the spring. The explanation is the sudden change of light level and the change in sunrise and sunset times, and the fact that drivers don’t adapt very well overnight, leading to about a 6 percent increase in collisions.
Moreover, people whose sleep cycles are interrupted tend to be more accident-prone – and since the time switches happen on Sundays, most employees go into work not quite adapted. As a result, workplace injuries increase as well. A 2009 study examined data on over 500,000 mining injuries from 1983 to 2006, detecting an uptick of 5.7 percent on the Monday following the time change. And if that number doesn’t sound menacingly high, the study also found that people weren’t just getting hurt – they were getting badly hurt, which had the downstream effect of a 68 percent increase in the number of workdays missed.
And while DST is one of the few days marked on a calendar that Americans do not celebrate by going shopping, there are some downstream economic effects that might not be immediately obvious—but are visible if one knows what to look for.
Sales of both coffee and junk food go up for the few weeks following the change, according to reports – particularly in the spring. Why? According to medical studies, losing an hour of the day leads to sleep disturbances, which in turn leads consumers to crave sugary snack foods and caffeinated beverages as a mechanism of boosting their energy levels and stabilizing their mood.
Also, in response to simply being more tired, people tend to become better consumers while becoming worse workers. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shifts related to daylight saving time led to a dramatic increase in "cyberloafing" – killing time on the internet instead of working. And among the favored pastimes of cyberloafers with a clock-induced hangover?
eCommerce sites, of course.
So will DST be stopped? Have we come to the end of the era of clocks shifting?
The Shifty Future
DST is not popular among many Americans: According to a survey by the Associated Press, only 28 percent of Americans want to continue changing the clocks, while 70 percent would prefer to stick with standard or daylight saving time.
But “or” is the operative word in that sentence – and the reason we are all likely looking at a DST-rich future. Because while Americans agree en masse that they don’t like shifting the clock, there is not a strong plan for which way to make the change. Arizona and Hawaii opted out of DST, meaning it is never daylight saving time there, only standard time. Florida and a handful of other states, on the other hand, have passed laws that go the other way – they always make it DST. None of those laws have gone into effect, since the 1966 act requires them to get federal approval, which has been slow to come.
And more states – New York and Connecticut the most populous among them – are considering making a similar permanent DST move. This sets the stage for a situation where some states are always in DST, some never are and some are shifting back and forth – which means instead of having six time zones, those zones could become a state-by-state issue, which could become confusing in a whole host of contexts and could create no shortage of economic chaos.
It’s almost like the federal government wanted to prevent the issue of idiosyncratic time by passing a law to standardize it.
Which means for now, the 30 percent of Americans who like flipping their clocks may be safe – unless they happen to be driving at dawn or trying to stick to their new diet.
But then, on the upside, if you should happen to blow your New Year’s resolution this weekend and next week by eating junk food or impulse shopping online, don’t feel bad.
You didn’t fail. The clock did.