Should We Cancel Daylight Saving Time?

A new generation makes the case against springing forward.

03/12/2016 12:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2016

It's one of those debates that arises at the same time each year, like whether we should still celebrate Columbus Day, or what it's still okay to wear as a Halloween costume. This weekend, like every March, thousands of groggy Americans will wonder, "Why do we even still have daylight saving?"

Questioning the wisdom of daylight saving time is not new. It's almost inevitable, as only 70 countries around the world observe it, and not even all 50 U.S. states! (Arizona and Hawaii opt out.) Even John Oliver, patron saint of explaining silly things, dedicated a segment to the tradition last year. 

But according to many experts, DST isn't going anywhere soon. So what do campaigners hope to change this year -- or ever?

A Century of Falling Back

Contrary to a popular misconception, daylight saving was not created for the benefit of farmers. It's actually an energy conservation strategy that dates back to World War I. In April 1916, Germany became the first country to set its clocks one hour forward, in hopes of minimizing the cost of artificial lighting and saving fuel for the war effort. The U.K., France and the U.S. all soon followed suit. 

A public service announcement from the Evening World on March 21, 1918.

America canceled the time change just seven months later, although some cities like New York and Boston continued the convention. And in 1942, another wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, once again reinstated it across the country.  

Daylight saving as we know it was established by the Uniform Time Act of Congress in 1966, which set its parameters from April to October. "This strikes me like the last time we had a sensible compromise on the DST issue," Michael Downing, the author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, told The Huffington Post. "What followed was, in the classic American style, an effort to push DST to its economic limits."

By 1975, the six-month window became eight months of shifted time, when Congress reasoned that if a little saving was good, more saving could be even better. A 1974 study issued during the oil embargo crisis suggested that daylight saving would conserve the equivalent of 10,000 barrels of oil every day. 

In 2005, the most recent major change to DST policy, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which officially shifted DST from October and April to November and March.

Has Time Run Out For DST?

James Proud, a British entrepreneur who settled in San Francisco, certainly thinks so. He launched a Twitter campaign this week called "Stop DST," asking people to tweet at their congressional representatives and senators to end daylight saving time in their state.

"Daylight saving was created to save energy, and it doesn't really do that," Proud said, "but what's even worse are its negative health effects. It's both antiquated and harmful."

Daylight saving has been linked to a surprising number of health issues, including strokes and heart attacks, but Proud has a particular interest in the topic because of its disruptive effects on sleep. He's the founder of Hello, a health startup that makes a sleep tracker called Sense. Because of this, he's particularly concerned by the effects of daylight saving time on circadian rhythms -- people's 24-hour sleep-wake cycles.

Last year, German researchers suggested that our body clocks never really adjust to daylight saving, which causes a host of health problems. Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, told National Geographic that because of DST, "The majority of the population has drastically decreased productivity, decreased quality of life, increasing susceptibility to illness, and is just plain tired."

The week after daylight saving also typically leads to a spike in fatal traffic accidents -- about a 17 percent increase, according to the University of Colorado. This can be attributed both to disrupted sleep schedules and the shift of daylight hours from the morning to the evening.

Proud hopes to start a Twitter conversation around the hashtag #stopDST, but he's not the only one campaigning against it. Sheila Danzig, a Florida resident who evaluates people's degrees for immigration purposes, has been pushing to end daylight saving for 20 years through her website, StandardTime.com

What's changed in her decades lobbying for the issue? "Basically nothing," Danzig said. "Every couple of years a new initiative comes to light -- like the one in California this year -- but I'm not getting my hopes up."

Over 82,000 people have signed Danzig's petition to Congress over the years. In theory, an act of Congress -- just like the act that extended DST in 2005 -- could instantly fix this problem by picking one time convention for the whole country, according to Vox.

But a telling split among the signatories of Danzig's petition is that though nearly all of them -- about 97 percent, by her estimate -- agree daylight saving is negative, they can't seem to agree on which way to turn the clocks if it were abolished. "About 70 percent wants permanent daylight saving time, and 30 percent think we should stick to standard time all year round," she said.

A Rite of Spring

"Ultimately, daylight saving is an economic tradition. And all economic choices involve tradeoffs," said behavioral economist David Gerard. "Even if we decide to abolish daylight saving, there would be a large contingent of unhappy people."

Some such people are shift workers, students and parents of schoolchildren, all of whom get to enjoy an extra hour of daylight after work or class with DST. Plus, the restaurant and leisure industry loves the extra evening retail activity DST allows.

Daylight saving has also been linked to lower crime rates, due to the"deterrent effect" of longer daylight. Basically, more light increases a criminal's chances of being seen by witnesses or police, which discourages criminal activity. 

Gerard also pointed out that an extra hour of daylight has vastly more impact in the American South, where the sun sets earlier, even in the summer, than in the north. "In Wisconsin, where I live, the summer sun would set at 8:00 p.m. even without DST, since we're so far north. But it sets earlier the further south you go, which is why residents of southern states may value DST more."

Finally, although about a dozen states are seriously weighing proposals to switch time zones, it won't be easy even if they have their residents' support. States can elect to exempt themselves from DST, like Arizona, but they need permission from the Department of Transportation to switch time zones.

For legislators, and campaigns like Proud's and Danzig's, the real challenge is keeping the momentum of their campaign beyond the two relevant weeks of the year. Danzig, like many veteran activists, seems paradoxically both resigned and tenacious. And Proud, whose web and Twitter campaign reflects a new generation's engagement with a thorny problem, has modest goals, too.

"We want to start the conversation now, while people are complaining; that's the easy part," he said. "And then transfer that sentiment into legislation -- somehow."

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