We don’t really know why this is still a thing. But we know it does more harm than good.
Chances are, you are groggy from having lost an hour of sleep and twenty minutes changing the clocks in your home. You knew that daylight saving time (DST) was coming but not why. Turns out no one really knows why we keep messing with our clocks and our lives.
As John Oliver puts it, why is this still a thing?
Most people have a vague idea that we spring forward and turn back to help out farmers…or something. But the United States actually adopted DST during World War I in order to save fuel. One more hour of sunlight means less fuel spent on artificial lightning and therefore more fuel for the war effort. DST was abandoned and then reinstated during World War II for the same reason. In 1966, the Uniform Time Act formally established summer DST in the US (though states could opt out).
It seemed like a good idea at the time — that time was almost 100 years ago.
Your grogginess this morning is indicative of what DST does to us as a population. Studies have linked this jarring circadian shift–even though it’s just an hour difference–to slightly increased incidences of heart attacks, traffic accidents, workplace injuries, and suicide. The hour shift also directly affects worker productivity, with lethargic laborers costing the economy an estimated $434 million per year. Maybe more.
And farmers have opposed DST almost from the start. There’s not a whole lot of field work you can do in the early morning darkness.
Though the original thought was that springing forward would help the US save fuel, which it did, the US power infrastructure is radically different from what it was in 1918. It’s still true that DST saves power spent on lighting, but that hardly makes a dent anymore.
One review of the studies on DST and power reduction does conclude that the practice may reduce national electricity demand by 0.5%. “However,” the authors note, “there are just as many studies that suggest no effect, and some studies suggest overall energy penalties, particularly if gasoline consumption is accounted for.”
A reason for this net nothing could be that the reduction in lighting comes with an increase in air conditioning and heating use.
Despite the groans of the Monday workforce, the DST still has some benefits. For example, there is some evidence to suggest that the extra hour of sunlight gives consumers more opportunity to shop after work, increasing sales and boosting the economy.
Joseph Stromberg writing at Vox also notes that there are smaller, harder to see benefits to DST. “Evidence can be found in the fact that primetime TV ratings sink noticeably whenever DST goes into effect, and in a recent study that showed children get more exercise on days with later sunsets, regardless of weather or school hours,” writes Stromberg.
There might also be a reduction in outdoor robberies. Thieves tend to skulk in the dark.
To make DST more bearable–and to reduce the harms coming from twice-a-year clock adjustments–the solution could be to spring forward year-round. Most of the world lives with their clocks adjusted behind solar time to give them the benefits of DST without any of the drawbacks. Literally billions of people in Asia and Africa and Europe have figured this out, including Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the United States.
But until we lose our detrimental version of saving time, we are going to have to ask like John Oliver does: How is this still a thing?