Daylight saving time — maybe we should sleep on it

Wednesday , October 25, 2017 - 4:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

In a few weeks, we will put our lives in danger with the simple act of changing our clocks. At least, some people believe that danger is real.

Sunday, Nov. 5 at 2 a.m., we “fall back” or end daylight saving time. Before you celebrate or curse the change, you might be interested in the historical and current arguments for and against DST and why we shouldn’t rush to change it.

Time is a social construct. In other words, we mostly agree to divide days into 24 hours. Egyptians originated the idea. They broke time into three segments: 10 hours of day; 12 hours of night and two hours on either side of the day. They extended each daytime hour in the summer to accommodate extended daylight. Europeans eventually adopted the 24-hour day.

The idea of 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute came from Babylonians who had a base 60 counting system, versus the base 10 we currently use. The Greeks, Romans and Chinese began dividing days into equal-length hours, using sand and water clocks. Monasteries in medieval Europe unified public understanding of time by ringing bells from their towers to signify the time of day. Industrialization and train schedules made consistent time even more important for more people.

One reason for DST originated with Benjamin Franklin when he served as an American delegate in Paris. Franklin, who once quipped “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” didn’t follow his own advice. He adopted the habits of his upper-class French compatriots and burned the midnight oil, conversing and playing chess until the wee hours and then sleeping late the following morning.

In an anonymous essay entitled “An Economical Project,” Franklin suggested the French workers who woke him at 6 a.m. valued the economy of natural sunlight. He argued that Parisians could save a fortune in candles by simply waking earlier.

More than 100 years later, in 1905, Englishman William Willett proposed modern DST. He did not like wasting daylight, which, among other things, cut his afternoon golf game short. He spent considerable money and time lobbying for DST before his death in 1915.

During World War I, Germany adopted Franklin’s argument and Willett’s idea and enacted DST in 1916 to save coal. Not to be outdone, England, France and other allies quickly followed suit.

Many manufacturers and retailers argued for the change. However, farmers, theater and railroad owners argued against it. The U.S. adopted DST for only one year in 1918. The idea was reinstituted during World War II — again as a cost-saving measure.

In 1945, three weeks after WWII’s end, DST was repealed. The U.S. became a confusing hodgepodge that “Time” magazine in 1963 called the “chaos of clocks.” Absurdities included the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul an hour apart. A 35-mile bus ride between Steubenville, Ohio, and Moundsville, West Virginia, took drivers though seven time changes.

The U.S. enacted national DST in 1966. However, two states, Arizona and Hawaii, and several territories still don’t observe it.

In addition to cost savings, arguments in favor of DST included the reduction of traffic accidents, increased health from outdoor activities, increased vitamin D and reduced seasonal depression. Some farmers also embraced DST, recognizing the need to use their children’s labor after school. In 1987, Idaho senators promoted DST, hoping fast food retailers would sell more Idaho potatoes.

Numerous studies have shown mixed results in the value of DST. Vitamin D intake is balanced by an increase in skin cancer, a rise in irritability and loss of productivity. Other studies suggest a 10-20 percent increase in heart attacks or stroke during the few days after the annual “spring forward.”

One study showed increased revenue from retailers. Another showed lower broadcast ratings and theatre attendance.

Energy use seems variable as well. Modern lighting has become a smaller component of energy usage with technology such as LED fixtures. Studies in Australia, Great Britain and Indiana have shown increased energy consumption. The U.S. transportation and energy departments have found a decrease. A California study saw no effect.

About a quarter of the world — mostly the Western Hemisphere — uses DST. It’s obvious that to fully understand its effects requires more comprehensive study. In the meantime, I would argue keeping DST since there is no clear reason to change.

Maybe we should sleep on it. On Nov. 5 we will have an extra hour to do just that.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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