National News

As Daylight Saving Looms, Suppose We Spring Forward, and Never Fall Back?

Posted March 9, 2019 6:44 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2019 8:41 p.m. EST

A day is a day, with so many hours of darkness and so many of light. It’s a hard reality that no powerful king or brilliant philosopher has ever found a way around. And yet, every year, bless our hearts, we try.

Compelled by the augustly named federal Uniform Time Act of 1966, most Americans will leap ahead — or stumble blearily — from one configuration of the clock to another this weekend, as daylight saving time clicks in at 2 a.m. Sunday.

But many people are saying it’s time for time to be left alone. State legislatures from New England to the West Coast are considering proposals to end the leaping, clock-shifting confusion of hours lost or gained, and the conundrums it can create.

Could 8 a.m. somehow, somewhere in the universe, really still be 8 a.m., even if now you’re suddenly calling it 9?

“I cannot change the rotation of the earth and sun,” said Kansen Chu, a California lawmaker who is sponsoring a bill to keep the state permanently on daylight time — one of at least 31 states that are addressing some aspect of daylight saving and its discontents. “But I am hoping to get more sunlight to the people of California.”

Proponents of setting the clock once and being done with it, like Chu, a Democrat from the San Jose area, said that shifting back and forth in the spring and fall, if it ever really made sense, no longer does.

California voters agreed last fall, approving a ballot proposition for year-round daylight time by a wide margin.

Lifestyles and patterns of work are different now than they were when daylight saving first became entrenched nationally during and after World War II. Research, Chu and others said, has shown that human beings just aren’t as flexible about their daily rhythms as they once seemed; accidents, heart attacks and strokes tend to occur in greater numbers around the time shift.

The 1966 law allows states to opt out of daylight saving, and Hawaii and Arizona do so, staying on standard time all year; so does Puerto Rico. But for reasons that historians say remain murky, the law does not allow states to opt in all the way, and choose daylight time year-round. So the California proposal, and a similar bill passed by the Florida Legislature last year, would require an act of Congress to take effect.

Josh Yokela, a Republican state legislator in New Hampshire, is working on a way around that problem. He is the lead sponsor of a bill, passed by the state House last month, to request that New Hampshire be shifted into the Atlantic time zone, which by fine coincidence would do exactly what daylight saving does now: put the state an hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Then the state would opt out of seasonal clock changes, as the 1966 law allows.

The key is that moving to a different time zone does not require an act of Congress — all it takes is an order from the Transportation Department, the federal agency that oversees time (a legacy of its duties regulating railroad schedules).

“We would be on the same time as the rest of the Eastern time zone for eight months of the year, because they accept daylight saving time — and when they fall back in the winter, we wouldn’t,” Yokela said.

Of course, it matters what your neighbors’ clocks say, and not just your own. Regional considerations played a role both in how daylight time first appeared a century ago, and in the debate over what to do about it now.

New Hampshire’s bill, for example, says that because the state is so closely tied economically with the other New England states, especially Maine and Massachusetts, it would only try the jump to Atlantic time if the others did as well.

Proximity also had ripple effects in the 1920s, when New York City, having tasted daylight saving as a temporary measure during World War I, decided to keep it in peacetime. Retailers found that people shopped and spent more on their way home from work when there was more evening light, and Wall Street investors liked gaining an hour of overlap with trading on the London financial markets.

Supporters also argued that nudging the clock forward to have more of a summer’s daylight fall in the evening would save energy by reducing the need for artificial light.

Once New York was doing it, places like Boston that needed to stay in sync economically decided to follow suit. A similar domino effect led Detroit to petition in 1922 to move to Eastern time from Central, followed by most of the rest of Michigan. And now, with California inching toward a change, time bills are being considered in Washington, Oregon and Nevada. The early days of experiments with time changes brought on a lot of head-scratching, said Michael Downing, a novelist and lecturer in creative writing at Tufts University who has written a social history, called “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.”Some people worried that an extra hour of light in the evening would dry up and brown their lawns, or that cows would become confused and not give as much milk.

“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about,” Downing said. “Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”

Scott Yates, a technology entrepreneur in Colorado who runs a website dedicated to staying on daylight saving time year-round, predicted that most of the state bills would go nowhere. Though he believes the idea has gained some legitimacy, with lawmakers thinking especially about the health effects of time changes, it is hardly a top legislative priority for anyone. At the same time, it is not a bitterly partisan issue, which in these days of divided politics feels pretty rare.

“It’s sort of odd, in that it doesn’t have any natural political division to it, but it doesn’t have a natural constituency, either,” Yates said. “It’s actually kind of refreshing in that way.”