Sunday, April 03, 2005

Biannual Lunacy

Unless you have the fortune of living in Arizona, Hawaii, or parts of eastern Indiana, you probably set your clocks ahead one hour last night before you went to sleep. (If you haven't done that yet you might want to, just so that you're not late for work/class/etc. on Monday). Yes, it's true ... daylight saving time has returned. Regardless of the snappy little "spring forward, fall back" tagline someone came up with to make it sound all pleasant, the entire saving-time scheme has become about as useful as a parachute in a submarine.

Originally implemented as a way to cut down on energy costs during World War I, and then again during World War II, the concept of daylight saving time was originally proposed as a joke by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. Franklin, then in Paris as American ambassador, was lampooning the Parisians because they didn't get up until noon and then stayed up late at night using candles to see by. His tongue-in-cheek essay was designed to goad them into getting up earlier and using the natural sunlight more efficiently.

Of course no one changed their sleeping patterns, and as artificial energy sources got less dangerous, cheaper and more abundant, they were used more and more. It wasn't until there was a war on that countries began thinking about ways to conserve fuel used to produce electricity (so the combatants could produce more tanks, bombs, etc.). The Europeans started the trend, and the US adopted 'An Act to preserve daylight and provide standard time for the United States' in March, 1918. After the war ended though, daylight saving time became quite unpopular and Congess repealed the scheme in 1919.

During most of World War II, daylight saving time was instituted year-round, as it was also in 1974-1975 (again, to conserve energy during times of shortage). In 1966 the Uniform Time Act set the dates for switching the clocks forward and back (an amendment in 1986 set the dates at their current position, the first Sundays of April and October). Proponents of daylight saving time argue that energy use is decreased significantly by setting the clocks ahead, and that light later in the evenings decreases traffic accidents during those lighter hours.

One myth that is often propogated by proponents of daylight saving time is "it helps the farmers". Baloney. As my great-grandfather, a dairy farmer all his life, always maintained "The cows don't know the difference." They still have to be milked at the same time, regardless of what hour the clock says it is. The earlier in the day fields are dried out by the sun, the earlier they can be plowed, or mowed, or harvested. For farmers, having light earlier in the morning allows them to use the day more effectively and avoid the need to work late into the evening.

Easing life for those who actually use the sun in their daily work is certainly the most substantive argument for getting rid of daylight saving time. But there are several others, including spikes in traffic accidents, decreased work productivity, and general grumpiness following the 'spring forward' shift (resulting from the loss of an hour of sleep, the effects of which may persist for nearly a week), as well as the basic inconvenience of changing clocks twice a year.

Several proposals exist for time-reform. Sheila Danzig has suggested one, which would in effect reduce the number of time zones in the US from four to two and eliminate the need to reset clocks twice a year. A simpler method would be to do away with daylight saving time altogether. The energy costs saved by the current system could be more than offset by other, less intrusive means, such as increasing our uses of alternative fuels, replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents, and not hemorrhaging energy uselessly by leaving appliances on needlessly. While the prospects seem dim for reform in the immediate future, a little common sense would go an awfully long way.

For further reading:
End Daylight Saving Time. The group's name says it all - clearly biased, but in a good way. They even have a petition you can sign to urge Congress to change the current system.
- Time Management. A somewhat comprehensive Riverdeep article on the issue.
- WebExhibits on Daylight Saving Time. Even though it's somewhat pro-lunacy, this is the best history of DST I could find.
- Wikipedia on DST.


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