What is Daylight Saving Time Actually Saving?

The clocks have sprung forward again and, like every year, a drove of cranky, sleep-deprived journalists and TV personalities are asking why Americans are still trying to save time. The argument against Daylight Saving Time (DST) is not new. Savings time was mocked even when Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea in the late 18th century, But recent research now suggests there may be something to that argument.

Advancing the clock one hour forces people to wake up an hour earlier (as gauged by the sun) and “shifting” an hour of otherwise unused daylight to the end of the afternoon. DST was first implemented on a national level by Germany during World War I in an effort to reduce the use of artificial lighting, which helped conserve energy for the war effort. Several countries followed suit and, two years later, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson adopted DST for the same reason.

The United States returned to standard time after the war ended, and DST would not be implemented again until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When Roosevelt reintroduced DST, it was year-round and was referred to as “War Time.” DST lasted for a little over three years until the surrender of Japan in 1945, when American time zones were relabeled “Peace Time.”

There was a great deal of confusion as well as travel disruption from 1945 to 1966 because, with no federal law standardizing DST, localities were free to pass their own ordinances. It was not uncommon for neighboring cities to be an hour apart. In an effort to end confusion as well as economic disruption, the federal government passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966. Through this act, DST ran from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October. Though many people believe DST was established to benefit farming communities, farmers were actually opposed to standardizing time. There were many competing interests for and against the standardization of DST, including the contentious disagreements between indoor and outdoor theaters which were triggered by the extension the hours of daylight into the evening hours, cutting into the hours of darkness available for drive-in theaters to show their films.

Following the oil embargo of 1973, DST was extended for the next two years to ten months and eight months, respectively. A study at the time showed that the extended period proved to save energy equivalent to 10,000 barrels of oil per day, which effectively ended the debate about whether the federal government should regulate DST. Since then, DST has been amended on several occasions to satisfy various interests and needs, but the fate of DST was permanently secured. In the United States Daylight Saving Time currently begins at 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday of March and ends at 2:00 a.m. on the first Sunday of November. Only Hawaii and most of the state of Arizona, as well as the territories of Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa do not observe DST.

Energy conservation seems to be the driving force behind the preservation of DST, but recent research suggests that energy consumption may increase during daylight savings time. Economist Matthew Kotchen analyzed residential energy consumption in Indiana before and after the state adopted DST in 2006 and found that a one percent rise in residential energy use occurred after the switch, costing the state $9 million.

Increased energy consumption doesn’t hold a candle, though, to the toll DST takes on health and safety. Federal research found that the number and severity of workplace accidents spike by six percent on the Monday following the time change. Traffic accidents also increase by eight percent that day. A 2008 study by Swedish researchers showed that heart attacks jumped by five percent the first week of DST, and a 2012 study by Dr. Martin Young put the increase at ten percent for the Monday and Tuesday following the time change.

According to Till Roenneberg, a German chronobiologist, this all makes sense. The body’s internal clock never fully adjusts to the time change, the results of which, Roenneberg said, are “that the majority of the population has drastically decreased productivity, decreased quality of life, increased susceptibility to illness, and is just plain tired.”

Maybe the argument against Daylight Saving Time is finally taking hold. On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver took a humorous jab at what he perceives an antiquated tradition in a segment called “How is that still a thing?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br0NW9ufUUw&w=560&h=315]

While it seems unlikely that Daylight Saving Time will be abolished in the near future, if ever, one thing is certain: this time next year, as weary citizens wipe the remnants of inadequate sleep from their tired eyes and make their now more treacherous commutes to work, there will be a drove of cranky, sleep-deprived journalists and TV personalities asking why Americans still continue to inflict DST upon themselves.