Why do we still do this?!


Yep, it's time once again for the nearly-national indulgence in social engineering we call Daylight Saving Time. And once again, I'm posting about how it's something I wish would just go away.

I am, of course, biased by my upbringing in a state that wisely chooses to ignore this tomfoolery. (Seems I'm also in the minority in opposing the practice.) We never changed our clocks in my childhood, though I do recall once when we were visiting my grandparents in California on the weekend the switch occurred and I was excited to be the one to move the hour hands. It was novelty, I guess. But since we never bothered with it, I didn't understand the point of the thing until much later.

Now that I've been living with the practice for a quarter century, and at a latitude where it actually makes a difference...well, I still think it's dumb. (And misnamed—we're not "saving" anything, just moving our schedules.) And a pretty stark commentary on how stubborn and how easily manipulated humans are.

Let's look at why DST exists at all. Because I'm a bit of a history nerd and this is a good way to procrastinate doing my taxes.

First instituted in Europe 1916, followed by Australia and parts of Canada in 1917 and the United States in 1918, the idea was to reduce civilian energy consumption during World War I. (The US law also established consistent time zones in the country for the first time, to aid in the railway and emerging radio broadcast industries.) President Woodrow Wilson liked the concept of Daylight Time—then defined as beginning on the last Sunday in March and ending on the last Sunday in October—and wanted to keep it after the war was over, but Congress said (paraphrasing) f*ck that sh*t, and repealed it in 1920, pointing out that saving fuel for the war effort was no longer a factor. Wilson vetoed the repeal, but Congress overrode. Hooray for separation of powers!

With no Federal law in effect, states and localities either observed DST or not as they chose. For a couple of decades there was temporal chaos! New York City was on Daylight Time, upstate New York was not! Rhode Island followed it, but not Connecticut! Pandemonium! Except not really, because this was the 1920s and ’30s and it wasn't all that important when people didn't travel much or very quickly.

It wasn't until the next big war that DST made a nationwide comeback, with FDR mandating it year-round from February 1942 through September 1945, again to save on fuel consumption. Once the war was over, so was "war time" and localities again prevailed on the subject.

Now we're into the 1950s and ’60s, though—there's more travel, by air as well as rail; there's more broadcasting, TV as well as radio. The hodgepodge is becoming a real issue. (Apparently there was a 35-mile stretch of highway in Ohio and West Virginia wherein the local time changed seven times from one end to the other.) So, we get the 1966 "Uniform Time Act," a title that is simultaneously spot-on descriptive and contradictory of itself. Neat trick. That legislation says states and localities can't go their own way anymore, everyone within a time zone will be consistent with their local time, and that DST will be in effect from the first Sunday in April until the last Sunday in October. States that don't want to participate are exempt only if they pass a state law declaring the entire state (amended in 1972 so the entire area of a state within one time zone could exempt) stays consistently on Standard time year-round. The rationale is once again a theoretical savings in energy consumption during the spring and summer months. (This law interestingly also placed areas of certain states in new time zones, aligning more with longitude than state boundaries in places like Florida and Texas.)

That's where we are today, save for two more legislative tweaks to extend DST's duration—first in 1986 to add three weeks in April, then in 2007 to add three weeks at the front end and one week at the back end. Now we're on DST from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, nearly two-thirds of the year.

So that's the how and when of it, but the thing that I really find curious is the why.

The rationale for each and every one of the DST laws is to save on energy consumption by shifting activity to earlier in the day so as to take greater advantage of sunlight. But in our human society, asking large numbers of people to move up their daily activity by an hour for part of the year is an impossible request. We're too set in our ways.

We could just say, OK, starting in April schools are in session from 8:00am until 2:00pm instead of 9:00am until 3:00pm. Broadcasters move their scheduling up one hour. Businesses aren't mandated to have any particular hours anyway, but are encouraged to follow suit and open from 8:00-4:00 instead of 9:00-5:00 or whathaveyou. But what kind of compliance would we get?

Some, sure. But a lot of businesses and private schools and such would say, "nah, things are fine the way it is, I don't want to start an hour earlier." Still others would do it, but later in the year or for a different span of months. We're stubborn creatures. We don't like being told when to do things.

But we're also manipulable. We'll go along with it if we're tricked into doing it. Force us to move our clocks and we'll likewise not change our ways—our stubbornness could still come into play by simply acknowledging that the time shift is fake and we'll simply operate our business hours from 10:00 to 6:00 for the duration, maintaining the same schedule as before, but no; we're used to the number on the clock being the proper measure of time, so we just do it because this way we "don't change our habits." Except we totally do.

There's been a lot of noise in recent years about doing away with the change, but mostly on the side of adopting DST year-round (essentially returning to FDR's "war time"). A number of states have passed legislation stating that they'd go on year-round DST if and when Congress amends the Uniform Time Act to allow it. But we've done that before and it didn't go well.

In 1973, in response to the OPEC oil embargo that caused a national gasoline shortage and contributed to economic recession, Congress passed Senate Bill 2702, which President Nixon signed into law in early 1974. SB2702 extended DST year-round for two years during which studies would be done to determine if it should be extended in perpetuity. But within weeks, popularity of the measure went from 79% to 42%, mostly because of early-morning "night" causing more traffic accidents: school children were being killed on their way to school in the darkness, even in southern latitude states like Florida, and some schools did the sensible thing and reverted to astronomical-time scheduling. One study concluded there was a small savings in energy use, not quite 1%; another found gasoline usage actually went up, defeating the primary purpose. But Congress repealed the measure after not even one year, with a House statement noting that any meager energy gains "must be balanced against a majority of the public’s distaste for the observance of Daylight Saving Time."

Of course, things are a lot different now than even in the ’70s. Power usage happens round the clock now. Energy sources are more varied. Does consumption actually change anymore during DST months? Even in decades past studies were inconclusive, with some saying, yes, electric lighting use dropped a small fraction, but energy used for home heating and cooling went up. Others said the overall benefit was about 0.5% difference in overall usage. But nowadays? With computers running 24/7, LED bulbs replacing inefficient incandescents, more renewable sources entering the electric grids, 24-hour societal activity in most cities? I'm quite dubious.

I'm a night owl. I don't care when the sun comes up in the morning, my natural tendencies are to be up late and sleep late. If we went to permanent DST, fine, at least we won't be switching clocks twice a year anymore. But my preference is permanent Standard Time. When high noon actually happens at, you know, noon, not at 1:00pm. Society can change its schedules if it wants to without the trickery of moving the clock hands.

Hell, baseball teams are already starting most of their games at 6:30 instead of 7:00 (and went from 7:30 to 7:00 20 years ago or so), which annoys me no end. For me, later is better! F you, morning people! Creatures of the night rise up!

Anyway, the immediate bottom line is that I have to start my umpire shift tomorrow at noon, which is really 11:00am, and I'll very likely be working five games on only a few hours of sleep. Hopefully I won't blow too many calls.


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