Do we still need daylight saving time?

Benyamin Cohen, Mother Nature Network(Photo: Nick White / Getty Images)(Photo: Nick White / Getty Images)
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For nearly a century, Americans have been springing forward and falling back, and this year will be no different. Come Sunday morning, we'll be snuggled soundly in bed as the clocks fall back an hour. Daylight saving time is the autumnal gift that provides the proverbial snooze button to our circadian rhythm.

But whether or not we should get that extra sleep has spurred some passionate debate from many disparate groups.

To better understand the situation, it's best to look at why we do this annual clock change each fall and spring. Agrarian cultures built their societies around sunlight, waking up with the sun to toil in the field and heading home as the sun lowered beneath the horizon. But the Industrial Revolution, and electricity in particular, brought the freedom to unshackle us from nature's clock.

As far back as 1897, countries began instituting daylight saving time, adding an hour of sunlight to the day. This meant communities could be more productive - people could work longer, and when work was done it was still bright enough to run errands and stimulate the economy. The added daylight also meant more exposure to vitamin D and the added time for people to exercise outdoors.

Everyone from factories to retail shops embraced the change. Even candy makers supported the new system, figuring the extra hour of sunlight meant it would be safer for kids to go trick-or-treating on Halloween.

"It has several technical benefits as well," explained Dr. David Prerau, author of "Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time," during a phone interview. "It's been found to reduce energy usage by doing something called load smoothing" - separating out electrical loads throughout the day to better deal with the valleys and peaks of energy usage - "and so you're going to generate energy more efficiently and therefore have less effects on pollution."

A study by the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that the country's electricity usage is cut by 1 percent each day because of daylight saving time.

But not everyone is on board with the time shift.

Michael Downing, a teacher at Tufts University and the author of "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time," says messing with the clock doesn't really save energy. "Daylight saving is still a boon to purveyors of barbecue grills, sports and recreation equipment, and the petroleum industry, as gasoline consumption increases every time we increase the length of the daylight saving period," Downing told MNN. "Give Americans an extra hour of after-dinner daylight, and they will go to the ballpark or the mall - but they won't walk there."

Daylight saving time increases gasoline consumption, according to Downing. "It is a convenient and cynical substitute for a real energy conservation policy."

There's data to back him up. A report by the California Energy Commission's Demand Analysis Office concluded that increasing daylight saving time "had little or no effect on energy consumption in California."

Television networks aren't fans of the time change either. The extra hour of daylight means less people are home to watch TV. Viewership ratings traditionally plunge each spring. Fox's hit "American Idol" clocked in historic low ratings immediately following the time change in spring 2009. On average, prime time shows shed 10 percent of their viewers on the Monday after the clocks are changed.

"I think television networks would like it to be dark as soon as you left the office and headed home for the night," Bill Gorman, of the website TV by the Numbers, told NPR. "And maybe it started raining or snowing a lot as soon as prime time began."

It doesn't look like those issues with springing forward and falling back will end soon. As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Congress pushed daylight saving time three to four weeks deeper into the fall in an effort to combat growing energy problems.

That change has resulted in sunrises as late as 8:30 a.m. in some areas, causing unexpected ripple effects.

For example, it threw a wrench into the lifestyle of observant Jews whose morning synagogue services are predicated on the sun. In fact, Prerau points out, Israel has a relatively short daylight saving time compared to other countries. "If sunrise is late, religious Jews have to delay going to work or pray at work, neither of which is a desirable situation," he says.

"If you don't like daylight saving time, you have plenty of options," explains A.J. Jacobs, the bestselling author of "The Know-It-All." He suggests moving to Arizona or Hawaii, states which don't observe daylight saving time at all. "Parts of Indiana used to be DST-resistant as well, but I think they've since buckled."

Even for those who do live in such states, life isn't simple. "It's crazy. People forget about us not changing so they call at ridiculous times," says Anita Atwell Seate, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But, on the upside, you don't have to adjust your sleep schedule or your clocks."

Is daylight saving time a fait accompli or will time ever just stand still? Downing doesn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. "Since 1966, every 20 years, Congress has given us another month of daylight saving. We're up to eight months now," he says. "And there is every reason to believe that the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce, the national lobby for convenience stores - which account for more than 80 percent of all gasoline sales in the country - and Congress will continue to press for extensions until we adopt year-round daylight saving. And then, why not spring forward in March or April and enjoy double daylight saving time?"


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