Friday, March 09, 2007

Daylight Saving Time

This Sunday at 2AM, we will be changing our clocks for Daylight Saving(s) Time. What this means for me is that my car clock will now be set properly. Also we will be losing a precious hour from our weekend (remember- set your clocks forward an hour). Fortunately for drunkards, the timing of the change assures that they will not lose a precious hour of imbibing.

This year marks a change in the schedule. As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, legislators have extended DST. Traditionally the start and end dates were the first Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October. This DST will end on the first Sunday of this November. The new set-up will be retained until Congress decides otherwise (once an energy consumption study is completed). For years parents of Halloween trick-or-treaters have been petitioning the government to extend DST past October. Hopefully the extra light will result in fewer bloody and contorted little bodies lying on the street dressed as Brittany Spears and The Rock.

Energy conservation was the main rationale for the acceptance of DST. The assumption behind it was that more electricity would be used in the morning hours, and less in the afternoon- resulting in a net decrease in usage. UK-born builder William Willett invented DST in 1907 (not Benjamin Franklin, as some would have it). The government of Germany was the first to institute the changes, during World War I (1916). The UK adopted the practice during the same year. It was not until 1918 that the US Congress followed suit. They embraced DST at the same time that they formally adopted the time zones that had been in use since 1883. It was wildly unpopular- and Congress overrode President Wilson's veto to drop it. It was left up to local municiplaities to determine if they were going to use it. States like Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia kept DST.

During WWII, Roosevelt instituted "War Time", which is basically year-long DST. Afterward, it was left once again to local governments. Finally Lyndon Johnson pushed through The Uniform Time Act of 1966. Only states could retain year-round standard time, with a vote in their legislature. Most of the United States observes daylight saving time. Indeed, Hawaii and Arizona are the only states that have refused to adopt it.

The benefits of DST have been modest. The US Department of Transportation estimated in 1975 that energy costs declined by about 1% due to the shift. They also found a corresponding .7% drop in traffic fatalities. In another 1970's study, the US Law Enforcement Assistance Administration discovered a 10-13% reduction in violent crime in Washington DC, due to DST.

Criticism about DST has traditionally come from farmers, whose workdays are dictated by the natural and seasonal cycles of the sun. They become out-of-step with the remainder of society, who during DST postpone all their evening activities by a full hour. Some critics resent governmental intrusion in any area of their lives, and DST galls them by suggesting that they should change their routine. Changing the clock also temporarily disrupts sleep patterns. Research has shown that auto fatalities increase dramatically for a day or two after both of the two Sunday switches, and researchers estimated (in a 2000 study) that the daylight savings effect results in a one-day loss of $31 billion on the major stock exchanges. DST also provides a challenge to computer-based systems that require downtime or restarting. And people who work across time zones are forced to keep up with multiple DST rules.

The solutions to the problems associated with DST include some that would make the issue more complex- such as gradually shifting the time by adding or subtracting 20 minutes for each of three successive weeks. In order to address inconsistencies in various locations, some suggest the use of Coordinated Universal Time, which is an obscure, but high-precison atomic time standard.

But until we face any other changes to DST, we might as well use it to our benefit. Firemen throughout the nation have initiated campaigns to have homeowners check their fire alarms whenever they switch their clocks. Apparently this is supposed to be a convenient time to remember to ensure our own safety. This presents little help to those of us who inevitably forget to adjust our clocks. Even the forgetful can find an opportunity to use DST in the Fall. Some permissive bars stay open an extra hour on the night of the switchback. Technically they are thwarting state law, because bars are supposed to discontinue serving alcohol at 1:59 AM on that night. In the time before then, perhaps you can find the time to enjoy the late evening light of spring and summer.

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