Why We Change The Clocks: A Primer

It happens twice every year in the news business: Our newsroom gets press releases about changing the clocks and the research showing the changes contribute to fatigue, productivity problems at work, traffic accidents and other maladies.

Really? Really??  I won’t deny that there is research that finds a correlation, but is that correlation a good argument not to change the clocks? I’d argue that if someone looked, they could find a similar correlation the morning after the Super Bowl, or the NCAA final, or any number of other events that keep lots of people up late.

I concede that changing the clocks can be a pain. I have one digital clock at home that was built and programmed 17 years ago -- before our country modified the dates we change the clocks. Consequently, it automatically changes the time when we don’t, and doesn’t when we do. I have to change it manually FOUR times a year.  The good news is that many clocks these days -- including the ones we carry with us all the time on our smartphones – change correctly by themselves. Adjusting the clocks in our household is hardly the hassle it was a generation ago.

Maybe it’s the convenient technology, but it seems some folks these days don’t give much thought about the reasons for the change – or even what it’s called when we do it. Changing clocks has become so vaguely synonymous in some minds with Daylight Saving Time, that a surprising number of people are confused and somehow believe we’re switching to Daylight Saving Time, even in the fall when we’re switching back to Standard Time. Daylight Saving Time (it’s incorrect to say “Savings”, by the way) does exactly what it says it does, it saves the abundance of early spring and summer sunlight from Standard Time for the early evening, when more people can enjoy it. By turning the clocks ahead in March, we move summertime sunrises from as early as 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., and thus delay the summer sunsets to better enjoy our outdoor activities and barbecues. Getting rid of DST would mean an earlier end time for evening recreation, and the return of bright sunshine before most sensible people want to get out of bed.

That raises the often-asked question, “Why not year-round Daylight Saving Time?”. The complete answer is complicated, but the short answer is, “We tried it, and there were complaints.” During the energy crisis in the early 1970s, year-round DST was billed as a way to save energy. It didn’t save an appreciable amount of energy, and parents in many parts of the country weren’t happy that their small children were walking to school or their bus stop in night-time darkness – not twilight, but darkness. Year-round DST means the sun rises an hour later than it does on Standard Time. That means in cities and towns on the western edge of their respective time zones, the sun won’t rise some days in winter until almost 9 a.m. It can be a depressing way for anyone to start the day, and there was some anecdotal information in the ‘70s that children were getting hit by cars.

 Until the '90s, most parts of the U.S. had a six-months-on/six-months-off rule for the switch between Standard Time and DST. It’s been modified twice since then to establish eight months of DST, and what we have now seems like the best possible compromise for most U.S. citizens. There’s more light in the spring evenings for recreation, yet most kids in winter aren’t going to school in the dark. Changing the system any further comes with unintended consequences for many of us, and greater headaches for some of our fellow citizens.

Todd Halliday is a morning news anchor at NewsRadio WHAM1180 in Rochester, NY.


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