Keep Saving Daylight: An Argument Against Turning the Clocks Back

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On Nov. 7, Americans will once again set our clocks back from Daylight Saving Time. But why? Why wouldn’t we want to save daylight all year around?

On Oct. 29, the esteemed British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a paper urging the end of regular time altogether and moving us permanently to what the British call “summer time.” According to the paper, “people are happier, more energetic, and less likely to be sick in the longer and brighter days of summer, whereas their mood tends to decline — and anxious and depressive states to intensify — during the shorter and duller days of winter.” The paper also notes that kids can be let out to play — and therefore get more exercise — if it’s not dark. The paper predicts fewer car crashes and more sports events when we extend daylight hours. (More on 5 Ways to Beat the Winter Doldrums).

And yet, a skeptical note: more sports events will almost certainly lead to more drinking before driving, which will almost certainly lead to more car crashes.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the gloaming of a summer day, when sand smells combine pleasantly with those of tanning oil, gin, lime and tonic. But inasmuch as one would love summer to last forever, winter does come. The author of the BMJ paper, Senior Fellow Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) in London, found that changing the clocks permanently to summer time would result in only a 0.2% reduction in road casualties, which — statistically speaking — means his models produced no significant change whatsoever. Even Hillman admits that a 0.2% difference means no reliably different change in driving behavior with the extra light. A single thunderstorm could produce change just as large. (More on Want Good Health? There Are 10 Apps for That).

Then again, I do like the idea of grilling steaks in natural light in December. The primary defenders of regular time are farmers and others who must rise early. There’s only so much daylight, and how we apportion it by the clock can become a political and personal issue. No one enjoys having to get up when it’s dark, which is what Daylight Saving Time does: it pushes the earlier hours into deeper darkness in exchange for more light after work. In a new paper Hillman wrote for PSI, he acknowledged that going to permanent summer hours would mean roughly 60 days spent in total darkness for Scottish farmworkers who must rise early to tend to animals.

And yet Hillman counters that most people who don’t farm spend most of their post-work waking hours — four or five hours per day — in the dark during winter. We are less likely to exercise and make plans with friends during those long, dreary January and February days when 7 p.m. feels like midnight. Hillman doesn’t quite have the data to prove it, but he has a strong common-sense argument that giving people an extra hour or two of light each evening would push them from routines that otherwise might involve only television and a tray of brownies. He writes: “We spend, on average, about five hours of our waking hours before midday — very few of them when it is dark — but nearly half of the 10 to 11 of our waking hours after midday when it is dark and before going to bed. The critical limiting factor is obviously the onset of dusk.” (More on Photos: Dr. Mehmet Oz: Medicine Man)

Like all proselytizers, Hillman seems a little obsessed: he has been working on changing the clocks since the 1980s. Also, it’s not at all clear that people will use extra daylight hours during the winter to go outside to exercise. One Indiana study found that people merely run their air conditioners longer when time changes.

And yet in the end it’s hard to argue with Hillman’s idea. We are already wired to so much fake light — so many pixils from so many screens — that a little extra real day wouldn’t hurt. So this year, instead of spending time setting the clocks back, let’s have an experiment: do nothing. Leave the clocks where they are. Let the sunshine in.

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