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Ditch the switch? Call to go on permanent daylight saving time grows

Changing our clocks twice a year can be confusing — and it might also kill us, studies show. Now activists and some lawmakers are trying to do away with the "antiquated practice."
Illustration of two people pulling on strings that control the minute hand of an analog clock.
So far this year, at least 36 states have introduced legislation to end or study the effects of the semi-annual clock switch, more than any year before.Sonny Ross / for NBC News

In the days after our chronically sleep-deprived country “springs forward,” costing us an hour of rest, disoriented Americans face a slightly greater risk of heart attack and stroke. There are more car crashes. Workplace accidents increase, too.

For decades, most of the United States has observed daylight saving time, dutifully changing the clocks twice a year. But recently, many have begun to question the semi-annual switch — not only because of the potential dangers associated with it, but because staying on one time year-round could bring benefits ranging from the economic to the emotional, according to those leading the charge to “lock the clock.”

“We don’t have a good reason to do it. Let’s stop,” said Scott Yates, 54, of Denver, an activist who for more than five years has advocated for the elimination of the time change and has testified before state legislatures about it. “Even if it doesn’t kill you, it’s annoying.”

“Even if it doesn’t kill you, it’s annoying.”

It’s a movement that has suddenly exploded in popularity. So far this year, at least 36 states have introduced legislation to end or study the practice, more than any year before. Some bills call for all-year standard time, but most endorse permanent daylight saving time — which would result in an extra hour of evening sunlight for more of the year in exchange for a delayed sunrise in the winter.

The issue has played out on social media with the hashtags #DitchTheSwitch and #LockTheClock, and it has pitted recreational businesses that would benefit from longer days, like golf courses, against groups that worry about the danger of darker mornings, such as parent-teacher associations.

“The positive is obvious: Nobody likes to change the clock,” said David Prerau, author of "Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time." “You lose an hour of sleep, and nobody likes that.”

But delayed sunrises can be problematic, Prerau said, adding that an experiment with year-round daylight time in the 1970s was “very, very unpopular.”

“People didn’t like waking up in the dark, going to work in the dark, and especially didn’t like sending their kids to school in the dark on dark city streets or standing on the side of rural roads,” he said. “There was a strong negative reaction.”

Nonetheless, so far, legislation to go on year-round daylight saving time has passed in at least seven states, including Delaware, Maine and Tennessee this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon was the most recent, approving year-round daylight saving on June 17.

“After the 2018 time change, I don’t know what happened, but people got grouchy.”

“After the 2018 time change, I don’t know what happened, but people got grouchy,” Oregon state Rep. Bill Post, a Republican who sponsored the bill, told the Oregon Public Broadcasting network.

The grouchiness is not just in Oregon. A month earlier, Washington legislators adopted year-round daylight saving time. California voters have approved the same, and sometime as early as next month, the California state Senate is expected to review the matter, according to state Assemblyman Kansen Chu, a Democrat and the bill’s author.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill to make daylight saving time permanent in the state if federal law changes to allow it on May 8, 2019, in Olympia, Wash.
Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill to make daylight saving time permanent in the state if federal law changes to allow it on May 8, 2019, in Olympia, Wash.Rachel La Corte / AP file

But the state enactments of year-round daylight time are meaningless — for now, at least.

Federal statute says that any state can opt out of daylight saving and elect to go on standard time permanently — which Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have done for decades. But states that follow daylight saving time must adhere to the federally set dates for it, which are currently the second Sunday in March through the first Sunday in November.

A push for more sunshine, led by the Sunshine State

Leading the charge to change the federal law is Florida. In 2018, it became the first state to approve year-round daylight time after Greg Steube, a Republican who was then in the state Senate and is now in the U.S. House, filed legislation to stop the clock shift.

Steube said he got the idea one fall after his barber mentioned her young children were having trouble adjusting to the hour-difference. On a whim, Steube decided to look into getting rid of the practice, and polling among constituents revealed an unexpectedly high level of support for sticking to one time all year, particularly daylight time. Steube said he was also bombarded with calls from executives in the tourist industry who felt an extra hour of daylight could help business.

Following state passage of the bill, called the Sunshine Protection Act, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took the fight for year-round daylight saving time to the federal level, along with Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla. Rubio first proposed it last year, but it stalled in Congress. Rubio and Buchanan reintroduced it in March, arguing it would decrease rates of childhood obesity and improve the economy, among other benefits.

“It has become clear this antiquated practice no longer serves any purpose.”

“It has become clear this antiquated practice no longer serves any purpose,” Rubio wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the key committee that needs to take up the bill.

The Sunshine Protection Act has bipartisan support, and President Donald Trump has already voiced his approval. In March, after the U.S. moved its clocks ahead an hour, Trump tweeted that permanent daylight time was “O.K. with me.”

Steube acknowledged that this isn’t the most pressing issue facing Congress.

“Yes, this is something that is silly,” he said. But, he added, “This could bring members from both sides of the aisle together and affect the lives of every American.”

How daylight saving time came to be (It wasn’t the farmers)

Daylight saving time began in World War I, when Germany, Britain and other countries implemented it to conserve energy for the war. The United States followed suit in 1918.

Despite the widely held myth, it wasn’t farmers who started it. In fact, farmers have historically opposed it because it costs them an hour of morning sunshine used to move their products to marketplaces. (Michael Downing, author of “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time,” blames the farmers myth on Lincoln Filene, a Boston department store owner who wanted more daylight hours for shoppers to come in; thinking it would sway the powerful farm lobby at the time, Filene created a “preposterous” list of benefits farmers would enjoy from daylight saving, which spread, Downing said.)

While Benjamin Franklin and a New Zealand bug hunter have been credited with inventing the concept, it was a British man with a penchant for horseback rides at sunrise, William Willet, whose idea of springing the clocks forward an hour caught on in Europe and then in the U.S. in the early 1900s.

When it was first implemented, most people didn’t question it.

“A lot of people thought of it as a war measure,” Prerau said. “In a war, you’re not so picky.”

After the first World War ended, daylight time was officially repealed in America, but continued to be used in some parts of the country. It was then implemented year-round during World War II, and repealed again after the war ended.

But by that point, many Americans had begun to like daylight time. Some entire states enacted it, while elsewhere, individual cities opted in. The result was dizzying: On a bus ride that covered just 35 miles from Steubenville, Ohio, to Moundsville, West Virginia, passengers had to change their watch seven times to accurately keep time.

"It became clock chaos.”

“As it spread more and more in the 1950s and ‘60s, it became clock chaos,” Prerau said.

To quell the madness, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966, requiring daylight saving time, if followed, to be in effect statewide.

In the years since, Congress has re-examined the start and end dates of daylight time, extending it twice.

The first time, in 1986, Congress voted to extend it from six to seven months, moving up the start date to the first Sunday in April and keeping the end date the last Sunday of October, less than a week shy of Halloween that year; this was a disappointment to lobbyists for the sweets industry, who planted candy pumpkins on the seats of every senator at the time, hoping to sway them to extend daylight saving a little longer so there would be an extra hour of sunlight for trick-or-treating.

The candy sellers got their way two decades later, in 2007, when daylight time was extended on both ends to its current eight-month span.

The arguments for and against year-round daylight saving time

Those against switching the clocks point out that the original purpose of daylight time, to conserve energy, no longer applies (a Yale professor of economics in 2008 found daylight time actually increased energy demand).

Among the proponents of year-round daylight saving are businesses, including convenience stores and golf courses, that would benefit from the extra daylight, and others who see year-round daylight saving as a boon to public safety. A 2015 study in the Review of Economics and Statistics found there was an average of 7 percent less crime overall following the shift to daylight saving time, with a 27 percent drop during the evening hour of gained sunlight.

“Even better, robbery rates didn’t increase in the morning, even though those hours were darker – apparently, criminals aren’t early risers,” the authors of the study wrote in a blog post.

If daylight saving time is enacted year-round, the sun would not rise in December and January until after 9 o’clock in major cities like Detroit, Indianapolis and Seattle, and about 8:30 a.m. in New York and Chicago, according to Prerau.

Sunrises that late could put students in danger, some say.

“These students would be waiting for buses or walking to school in the dark, making them more difficult to see and potentially creating safety issues for our children as they cross streets or wait at intersections,” the Florida PTA said in a statement.

Others worry that dark mornings could affect Americans’ mental health, bringing on more depression and seasonal affective disorder. (This is a point of contention: Rubio and other proponents say permanent daylight time reduces the risk of seasonal depression.)

Regardless, the lack of morning light could take people by surprise, as history has shown.

Amid the Arab oil embargo, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 that sprung clocks forward an hour, taking effect in January 1974. Year-round daylight saving time was supposed to be in place for two years, but the following summer, despite the fact that the energy crisis wasn’t resolved, lawmakers scrapped it because Americans missed seeing the sun at the start of their bleak winter days.

“Going to work in the pitch-dark was very unpleasant for a lot of people,” Prerau said. “It’s also colder because you’re getting up in the dark before sunrise.”

A strong push, despite a controversial history

Those in favor of making daylight saving time year-round say there are workarounds to the dark mornings, such as starting school later so kids walk when it’s light out.

And they point to growing interest in ditching the clock switch in other countries, too. Canada’s British Columbia premier has said if Washington, Oregon and California eliminate it, he would follow suit. In the European Union, lawmakers voted this year to eliminate it; each country in the bloc will have until 2021 to choose between daylight saving time or standard time. Australia, too, has debated ending it.

Scott Yates
Scott Yates, right, a tech start-up founder who is a leading advocate of the movement to get rid of the seasonal time change, testifies beside then-Rep. Peter Lucido in Lansing, Mich., in 2017.Michigan Legislature

Yates, the “lock the clock” activist, said his blog has gotten a record number of visits this year, and said he has had legislators from both sides of the aisle reaching out to him.

All of it has left him hopeful, he said, that America might “fix this thing.”

“This is such a completely nonpartisan issue, we might actually be able to get it done,” Yates said.