The World Is Sick of Switching Clocks

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY; Images Getty

Why you should care

Because everyone needs sunshine — and sleep.

These days, it’s tough to get the world to agree on just about anything: From countless military conflicts over strategic territory to trade wars rooted in years-long grievances, consensus in the 21st-century world seems hard to find.

Enter daylight saving time. 

For decades, the arguments in favor of switching clocks twice each year, as is widely done in Europe and North America, centered on maximizing use of natural light to promote economic efficiency. Shifting an hour of sunlight from the morning to the afternoon, when more people use it, simply added up. But when the European Union voted earlier this year to end the practice by 2021, allowing each member state to choose whether it’ll continue to do so on its own, it joined a fast-growing tide against the practice.

One by one, countries across the world are increasingly moving away from the habit first introduced in Germany a century ago. Russia appeared a rarity in making that switch when in 2011, it ended daylight saving, making life slightly simpler for its 11 times zones. But in the past three years, the move away from the practice has rapidly gained momentum. Turkey scrapped it in 2016, followed by Morocco in 2018. Just this year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree abolishing daylight saving there from next year. And in the U.S., legislatures in more than two dozen states are considering bills seeking either greater flexibility or an end to clock-switching altogether.

Studies have drawn links between clock-changing and an increase in the risk of heart attacks and car crashes, or even harsher court sentences. 

The shift away from daylight saving time comes on the back of significant recent research suggesting that the benefits of tweaking time twice each year aren’t as great as first imagined. Quite the contrary, in fact: Studies have drawn links between clock-changing and an increase in the risk of heart attacks and car crashes, or even harsher court sentences. For some researchers, the debate is increasingly not whether to switch clocks, but which time to set it to, permanently.

Steve Calandrillo, a law professor at the University of Washington, is among those who advocate a permanent switch to daylight saving time — and argues that the rival “standard” time is fundamentally mischaracterized since it’s only four months long. He points to numerous studies highlighting the benefits: Among them is one from Rutgers University that found 343 Americans would be saved each year, thanks to fewer fatal car accidents. “As I always say, ‘Darkness kills and sunshine saves,’” Calandrillo says.

Daylight Savings Time in Sao Paulo

An employee climbs a ladder to check a huge clock in Luz Station in São Paulo.

Source Cris Faga/Getty

To be sure, most of the world hasn’t followed daylight saving time for decades. That includes almost all of Asia — including China, India and Japan — and Africa. But these are also some of the world’s largest economies and its fastest-growing ones. Dumping daylight saving would also make it easier for Western countries to coordinate their watches with these new economic epicenters.

Daylight saving might even be messing with your money. In recent research, University of Glasgow finance expert Antonios Siganos found that stock markets are more volatile the day after the change, thanks to increased risk-taking by poorly rested traders — even if they’re qualified and experienced.

In December 2016, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Virginia reported research findings where they analyzed court cases that were adjudicated on a couple of days after clocks had been switched. They found judges on average ordered harsher sentences in these cases because of sleep deprivation.

Armed with that kind of evidence, the EU is clearly determined to ditch the practice. But it won’t be easy for the sprawling, multinational bloc and its unwieldy bureaucracy. Nor is it united: Already, authorities in some countries have said they’d rather conduct more research before deciding how soon they’ll proceed. 

For the EU, as well as dozens of states in the U.S., there’s also a significant undecided question: summertime or wintertime? Or, more accurately, daylight saving time or standard time? Or something entirely different.

When they ditched their clock-changing, Russia and Brazil both moved to standard (winter) time. Nearly all of New England, where it gets darker earlier, is considering the same, while most other states in the U.S. are eyeing the opposite schedule. Hawaii and Arizona do not observe daylight saving time, making them the only two states that don’t currently change clocks.

But staying permanently on daylight saving time has already been tried in the U.S., says American author David Prerau, a proponent of the current system. He highlights how the government attempted a two-year experiment with permanent daylight saving time in the mid-1970s in a bid to mitigate the effects of the oil embargo. It didn’t work. “People around the country didn’t like it enough that Congress repealed the second year of it,” says Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight, a book that argues for clock-switching.  

Russia might know a thing or two about that, having dabbled with permanent daylight saving time for several years — when Moscow mornings wouldn’t brighten up before 10:30 am — before switching to standard time in 2014.

Prerau argues that “the loss of one hour of sleep is no different than going from Chicago to New York, or London to Paris, or Beijing to Tokyo — which multitudes of people do all the time.”

But the popular mood is increasingly clear. A survey in British Columbia earlier this year showed more than 90 percent of people wanted the Canadian state to permanently use only daylight saving time. And an EU-conducted poll from last year showed most people wanted an end to clock-switching. Now, it’s just a matter of time.

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