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Marc Fisher

Tired of Riding The Yo-Yo Of Time?

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page B01

Feeling lighter in the step? Younger, fresher, sharper? After all, we have just sprung forward into the glories of long, golden evenings and outdoor dining.

So why is it that at the dawn of daylight saving time, we end up feeling grumpy and gray? Simple: We have just been forced into collective jet lag, losing an hour's sleep, all because the government says so. Blame the Uniform Time Act of 1966, a classic Washington mandate that sits on the books long after anyone can remember the politics that shaped it.

Marc Fisher can be reached by e-mail at marcfisher@washpost.com or by phone at (202) 334-7563.

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It's time to turn back this tyranny of the clock. Next spring, let's take the ultimate spring forward, to permanent daylight saving time.

One of Washington's great lobbyists, the late James Benfield, is the man who altered time. In 1986, after a years-long campaign, he persuaded Congress to stretch daylight saving time by a few weeks, so it begins at April's start instead of its end.

Benfield's reasoning is sound: Year-round DST would not only make life more pleasant, it would save lives.

Yes, yes, the prunes who cling to the current system say just the opposite, arguing that if it's dark in the morning when the kiddies are outside waiting for school buses, they're more likely to be smushed by wayward drivers. But Benfield knew that's just not the case.

"Children and traffic follow a highly regimented routine in the morning," Benfield told Congress in 2001, the last time it deigned to consider a change. "Drivers are rested. By contrast, in the afternoon, many children are riding bicycles and enjoying unsupervised outdoor play. More drivers will have alcohol in their bloodstream in the afternoon than in the morning. The rush hour is longer and more irregular in the afternoon. And drivers are tired and in a hurry to get home. Fortunately, sunlight improves the vision of these tired drivers."

Indeed, in 1974, when DST was extended to 10 months of the year to save money on oil (hmm, have you checked gas prices lately?), a result, according to the Department of Transportation, was a decrease in road fatalities and injuries.

Sadly, the farmers forced a return to our half-year cycle of clock turning. Farmers, the original eternally aggrieved interest group, insist that they need standard time so it's not too dark when they rise to milk the cows.

But as Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said in 2001: "I ran a dairy, so I know about dairy, and none of the cows that I had could read a clock. . . . So I don't know why this should be a problem to the dairymen. Just keep the cows on a schedule that they are happy with and they won't know."

The battle over time has gone on for centuries. Two new books -- "Spring Forward," by Michael Downing, and "Seize the Daylight," by David Prerau -- trace U.S. time policy back to Ben Franklin's suggestion that this country start fiddling with the clocks. But it took a war to push us into playing with time twice a year.

During World War I, Germany and Austria moved clocks forward one hour to save money by reducing the need for electric power. If it's lighter later, we stay outside and turn on fewer lights. Our country followed in 1918; Congress, never modest about its intentions, announced that the new system would "preserve daylight." Presumably by now, somewhere in this land, there's a Fort Knox absolutely stuffed with daylight, and one day, some beneficent administration will award us a solid year of light.

That first attempt to save light was wildly unpopular and lasted just one year. But the next World War brought "War Time," which ended with the hostilities. Then states went their own confusing ways.

Thus, the Uniform Time Act. So now everyone (except in Indiana, Arizona and Hawaii) springs and falls to and fro twice yearly. To preserve daylight, which we cherish in summer and pine for in winter.

Why? If we crave long sweet evenings, what would be so terrible about having them year-round?

Congress has gone silent on DST. But it's the perfect issue for Congress, at least until it finds the next family tragedy with a conveniently silent subject for its special brand of compassion. Democrats would love to have another way to avoid talking about the fact that they have nothing to say about security or terrorism. Republicans could use daylight time to stomp on the states while preaching about a culture of light. Freeze the clocks. Save the light.


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