The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Freezing the clock: Nationwide push for permanent daylight saving time gains momentum

Maryland lawmakers advance proposal to permanently shift the clock

Daylight saving time was created to make better use of sunlight during the summer. But as days get shorter in winter, many people experience depression. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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The more Maryland Del. Brian M. Crosby let himself consider the groggy, discombobulated misery of adjusting to daylight saving time, the more ridiculous it seemed.

“Frankly, I always hated changing my clock,” he said. “If you sit down and think about it, I bet you do, too. Why do we do this? Do you have kids? Do you like getting your kids up early?”

And so Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) steered Maryland into a nationwide debate that — in just four years — spread to Congress and legislatures in 41 of the 48 states that observe daylight saving time. This month, Crosby won over the state’s House of Delegates, which voted to permanently shift daytime so that an extra hour of sunlight lands in the afternoon year-round — pending congressional approval.

The national surge to make daylight saving time permanent unites unlikely bedfellows who say Americans can transcend our political divides to abolish the century-old practice of changing our clocks. Research has linked the time-shift to an uptick in everything from heart attacks and miscarriages to fatal traffic accidents and workplace injuries. But debate rages over whether the healthier solution is to abandon daylight saving time or make it year round.

Most proposals, such as Crosby’s, favor locking daylight saving in permanently to shift sunshine later, a trend that alarms sleep experts who fear long-term health problems will arise if the country permanently divorces our schedules from our natural circadian clocks. One study notes our bodies never adjust to daylight saving time, reducing our sleep by 19 minutes per night until standard time is restored.

So far, 19 states have passed bills to switch to year-round daylight saving time, should Congress allow it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 22 are considering it this year.

“It wasn’t something I scrambled the halls getting votes for,” Crosby said. “People hear about it, and it makes sense.”

‘Termination of chaos’: How daylight saving solved America’s clock craziness

The proposals often call for states to move in tandem — New England or the Mid-Atlantic region, for example — collectively springing forward in March and never falling back in autumn. Other states, such as Florida, would make the permanent switch alone as soon as the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 is amended to allow it.

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who agree on little else, have jointly sponsored legislation to let states permanently reset the clocks to daylight saving time.

Grumbling about the time change has stretched back decades, but once Florida passed its law in 2019, dominoes started to fall, said Scott Yates, a prominent lock-the-clock advocate from Colorado. The pandemic hastened the march.

“It’s like with any issue: There’s a tipping point where suddenly, it’s right, that’s what we should do,” Yates said. “The pandemic made us think about happiness and [that] day-to-day mental health really is important, and we should do everything we should to promote that.”

Or as one Connecticut lawmaker who has been pushing the shift since 2010 put it: “Coming off of covid with people cooped up the way that they are, people want the extra hour of sunlight,” state Rep. Kurt Vail (R) said.

Yates believes the issue is so potent right now that it can attract voters turned off by the toxicity of modern politics. He launched a congressional bid this month built on a platform of “fixing” daylight saving time, arguing that it’s the perfect issue to re-engage an apathetic public who stopped voting.

“Why not talk about the things that we can all agree on? Daylight saving time is the perfect issue for that,” said Yates, a Democrat running in a crowded primary to challenge Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) in the fall. “It’s understandable, it affects your daily life, it has a solution and it isn’t getting done.”

The country adopted daylight saving time a century ago, and not — as a popular myth tells us — to benefit farmers. In 1918, the United States followed European countries that shifted the clock during World War I in an effort to save fuel during evening hours and, as historian Michael Downing wrote in his book “Spring Forward,” to give shoppers more daylight.

Clock-switching was abandoned — partly because farmers hated it — then reinstated during World War II again as an energy saving measure. Until the Uniform Time Act of 1966 standardized daylight saving time, local governments had autonomy to set the local time. There was craziness: at one point, Iowa had 23 different daylight saving time dates.

In the decades since daylight saving time was standardized in 1966, Congress gradually extended it from six to eight months. The nation moved to year-round daylight saving time once, during an energy crisis in 1974. It quickly fell out of favor as the country endured even longer winter mornings.

Daylight saving time: the case against making it permanent

Yates, who runs a tech start-up, started his public advocacy to #locktheclock eight years ago after his wife suggested that repeated grumbling at the dinner table would not yield a solution. He says he is somewhat agnostic about whether permanent daylight saving time or permanent standard time would be best, but the science makes it hard to argue for resetting the clocks twice a year.

“Imagine if you proposed it today: ‘Hey, we’re going to do this thing where we change the clocks, and it’s going to kill a lot of people or send them to the hospital, but we’ll get to have more light in the afternoon’? It wouldn’t pass the sniff test,” he said.

Indeed, there’s a worldwide movement to abolish clock resets. Of the 143 countries that ever used daylight saving time, nearly half, 69, have abandoned it, according to timeanddate.com.

Polling shows Americans widely detest the practice: 75 percent would prefer to end it, according to an October poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Yet people are divided — and passionately so — about whether the country should have an early sunrise or a late sunset.

Jay Pea, a retired software engineer and self-described “enthusiast for circadian health,” founded the California-based nonprofit Save Standard Time amid the wave of legislation calling for permanent daylight saving time.

Pea and his allies argue that if states want to stop switching their clocks, which his organization wholeheartedly supports, science and human biology dictates leaving the clock on standard time, not an hour ahead. The organization cites a number of sleep studies about the cumulative sleep deficits from decoupling our daily social lives from the position of the sun. Our body’s cellular clocks, they argue, can’t change.

Save Standard Time points out there’s financial incentives for shifting more daylight later in the day, when people have more leisure time. In 1986, for example, the coalition that successfully lobbied Congress to start daylight saving time four weeks earlier included organizations representing golf courses, the barbecue industry, convenience stores and amusement parks.

“History shows support for permanent DST reverses into strong opposition once its forced early waking in dark, cold winter mornings is experienced,” Pea wrote in testimony to a Maryland committee. “Permanent DST has failed several times worldwide; it was a deadly disaster in the US in 1974.”

Here’s how things would change if we got rid of daylight saving time

School officials have been reluctant to embrace the shift, too. Anne Arundel County’s school system said it would leave students walking to bus stops in the dark during the shortest days of winter and muddle efforts to delay school start times aligned with decades of research showing that high-schoolers need more sleep.

The Maryland bill, which would only take effect if D.C., Virginia and other Mid-Atlantic states adopted similar measures, now heads to the state Senate. It died there last year, languishing without a vote in one of the legislature’s busiest committees, which at the time was attempting to pass a sweeping climate change bill. The Senate sponsor, Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll), is optimistic that after two long pandemic winters, his colleagues will embrace an extra hour of sunlight in the afternoon year-round.

“People are tired of the tyranny of getting out of work and it’s dark outside,” he said. “Shouldn’t we keep the daylight mostly when people can actually enjoy it?”

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