By Jennifer Horton
With the biannual changing of the clocks, many Americans often find themselves wondering, “does it have to be this way?”
They’re not alone. In the last several years, state legislatures have considered at least 450 bills and resolutions concerning daylight saving time (DST), with most of them proposing to stop the twice-yearly clock-changing ritual by making DST permanent. While federal law allows states to opt-out of DST, it does not currently allow them to enact DST permanently. Hawaii and Arizona are the only two states that do not observe DST; they are joined by the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As of 2022, 19 states have passed or enacted legislation that allows for the year-round observance of DST if Congress allows it, and in some instances, if other states in the region also make the change. The 19 states are Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Californians voted in favor of a ballot measure making DST permanent, but the legislature has not yet acted.
The passage of the Sunshine Protection Act of 2021 by the U.S. Senate put these states a little closer to such a reality, although the bill has yet to be taken up by the House. The bill would allow states that chose (through legislation or voter approval) to enact year-round DST the ability to do so, and because it repeals the section of the law that mandates changing from standard to daylight time from March through November, would require the remaining states to choose between permanent standard time or permanent daylight time. How this would play out varies considerably from region to region, and it also wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. played around with the time change.
The United States has been tinkering with time since the Standard Time Act of 1918 established standard time zones and DST. Current federal policy regarding DST was enacted in 1966 as the Uniform Time Act, with a number of subsequent changes made, primarily to alter the start and end dates of DST. The most recent change was made in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. While DST was initially enacted as a way to conserve energy, the Department of Energy in 2008 found the effects to be minimal. The Department of Transportation reported in 1974 that potential benefits to traffic safety and crime reduction were also minimal.
The most current push to enact permanent DST is not the first. Congress enacted year-round DST for a trial period from January 1974 to April 1975 following the passage of the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 during the 1973 Oil Embargo. However, before the trial period even concluded, Congress amended the Act to include four months of standard time from October 1974 to February 1975. The change was widely unpopular and the country returned to summer DST after the trial period ended.
The arguments for and against enacting permanent DST are many and varied. Those in favor of extending DST observance include convenience stores, the business industry, the gardening industry, golf clubs and pro baseball and tennis. These groups benefit from the extra hour of daylight because many people tend to use it to shop and recreate.
Opponents point to potential negative health impacts linked with DST, including increased strokes, heart attacks and sleep deprivation. In 2020, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) published a position statement advocating the adoption of year-round standard time endorsed by more than 20 medical, scientific and civic organizations. The association argues standard time, not DST, aligns best with human circadian biology (the human sleep/wake rhythm that follows a 24-hour light/dark cycle) because it creates conditions where the body’s internal clock, the timing of sunrise and sunset and local clock time all sync. With DST, people are exposed to less light in the morning and more in the evening, leading to later bedtimes and chronic sleep loss. The Association called this disconnect between the sleep/wake pattern and light/dark a form of perpetual “social jet lag.”
Research demonstrates regional differences in how these impacts are felt, with people who live on the western edge of a time zone, where the sun rises and sets later, feeling them more profoundly. Studies indicate these so-called “western edge” residents got less sleep and had higher rates of a number of diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers than residents on the eastern edge of the time zone. One study estimated the economic costs of switching to permanent DST by looking at existing estimates of the healthcare costs of relevant diseases and judged it to be at least $2.35 billion. The same study also estimated impacts on productivity related to absenteeism and fatigue attributed to circadian disruption and estimated a loss of 4.4 million days of work per year.
For the same reason, people living in different parts of the country would have a very different experience of permanent DST. With the sun rising and setting an hour later from November to March, people who live in parts of the country where the sun already rises late would experience sunrises after 9 am in some cases. Residents of Traverse City, Michigan wouldn’t see the sun until after 8:30 in the morning from early November to late February, with the sun rising after 9 am for two full months. Indianapolis would experience a similar situation and Bismarck, North Dakota wouldn’t have sunrises until almost 9:30 am in December. Most of the New England states, however, would get a much better deal, with daylight occurring from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter instead of the current 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A perpetual daylight savings time would also impact different populations differently, including school-age children, who would be going to school in the dark for much of the year. Permanent daylight time could also be especially hard on many lower-income workers who work early shifts, thus increasing structural disparities.
Ultimately, enacting permanent DST, enacting permanent standard time, or leaving things as they are is a challenging, and sometimes polarizing, decision with wide-ranging impacts. Perhaps even more challenging than figuring out how to change the clock in your car.