Daylight Stupid Time

So, here we are once again observing Daylight Saving Time. Or, as I prefer to call it, Daylight Stupid Time. Honestly, what does it save? Just about the time of year when the sun is coming up at a reasonable time and kids aren’t going to school in the dark, we switch the clocks so it will be dark until well after everybody is at school or work.

There’s nothing absolute about the way we reckon time. For most of human history, time-keeping has been imprecise. In ancient Greece and Rome the concept of time was so flexible that they just divided the day into twelve hours. During the summer those hours were longer; in the winter they were shorter. Monks invented clocks in the Middle Ages because they had to get up to say prayers. Even as late as the 18th century nobody kept precise time. The only fixed point was noon, when the sun was directly overhead at your particular location. It wasn’t until railroads began crossing Europe and the U. S. in the mid-19th century that time zones and timetables became significant.

Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin did not suggest DST. It was proposed in 1895 by a New Zealander, George Vernon Hudson, who liked to collect insects after he got off work. It wasn’t adopted until World War I, then used again in World War II. The rationale was that people wouldn’t use as much electricity or gas in the evening, saving those resources for the war effort. But, if we get up when it’s cold and dark, we’re going to turn on lights and turn up the furnace. There is an old joke about cutting a piece off the end of a blanket and sewing it on the other end to make the blanket longer. That’s what DST amounts to.

After World War II, many parts of the U. S. stopped observing DST. There was a chaotic pattern of places that did observe it and those that didn’t. And it wasn’t a matter of states. Some towns observed it, while others didn’t. At one point St. Paul and Minneapolis, with only a river between them, had different times. Traveling from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Charleston, West Virginia, in 1956—a distance of less than 200 miles—a person would pass through 17 time changes. I remember, as a kid in South Carolina in the mid-1950s, being unable to understand why “Howdy Doody” came on at 9:00 instead of 10:00 on Saturday mornings in the summer. It was because New York went on DST, while SC didn’t. New York’s 10:00 was South Carolina’s 9:00, and “Howdy Doody” came on when NY said it did. Try explaining that to an 8-year-old.

In 1966 Congress forced the whole country to go on DST, unless state legislatures exempted themselves. A few did. Indiana was in a peculiar situation. The state is in the Eastern Time Zone, except for the northwest corner—a suburb of Chicago—and the southwest corner, around Evansville. Those areas are in the Central Time Zone. To stay with Chicago, the Central Time Zone part of the state went on DST, but the Eastern Time Zone part didn’t. So, for part of the year, the whole state was on the same time because Central Daylight Time = Eastern Standard Time. The farmers in Indiana—like farmers everywhere—hate DST, but the folks in Indianapolis have finally triumphed and the whole state now goes on DST. Today Hawaii and most of Arizona are the only parts of this country that don’t observe DST. It is not observed by most of the countries in the world outside of Europe and North America.

Over the years the time span for DST has been extended, usually at the behest of some manufacturing group which thinks its sales will increase during the extra evening daylight. At one time it was the potato farmers of Idaho, who thought people would eat more fries at fast food places if they had an extra hour of daylight in the evening. The last time, in 2007, it was the makers of barbecue grills who got behind the idea.

I know I am a voice crying in the wilderness when I try to protest DST. It does have a greater effect on people who live in certain parts of the country, particularly those of us who live in the northern tier of states and/or on the western edge of a time zone. I live in west Michigan, the very far west of Michigan. My town—most of my state—should be in the Central Time Zone. I realized this some years ago when I was out painting my house after supper one fine summer evening. I was listening to the Detroit Tigers play the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The announcer, the legendary Ernie Harwell, said, “It’s 7:30, folks. The sun is setting, and we’re ready to play ball.” I thought, wait, the sun won’t set for another hour. That’s why I’m out here painting. Then I realized, we’re a full hour behind Boston. We’re actually in the Central Time Zone. (It’s not as bad as China; that entire, huge country has only one time zone when it should have at least three.)

The farther north of the equator you are, the more you’re aware of the difference in daylight hours between winter and summer. Start with being in the wrong time zone, combine that with DST, and my town can’t start its fireworks display on July 4th until after 10:00. And it’s really difficult to get young children to go to bed during the summer because of all that extra sunlight (I raised four, so I know).

When school is in session, I can’t see any reason to encourage kids to be out after supper. And let’s stop kidding ourselves that the time change saves energy. No scientific study has ever shown conclusively that DST saves anything. In fact, several studies have shown that energy consumption goes up during DST. Encouraging people to be out means more use of gas. Sticking that extra hour into the warmest part of the day means more air conditioning.

I realize we’re always going to have Daylight Stupid Time, but I would raise a plaintive plea to at least limit it to the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when kids aren’t in school and people might actually have some reason to be out in the evenings.

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