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Daylight saving time: the first sign of spring

  • Article by: Kim Ode
  • Star Tribune
  • March 9, 2014 - 8:05 AM

The cue for daylight saving time is “spring ahead, fall back” — for those who, twice a year, draw a blank about which way to reset their clocks.

This used to make sense, back when we didn’t “spring” ahead until the last Sunday in April, when there might reasonably be some crocus.

But March 9? Really?

Yet today, we have awakened to our watches, clocks, timers, car clocks, alarms, microwave ovens and grandfather clocks all duly moved ahead one hour into daylight saving time (DST), where we will remain until November.

Yes, standard time now lasts a mere four months, making it anything but the standard.

But then, daylight saving time is full of contradictions that confound and fascinate. Consider that no daylight actually is saved, as in some solar IRA. Instead, we shift how we define a day so that the evening hours remain illuminated later throughout the summer — as if an hour has been “saved” for twilight canoe rides and extra innings.

But the actual hours of daylight don’t increase because Congress passed a law, but because Minnesota, and the northern hemisphere, tilt toward the sun.

Yet, like Congress, the semiannual time shift comforts and afflicts.

Research into DST’s impact has mixed results: It saves energy or squanders energy; bolsters health or can kill you; is an economic engine or a drag on the bottom line.

People even debate its name. Conversationally, most refer to daylight savings time, but its proper name is daylight saving time (and boy, the keepers of all that’s proper regard voicing that extra “s” as a ticket to Guantanamo).

Or, we could just get up sooner

David Levinson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, has studied the effects of daylight saving time from a traffic safety standpoint, finding the shift makes driving no more dangerous than at any other time. But he also views DST through sociological and economic lenses.

Energy savings used to be the primary reason, he said, with the logic that if it stayed sunlit later, people wouldn’t turn on their lights.

“My own view is that people should get up earlier,” Levinson added, not unreasonably.

These days, DST starts on the second Sunday of March and ends on the first Sunday of November, as stated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. But DST isn’t really about energy anymore, since a government study in 2007 reported an annual nationwide electricity savings of just 0.03 percent. Another study noted that any savings in lighting costs is offset by our tendency to crank on the air conditioner or furnace.

The clearest benefit appears to be a drop in crime, especially robbery, during the more illuminated evening hours.

Follow the money

Today, the most powerful drivers of DST may be economics and culture.

Weekday evenings are the busiest times at Edina’s Braemar Golf Course as people with day jobs arrive, said general manager Todd Anderson, adding that DST’s benefits aren’t just financial.

“It just kills me in the winter, the lack of light,” he said. “We’re fortunate that daylight savings time coincides with our summers,” noting that Arizona’s peak golfing season is in the winter “and the pros are home by 6 o’clock eating dinner,” he said. “We’ve got leagues going every night with the last start times just before 6 o’clock.”

Levinson concurred with the economic value of DST, noting that merchants believe that the longer it remains daylight, the more likely people will leave their homes to shop.

“The question is: How much benefit can there be? People are going to buy only as many groceries as they’re going to buy. How much is new business entirely because it’s still daylight?”

That may be impossible to determine, partly because at this time of year the days are getting longer in addition to shifting an hour. Where the Twin Cities have just under eight hours of daylight on Dec. 21, we’ll have a little more than 12 hours on March 21 and a whopping 15 ½ on June 21.

Today, about 70 countries use daylight saving time to some extent. And, like it or not, the eastern time zone — whether on DST or EST — makes everyone jump.

Central time zone residents are used to starting their days earlier if they’re dealing with the East Coast.

Not that daylight saving time is going anywhere, especially now that so many clocks automatically reset. A legislator in Tennessee even has proposed making it permanent there as a boon to businesses and schools. The bill likely will be tabled for further study.

Put on a (yawn) happy face

This being March, twilight canoe rides and extra innings are weeks away, so DST’s benefits are hard to fathom. Plus, mornings are dark again. Little wonder we can get cranky.

But the roots of our rancor lie in our genes, as well as in our environment, said Germaine Cornelissen, a professor of integrative biology and physiology at the University of Minnesota.

Shifting the daylight hours always will be easier for some, harder for others, she said, if only because people are different “chrono types” — think “morning people” and “night owls.”

But Cornelissen also allowed that psychology plays a role, whether we’re the sort who mopes about being “forced” to lose an hour of sleep, or if we take measures to adjust, say, by going to bed a bit earlier for a few nights.

Bottom line, she advises against getting too wound up about the shift.

“Try to be happy and not worry about things that really are of little consequence,” she said. “There are so many other, bigger problems in the world.”

 

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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