Permanent Daylight Saving Time? Why It's a Bad Idea

Commentary: The Senate's unanimous vote to set clocks forward year round disagrees with much of public opinion -- and my family's school day routine.

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Stephen Shankland
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Rising sun backlights some cactus and grass.

A sunrise in New Mexico.

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It should have been such a great moment: the entire US Senate showing bipartisan support for an issue that affects all Americans. Instead, the March 15 vote to set US clocks on permanent daylight saving time got me worried that my family will enter a new dark age in 2023.

The bill, introduced by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and co-sponsored by 18 others from both sides of the aisle, is called the Sunshine Protection Act. That name is nonsense, of course; no legislation can change how long the sun is up each day. It would change how we experience that daylight, and that's what I don't like, especially when it's scarce in winter. 

In that darker season, the bill would force kids to wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast and get to school long before the sun has risen. There are also health and safety concerns, and no clear majority of citizens is enthusiastic about permanent daylight saving time.

The idea behind permanent daylight saving time is to free us of the disruption of twice-annual clock changes and, crucially, to pick DST's spring-forward mode as the year-round replacement. Extending daylight hours in the evening means that people will be inclined to stay out later, whether to spend more time outdoors or spend more money on restaurants, shopping and entertainment, proponents argue. 

In advocating for the bill, Rubio extolled the virtues of kids playing outside instead of vegging out in front of a screen. "You want the ability to spend more time in the evenings outdoors," Rubio said in a hearing about the bill. Added Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, "Getting that extra hour of sunshine into people's lives is essential," arguing it makes people happier, cuts traffic accidents and increases economic activity.

Of course, there is no "extra hour of sunshine" in the day. Some of us might experience more sunlight -- in particular, those people who can roll out of bed at 9 a.m. and stay out late -- but morning joggers and parents will know exactly where that "extra hour" comes from.

If you want to see the effect that permanent daylight saving time would have on sunrise times county by county in the US, check The Washington Post's detailed map. Andy Woodruff also published an interactive tool that shows full-year statistics on sunrises and sunsets.

In western parts of some time zones, wintertime sunrises on permanent daylight saving time would be after 9:30 a.m. In Seattle, where my co-worker Laura Hautala and fellow perma-DST opponent lives, it will be as late as 9 a.m. 

Objections to permanent daylight saving time

More daylight saving time objections come from health experts, many of them already concerned about how poorly suited early-morning school is to students' natural sleep cycles. A 2019 study concluded an "extra hour of natural light in the evening reduces sleep duration by an average of 19 minutes." Sleep deprivation increases medical problems like cardiovascular disease, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine: "Daylight saving time is less aligned with human circadian biology."

"Research shows that the hour of morning light we miss out on under DST is unhealthy for your body and mind," Horacio de la Iglesia, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, told the Seattle Times.

One of the original reasons for daylight saving time, to save energy, is marginal at best. Research in 2017 examining 44 studies found overall electricity savings of 0.34%.

The US moved to permanent daylight saving time with a 1973 law designed to save energy but dumped the effort less than a year later in 1974 as public opinion on the idea soured.

Indeed, the American public itself is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a permanent daylight saving time. US residents show no love for changing the clocks twice a year, but 43% would prefer permanent standard time to the 32% who want permanent daylight saving time, according to a 2021 Associated Press-NORC poll.

One partial fix for the problems of permanent DST would be to start schools later. Parents and day care might need to shift accordingly, though, and eventually we'd be right back where we started, with kids not having time for games in the afternoon and commuters driving back in the dark.

Randall Munroe's XKCD comic about "Consensus Time" makes light of this idea, suggesting we set our clocks according to the overall population's belief of when 9 a.m. happens to be. But there's a kernel of wisdom to the idea.

"DST is simply a work-time arrangement, nothing more than a decision to go to school/work an hour earlier," researchers from the University of Munich and Harvard Medical School put it in 2019 paper arguing against permanent DST. "Anyone who wants to spend more time at home in daylight after work should convince his/her company and co-workers to advance their start time during certain months of the year or even better: introduce flexibility for individual workers."

Thin political support for daylight saving

The swift, decisive Senate vote surprised and worried me. It signaled broad support for a policy I despised.

But it turns out the vote wasn't as unanimous as it initially appeared. The Senate's rules allow a bill to pass with "unanimous consent" if no senator objects, and none did apparently, because some senators didn't even know about the bill.

And bills don't become law until the House of Representative also passes a bill, the two houses of Congress resolve any differences in conference committee meetings and the president signs the bill. So far, the House looks more cautious, with some representatives showing a desire to actually debate the DST issue, and the White House hasn't displayed any great enthusiasm.

In other words, it doesn't look like the rest of the US government will act as rapidly as the Senate. Good.

A new cultural divide?

We have plenty of cultural divides these days beyond just the gulf between Democrats and Republicans. iPhone versus Android, New York Yankees versus Boston Red Sox, Ford versus Chevy, gaming PCs versus consoles. The Senate's unanimous passage of the permanent daylight saving time may have bipartisan support, but it glossed over another split: daylight savers versus standard timers like me.

Plenty of people do like DST, and they're not necessarily unhinged or irrational. One Seattle resident I spoke with finds winter days dark and overcast regardless but hates being awakened by bright sun early in summer mornings. Another shares my displeasure at getting kids to school in the dark.

I hate to say it, but I don't see any easy solution. I loathe changing the clocks, but I'd rather have a few months of standard time a year than none.