Daylight Saving Time Is Terrible: Here's a Simple Plan to Fix It

Losing another hour of evening daylight isn't just annoying. It's an economically harmful policy with minimal energy savings.
Quartz

Daylight saving time ends Nov. 3, setting  off an annual ritual where Americans (who don’t live in Arizona or Hawaii) and residents of 78 other countries including Canada (but not Saskatchewan), most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand turn their clocks back one hour. It’s a controversial practice that became popular in the 1970s with the intent of conserving energy. The fall time change feels particularly hard because we lose another hour of evening daylight, just as the days grow shorter. It also creates confusion because countries that observe daylight saving change their clocks on different days.

It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether. The actual energy savings are minimal, if they exist at all. Frequent and uncoordinated time changes cause confusion, undermining economic efficiency. There’s evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles, associated with daylight saving, lowers productivity and increases heart attacks. Being out of sync with European time changes was projected to cost the airline industry $147 million a year in travel disruptions. But I propose we not only end Daylight Saving, but also take it one step further.

This year, Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again—no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States. The east and west coasts will only be one hour apart. Anyone who lives on one coast and does business with the other can imagine the uncountable benefits of living in a two-time-zone nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

It sounds radical, but it really isn’t. The purpose of uniform time measures is coordination. How we measure time has always evolved with the needs of commerce. According to Time and Date, a Norwegian Newsletter dedicated to time zone information, America started using four time zones in 1883. Before that, each city had its own time standard based on its calculation of apparent solar time (when the sun is directly over-head at noon) using sundials. That led to more than 300 different American time zones. This made operations very difficult for the telegraph and burgeoning railroad industry. Railroads operated with 100 different time zones before America moved to four, which was consistent with Britain’s push for a global time standard. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference, it was decided that the entire world could coordinate time keeping based on the British Prime Meridian (except for France, which claimed the Prime Median ran through Paris until 1911). There are now 24 (or 25, depending on your existential view of the international date line) time zones, each taking about 15 degrees of longitude.

Now the world has evolved further—we are even more integrated and mobile, suggesting we’d benefit from fewer, more stable time zones. Why stick with a system designed for commerce in 1883? In reality, America already functions on fewer than four time zones. I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time. I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8 am instead of 9 am, restaurants were packed at 6 pm instead of 7 pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier. But for the last three years I lived in a state of constant confusion, I rarely knew the time and was perpetually an hour late or early. And for what purpose? If everyone functions an hour earlier anyway, in part to coordinate with other parts of the country, the different time zones lose meaning and are reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience. Research based on time use surveys found American’s schedules are determined by television more than daylight.  That suggests in effect, Americans already live on two time zones.

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Allison Schrager is an economist who focuses on pension issues.

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