Changing Clocks Is Annoying. The Alternatives Are Too.

The Senate is proposing to make daylight saving time permanent. Is that the best option?

An illustration of a circle, filled in with alternating images of the sun, the moon, and a clock
Getty; The Atlantic

Last week, like most Americans, the country’s senators stumbled into Monday morning after a jarring weekend transition to daylight saving time, or DST. But unlike most Americans, they could do something about it. On Tuesday, they passed a bill that would make DST permanent—as in, no more clock changes—starting late next year.

In fact, the timing of the bill was deliberate: Switching to permanent DST has gained support in state legislatures in recent years, and the bipartisan group backing the Senate bill wanted to capitalize on Americans’ fresh frustration about the time change. “If we can get this passed, we don’t have to do this stupidity anymore,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a sponsor of the bill. Its fate is uncertain—President Joe Biden hasn’t taken a stance on it, and the issue may be less salient if and when the House addresses it, which could end up being weeks or months from now.

Although Rubio’s framing is savvy in the sense that changing clocks is unpopular, it’s not clear that scrapping the current system would be better for society on the whole. No arrangement would make everyone happy, but of the three available options—our current system, permanent DST, or permanent standard time—the Senate is proposing what seems to be the worst one.

Standard time is actually a misnomer because America is now on it for less than half the year, from early November to mid-March; DST, which originated as a temporary energy-saving measure in World War I, is today in effect for nearly eight months, except in Hawaii and most of Arizona, which have opted out. Making DST year-round would yield later sunsets in autumn and winter, and during a bleak stretch of dark mornings, sunrise wouldn’t come until 8:15 a.m. or later in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, or until 9 a.m. or later in other parts of the country. Switching to year-round standard time produces the opposite effect: On the longest day of the year, for instance, the sun would rise in New York City preposterously early, a little before 4:30 a.m., and set around 7:30 p.m. instead of 8:30 p.m.

People differ on which of these they find more appealing: Some favor brighter summer evenings, while others would happily trade them for brighter winter mornings. This is a rare political issue on which people’s views aren’t predicted solely by their party affiliation but rather by a chaotic stew of geography, taste, and life circumstances. People prone to seasonal depression, late risers, parents of schoolchildren, and people who time prayers around sunrise all come at this question from different places.

Polls clearly indicate that Americans want to stop changing clocks twice a year, but they are less clear on the question of which time system to go with year-round. A bit of history should clear up any uncertainty, though. In 1974, the U.S. temporarily switched to year-round DST in an attempt to save fuel during an energy crisis. Americans supported the plan before it was in place but immediately soured on it after the first winter. “They didn’t like getting up in the dark, going to work in the dark, and sending their kids to school in the dark,” David Prerau, the author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, told me. “We’ve tried it. It’s not [something] we have to guess about.” Congress repealed the measure later that year, so if the U.S. is trying to pick a more popular time system, the Senate’s choice to repeat history with permanent DST is a questionable one.

Unfortunately, there’s no elegant way to please both those who care most about having bright summer nights and those who care most about avoiding dark winter mornings. So if a good compromise leaves everyone a little unhappy, what we do now might be the fairest solution. As much as people love to gripe about it, changing clocks twice a year does give us the advantages of both systems: We get later sunsets most of the year, without the misery of super-late sunrises in the winter.

Of course, more is at stake here than just personal preferences—time is a matter of policy, with implications like any other piece of legislation. Changing the clocks has real downsides; “springing forward” in particular tends to cause brief upticks in the number of workplace injuries, fatal car crashes, heart attacks, and strokes, likely because of the disruption to people's sleep. Those in favor of permanent DST predict that it would lead to less crime and increased consumer spending; those in favor of permanent standard time predict that it would lead to reduced gasoline consumption and better sleep.

Each system of timekeeping produces winners and losers. Many industries have favored DST because they stand to gain when people have more daylight after work to do stuff. Before Congress extended DST by three weeks starting in 1987, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, the golf industry, and makers of barbecue equipment lobbied for the change. The National Association of Convenience Stores has claimed some credit for that expansion, which the trade group’s former chair once estimated eventually translated to tens of billions of dollars in additional revenues.

“This is a case where you have vested interests who care deeply about an issue,” Jeffery Jenkins, a provost professor of public policy, political science, and law at the University of Southern California, told me. Everyday people may have a preference, he said, but “are those voters going to reward members of Congress based upon their [stance] versus businesses that have a lot of money wrapped up in which one of these things is chosen?”

At the same time, for the 100-plus years that the U.S. has been arguing over DST, Hollywood, Broadway, and the TV industry have periodically grumbled about it because evening sunlight diverts people away from their business. (Farmers are often blamed as the reason we have DST, but in fact, they have historically opposed it.)

The fates of corporate earnings seem trivial, though, when compared with the effects that time systems have on people’s sleep and health. Kin Yuen, a sleep doctor and a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told me that a one-hour jump forward in time, without a corresponding change in environment that might come with crossing a time zone, can throw off our internal clock, which regulates our alertness, appetite, and other basic functioning. “We used to think it would take a week or so to adapt to that one-hour change,” she said, but for some people, the effects can persist for months. (The autumn jump back in time, however, isn’t as much of a concern for sleep.)

What’s more, the late sunrises and late sunsets of DST make it harder to wake up and harder to fall asleep; sleep deprivation and having an off-kilter internal clock are associated with a range of bad health outcomes.

Standard time would clearly be best for people’s sleep, but trying to determine which time system is best overall gets messy. Time touches every aspect of life, which makes tabulating costs and benefits a dizzying exercise. (In Australia, for example, researchers have estimated that implementing DST in one area that doesn’t use it would mean at least 8 percent fewer koalas struck by cars. Should Australians sacrifice their sleep to protect the koalas?) The magnitude of each trade-off is difficult to quantify and may, in some cases, be marginal. Consider DST’s effect on energy consumption. DST was instituted during World War I, World War II, and in 1974 in order to conserve energy, yet subsequent research has found little in the way of savings. The late author Michael Downing, who wrote Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, once called DST “a cynical substitute for real energy policy.” He told The New York Times in 2016, “It’s the ideal energy policy because it has no apparent direct cost to consumers, and it asks no one to consume less.”

If we truly wanted to reduce energy consumption, we could make policies that actually reduce energy consumption. The same goes for the other domains that timekeeping affects, including crime and car crashes. This even applies to sleep—if we really wanted to help Americans sleep better, maybe we could pass legislation that makes hourly workers’ schedules more predictable and that gives more parents access to affordable child care.

The future of the year-round DST bill will be in part determined by Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the chair of the House committee that manages policies on time changes. Pallone has said that before the legislation moves forward, he would like to see an audit of how changing clocks affects productivity, energy usage, and so on. Knowing those effects will be useful. Tinkering with the clocks is, of course, not going to fix society’s biggest problems, but personally, I’d side with the sleep doctors over the convenience-store operators.