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Spring Forward, Fall Back, Or Neither: Why Changing Our Clocks Might Fade Into History

Photo morning commuters drive into downtown Los Angeles as the sun rises alon...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Photo morning commuters drive into downtown Los Angeles as the sun rises along Interstate 5, Aug. 31, 2018, 2018.

On November 6, Californians will weigh in on whether they want to continue changing their clocks twice a year. Proposition 7 on the statewide ballot would lay the groundwork for year-round Daylight Saving Time in the state.

Lots of people hate switching between Standard and Daylight time, especially in March when we "spring forward" and lose an hour of sleep. Studies show this chronological hiccup is linked to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and traffic accidents. This is due to the disruption in our daily biological cycles, known as circadian rhythms.

And in case you're wondering, the clock switch no longer means significant energy savings and has no real benefit for farmers.

Yet the measure does have its detractors. Some state politicians and editorial writers point to the last time the U.S. had year-round DST: in 1974 during the OPEC oil embargo – and people hated it.

"Public opinion polls showed that everybody liked Daylight Saving Time from March to October," notes David Prerau, author of "Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, "but nobody liked it in the middle of winter."

President Nixon had ordered the measure for two years. But it meant the winter mornings were dark and cold – especially in the northern latitudes. There were some reports of increased accidents in the morning, as kids traveled to school in the dark.

Getting on the Ballot

Pedestrian safety is always a high concern, said Assemblyman Kansen Chu, but Prop 7 is a totally separate issue.

Chu is a Democrat representing the South and East Bay and sponsor of the measure. Chu became interested in the issue after his dentist showed him medical studies linking a lost hour of sleep in the spring, to increased heart attacks, stroke and traffic accidents.

A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found a 17 percent increase in traffic accidents on the Monday following the springtime switch.

To find out why this might be, I visited the Kriegsfeld Lab at UC Berkeley, where scientists study circadian rhythms. Post-doctoral researcher Benjamin Smarr tells me that every part of our body runs on a daily cycle.

"Pretty much anything you can name," he said. "So because we have circadian clocks in every cell in our body, every organ in our body is made up of cells trying to keep time."

When we throw our timing out of whack, from missing sleep, doing shift work or being jet lagged, it misaligns systems like our attention and perception, digestion, emotions, blood pressure and more.

"One thing falling apart looks scary," notes Smarr, "when you realize that all these other things around it have also fallen apart and that they're also sort of fighting with each other for saying, 'It's time to sleep,' 'No, it's time to digest,' 'No, it's time to be active'. It makes sense that jet lag feels bad, makes us [feel] sick."

The practice of switching back and forth between Standard and Daylight Time has been under fire for a while, each spring the internet bubbles over with segments and articles such as:

– Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Daylight Saving Time - How Is This Still A Thing?

– Bustle.com: 7 Legitimately Scary Facts About Daylight Saving Time, Which Just So Happens To Fall On Halloween This Year

– The Boston Globe: Proof Daylight Saving Time Is Dumb, Dangerous, and Costly

How did we get here in the first place?

The History of Daylight Saving Time, Abridged

The idea dates back centuries, at least to 1784 when Benjamin Franklin was the American ambassador to France. He was in the habit of staying up late to write by candlelight and then sleeping until noon. In a satirical essay written for the "Journal de Paris" he describes waking one morning, due to a loud noise, at 6 a.m. and being shocked to see the sun was already up.

Your readers, who with me have never seen any sign of sunshine before noon, [...], will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. [...] This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations.

Franklin even estimated Parisians could save 64 million pounds of candle wax a year by getting up with the sun. This is the essence of Daylight Saving Time in a nutshell: making the best use of the hours of sunlight.

The idea was kicked around again in the late 19th century, notably by a New Zealand entomologist who wanted more daylight in the evening for bug collecting, and British businessmen and politicians. But the first country to do anything about it was Germany during World War I, to save energy for the war effort. By shifting the clocks so that sunlight lasted later into the evening, people did not need to use electric lights as much. Most countries involved in the war then followed suit. The U.S. adopted it in 1918.

After the war it was repealed and local areas could decide for themselves whether to keep it. Then came World War II.

"Within a month of Pearl Harbor, we put in Daylight Saving Time again," said Prerau. "And when WWII ended it became voluntary and several parts of the country had it and several parts didn't.

Unwinding History

California voters chose, by Proposition, to enact Daylight Saving Time in 1949 -- that’s why it has to go before voters again if the current system is going to change. It wouldn't change automatically, however. Proposition 7 would just be the first of a three-step process. If it passes, the state legislature and Congress also would need to give the OK.

One reason this time-switching scheme is falling out of favor: the energy savings are not what they used to be. Most recent studies show the effects of DST offer a one-half to 1.5 percent saving, or sometimes a loss.

"To my eye these are basically a wash," said Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at UC Berkeley. "They're not an argument for or against Daylight Savings Time."

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