The Horror of Standard Time
The prospect of changing our clocks tomorrow night impels me to pull this column out of the archives; it's from 1999, but the central evil of time-switching holds true today:
Washington, city of cynics, isle of inertia. We thrill to gridlock. Stasis is our comfort. And yet even here, we offer a home to champions of lost causes. We let them live in Lafayette Square, watch them wave signs on the Mall. We cheer them on when they lanch their third parties and march on the Lincoln Memorial. We admire our Mr. Smiths for their gumption. We are jealous of their idealism.
Now it's your turn. This is the hour to join a cause whose time has come. It comes next weekend, in fact. The clocks in your house will be a mess. Some will flash the old time, some will convert to the new. You will have to rummage through the closet for instruction manuals so you can turn back the clock on the oven or in the stereo or -- heaven forfend! -- inside the VCR.
Spring forward, fall back! Your second-grade teacher taught you the phrase, but to this day, you can't keep it straight. All you know is that until now, you've had an evening -- a time after work when you could take a walk, play ball, hear the kids outside, see the light. And now you won't. Now, it'll be dark when you leave the office, dark when you get home, dark, dark, dark. Dark until spring.
You are sinking into the dark cave of winter. The hell of holiday shopping. The cold creeping in. Dark.
There is nothing remotely natural about this. It's a legal fiction. This is one case where the conspiracy theorists are dead on: The government does this to us. It steals an hour of light, and doesn't give it back until April. This is called Standard Time, but it is nothing more than a welfare program for farmers and people who foolishly live on the western edge of a time zone.
You know you love Daylight Savings Time. You know it should be year-round. The evenings stretch on forever. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The tilt of the Earth does have something to do with this. Washington gets about 15 hours of daylight in June and less than 10 hours in January. The question is where to put that light -- in the afternoon, when most people can enjoy it, or early in the morning, when most people are asleep or doing something useless, like commuting.
In Washington, under the current system, on an average January day, sunrise is at 7:23 a.m. and sunset comes at 5:11 p.m. Switch to all-year Daylight Time and you'd be back to a 6:11 sunset. By the end of February, daylight would last till 7 p.m.
Luckily, Daylight Time supporters, you have a friend, an advocate. He is -- do not despair! -- a lobbyist, a Washington suit who takes big money from fat cats to distort democracy. But this time, he is on your side. James Benfield's goal is modest -- he'd like to add a week or so to both ends of Daylight Time. He's not looking to make this his life's work, but he's all we have right now.
In 1986, Benfield [who has since passed on] successfully campaigned to start summer time a week earlier, at the beginning of April. It wasn't easy. The farmers fought him. The poor babies didn't want to wake up in the dark. Too bad -- if they don't like it, there are plenty of machines that can do the work for them. Christian fundamentalists fought him. They didn't want anyone mucking with God's time. Flash: God didn't invent time, man did.
But the bulk of the opposition was purely geographical. This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. Folks who live near the western side of each time zone feared winter sunrises at 9 a.m. (In Congress, Benfield could map his support by longitude. New Englanders loved the promise of longer evenings, Ohioans loathed dark mornings, and so on across the land.) The solution here is simple: Move the time zone boundaries. This is hardly radical -- they've been moved dozens of times since time-switching became law in 1918.
Yes, filthy lucre fueled Benfield's campaign. The barbecue industry lusted after more evening light in which customers could fire up the grill. Beef sales soar immediately after Daylight Time begins each spring, so the meat and fast-food lobbies jumped on board.
Even so, it took years for Benfield to make just a one-week dent in the tyranny of the Uniform Time Act. Parents fretted that children would have to go to school in the dark of a winter morning. In fact, afternoon daylight might save lives -- the p.m. rush hour is longer, with more kids playing unsupervised and higher blood alcohol levels among commuters. Add sunlight and there would be fewer accidents -- so says a federal study.
These days, Benfield is off fighting for other causes -- a new dollar coin (the coin industry is behind that one) and energy assistance for the poor. Daylight time is "kind of a hobby lobby," he says. "I've got better things to do than tilt at windmills. But I will strike again."
But why wait for a lobbyist? Start now. Fight the darkness. Give the folks on the Hill something useful to do for a change. Demand the light.
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