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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.

By Marc Fisher |  October 27, 2006; 10:22 AM ET
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Comments

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Marc, the rule has already been changed. New rules extending the DST period go into effect in 2007.

Posted by: Louis Wilen | October 27, 2006 11:29 AM

The switch provides the two times a year when I actually coordinate all of the clocks / watches in the house. By the time of the next switch, they've managed to creep to a 10 minute spread, some fast & some slow.

Also, the changes are pure proof of Murphy's law. In the Fall, when we "gain" an hour worth of sleep, I never have anything to do on Sunday morning. In the Spring, when we "lose" the sleep, I always need to be someplace at 8AM.

Posted by: Catcher50 | October 27, 2006 11:35 AM

I really don't care which they pick, but I wish they would just pick one time and stay with it ALL YEAR LONG. The time change is just a mess and pain.

Posted by: Single and denied | October 27, 2006 11:41 AM

But this year the extra hour of sleep falls the night of all the big Halloween parties, so I am grateful for it!

Posted by: ML | October 27, 2006 11:47 AM

Yeah, next year I think we "spring forward" in mid-March and "fall back" in mid-November. Aside from that being even more confusing than going from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October, that means we'll be on Standard Time for about 4 months out of 12. How is that "standard"?

Posted by: Cosmo | October 27, 2006 11:54 AM

Catcher 50: Also, the changes are pure proof of Murphy's law. In the Fall, when we "gain" an hour worth of sleep, I never have anything to do on Sunday morning. In the Spring, when we "lose" the sleep, I always need to be someplace at 8AM.

I have not heard a better description of DST than what you said right there!

If you look at the time zones strictly by longitude, everything east of the Delaware River, including New York (city) and Boston, should be on Atlantic time, not Eastern. Imagine the conspiracy theorists now, talking about the Northeastern liberals wanting to prove that they are better than the rest of the country by having their own time zone. :)


Posted by: Joe in SS | October 27, 2006 12:03 PM

A bunch of clock manufacturers are going to have to deal with some angry customers. For several years, clocks have been available that automtically adjust to DST and back again. (I am not talking about clocks that actually receive the time signal from NIST, as they should adjust okay.) These clocks simply look at the date and determine when to change to DST and back to ST. Will the clock manafacturers offer a swapout?

Posted by: Louis Wilen | October 27, 2006 12:11 PM

Back in the 1950's and 60's, when I was a child in Connecticut and Daylight Savings was not standard between (or sometimes within) states, without Daylight Savings it was still light at my bedtime, sometimes as late as "after nine." That made it difficult to get to sleep. Daylight Savings made it easier for me to get to sleep, and therefore easier to get up in the morning.

Connecticut switched over later in the spring and earlier in the fall than what became "standard" later because I remember when it went from the middle of October to "Halloween"; it was 1964.

Massachusetts went to EDT a week after Connecticut. That made it possible to fly from Hartford to Springfield and land before you took off. (My father was a private pilot.)

Driving through Indiana was interesting; you didn't know what time it was in a town until you saw the town hall clock. Once, when I was in grade school, we stopped for breakfast at a diner and found out that it was not open yet because it was too soon.

Posted by: Historian | October 27, 2006 12:13 PM

Yeah, we don't muck around this this funny business. We are on daylight savings 365.25 days a year.

Posted by: Arizona | October 27, 2006 12:41 PM

whoops...I meant to say we are on standard time year-round. Regardless, we don't change. Unless you are in the navajo nations up around four corners.

Posted by: Arizona | October 27, 2006 12:44 PM

I am living for the time change. An extra hour of sleep - hooray! It might just be psychological, but I swear I spend all summer catching up from "springing forward," and I only feel normal once we "fall back." Ah, blessed sleep.

Posted by: logan | October 27, 2006 12:57 PM

When you wrote "In 1986, Benfield [who has since passed on]..." I thought, oh how sad. Then later in your blog I saw that Benfield has not died--he moved on to other pursuits. Whew! :) I love the later daylight hours of DST and would be very happy if it became "standard" instead of the way it is now. Ah well. At least I'll get that lovely extra hour of sleep this weekend. I love that!

Posted by: Maryland | October 27, 2006 1:00 PM

It will be interesting next year to see if computers, VCRs, DVRs, etc. that automatically change the time now will adjust to the new dates. I think most of them will, at least if you're connected to cable... otherwise it could be the Y2K scenario all over again...

Posted by: Cosmo | October 27, 2006 1:40 PM

You could always just pretend it's DST year-round: get up one hour earlier, show up for work at 8 and leave at 4, and go to bed one hour earlier...

...IF you have flexible work hours, your bedtime isn't determined by a TV show, either you have no friends or you can get your friends to do it too, and probably a few more conditions.

Still, it might be worth trying for a week.

Posted by: ben | October 27, 2006 2:03 PM

The "fall back" command starts that dreadful winter gloom and doom feeling that is only removed with that first blinding, gridlock producing, City stopping, government offical confounding - SNOW. Once the "schools are closed in..." announcements start, things become right with the world again.

Posted by: MpCoDC | October 27, 2006 2:25 PM

I have always believed this was a Communist (now Terrorist) plot. I note that I went out to Viet Nam shortly after we "lost" an hour and returned (fortunately) soon after we gained an hour back, so the US Government STILL OWES ME ONE HOUR!!!

Posted by: steve | October 27, 2006 2:33 PM

Sorry for any confusion--James Benfield died in 2002. His fight to extend Daylight Savings Time resulted in an expansion of Summer Time in 1987 and now again this year. But the fight will not end until Standard Time is totally eliminated.

Posted by: Fisher | October 27, 2006 2:51 PM

Marc,

Not to be overly pedantic but, by definition, you can't eliminate "standard" time.

Join me in referring to it by its correct name, "daylight losing time." Everyone would be in favor of eliminating that.

Posted by: KK | October 27, 2006 3:08 PM

Once it might have made sense to add an hour of daylight in the evening and not have people turn on electric lights so early. But the new energy users in the home come on in the early morning too - stoves, televisions and even lights. It makes no economic sense to get up in darkeness. It does harm those children in the wrong parts of the time zones who go to schol in the dark.

Stop it now.

Posted by: Gary Masters | October 27, 2006 3:37 PM

Ah, an extra hour of sleep! I'll take it!...right after I turn the clock back in my VCR. That's right, I said VCR! And if anyone is worried about "losing" that hour, just roll out of bed an hour early and go to bed an hour early. God knows, you won't miss anything on tv because tv pretty much sucks anymore!

Posted by: WB | October 27, 2006 7:51 PM

It isn't so much farmers--the bankers and other who wanted afternoon walk-in biz convinced the farmers to go along with it. I grew up on a farm--the cows can adjust fine. But that said, I agree with MF--the switch is unnecessary.

Posted by: C.S. | October 30, 2006 9:23 AM

You're right! I'm on board! I'm all fired up, I'm excited about the cause, and I'm ready to write some letters to my repres... oh, wait. I don't have any.

Posted by: WDC | October 30, 2006 10:47 AM

Marc - great column!

I lived in Japan for two years, where they're on standard time year round. And it's just awful - in summer it gets dark relatively early, and the sun rises at like 4 a.m. Daylight at 4 a.m. is no use to me. Daylight at 9 p.m.? Much more pleasant. So, sign me up! Daylight time year-round!

Posted by: h3 | October 30, 2006 1:58 PM

Yea, let's have government mess around with the planet we were given. Let's have the government tell us when it should be light and when it should be dark, and when we should go to work and when we should stay home, because, after all, Government knows best how to run our lives.

Posted by: Bob | October 30, 2006 2:04 PM

Marc - good column. I'd love to hear more about Benfield's relationship to the cattle and BBQ industry and their backing of the daylight savings switch. Curious how and why things end up as they do isn't it?

Posted by: Chris | October 31, 2006 10:28 AM

How's this for a solution: stop mucking with the millions and millions of clocks twice a year, and just keep the same system all year round. Why do we have one day with 25 hours and another with 23? If you prefer daylight in the morning or evening... just change your schedule!

There's a great criticism of DST at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time#Criticism_of_DST

Posted by: Michael | November 1, 2006 10:39 AM

A very interesting blog -- can someone please explain all this in two sentences or more? Have I missed something? Is DST time change changing dates? Is it being eliminated? Is it staying? I'm very confused -- I must be lacking sleep....

Posted by: CJ | November 2, 2006 9:07 AM

For most of us professionals in DC, it doesn't matter whether the sun sets at 6:00 or 5:00, it's still dark when we leave. However, it does make a huge difference in the morning. I can't stand to wake up in the dark, but that's what I'm stuck with for the three weeks before the return of EST. True I could sleep in later, but then I'd be stuck in rush hour, making it worse for me and others. A full year DST would put sunrise at 8:30 in the winter. That would make a lot of people sleep-in and worsen rush hour even more than it is already.

Posted by: Reid | November 2, 2006 3:55 PM

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