Economist proposes no Daylight time, two U.S. time zones

Those of us in most states in the U.S. just turned our clocks back one hour to Standard Time. And we should keep them there, according to Allison Schrager, a New York-based economist and writer.

The end of daylight saving time sets 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,” she writes in a November 1 article in The Atlantic.

The practice of switching between Standard and Daylight time, she says, causes confusion because different countries make the switch on different days. She references a 2005 estimate that a proposal to extend Daylight Time in the U.S. by three weeks (making the switch out of sync with Europe), which has since been enacted effective 2007, would cost U.S. airline industry $147 million and disrupt overseas travel.

Energy savings related to Daylight Time are minimal to nonexistent, she writes, referencing a California Energy Commission May 2007 staff report that notes, “The extension of Daylight Saving Time (DST) to March 2007 had little or no effect on energy consumption in California, according to a statistical analysis.” Over the 3-week DST extension, the report notes, “Formally, weather- and lighting-corrected savings from DST were estimated at 0.18% with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 1.5% savings to a 1.4% increase.”

Schrager adds, “The fall time change feels particularly hard because we lose another hour of evening daylight, just as the days grow shorter.” Finally, she says, concluding her case against Daylight Time, “There’s evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles, associated with daylight saving lowers productivity and increases heart attacks.”

Her recommendation? “It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether.”

But she's not done—she proposes dividing the continental U.S. into just two time zones. She writes, “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).”

She says this proposal isn't as radical as it seems, noting that a four-time-zone approach in the U.S. dates back only to 1883. Before that individual cities had established more than 300 different time zones, making operations difficult for the telegraph and especially the railroad industries.

Why, she asks, should we continue to employ a system designed to facilitate commerce in 1883? She says that effectively we already work on the basis of fewer than four U.S. time zones. “I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time,” she writes. “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.”

She also notes, “Frequent travel between the coasts causes jet lag, robbing employees of productive work time. With a one-hour time difference, bi-costal travel would become almost effortless.”

Schrager's ideas are interesting, and the extension of time zones beyond their natural spans is not unprecedented. Most of Alaska, which naturally spans four time zones, mostly operates on a single time zone. And China, which geographically spans five time zones, has only had a single standard since 1949.

However, I don't think either proposal—eliminating Daylight Time and establishing just two continental U.S. time zones—is politically feasible. I think people would resist significant deviations between legal time and solar time.

I for one would resist the elimination of Daylight Time, perhaps because I live near the eastern end of my time zone and already experience the fewest hours of evening sunlight. If anything, I would prefer having Daylight Time year round, which would run counter to Schrager's efforts to establish two time zones. (In fact, I'd prefer that Massachusetts secede from the Eastern Time zone and join the Atlantic Time zone.)

It might be nice to fly to California without jetlag, but is that really anything more than an annoyance for most people? And let's face it, a lot of people never fly between east and west coasts, and it's hard to imagine a lot of political support to benefit a few frequent flyers.

I'm also dubious about the economic claims. I've never seen an accounting of the millions of dollars U.S. airlines said they would need to spend to accommodate schedules with Europe after Daylight Time's expansion in the U.S. in 2007. Undoubtedly there were some one-time programming costs and some inconvenienced or confused tans-Atlantic travelers, but imagine the costs of attempting to implement Schrager's no-Daylight-Time, two-time-zone concept.

As for convenience, we have a few mechanical or electromechanical clocks around the house that need to be manually adjusted twice a year, and that is a minor nuisance. Computers and cellphones update themselves; programmers needn't get involved unless politicians change the rules.

As for coordinating meetings with people in other regions, computers do an excellent job of keeping track of time zones.

Schrager's ideas are interesting ones whose time will never come.

Update, 11/4: Brian Handwerk of National Geographic has more here on Daylight Savings Time. He notes that DST may reduce electricity demand for illumination, but it increases air-conditioner and vehicle use.

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