Daylight Saving Time 101: What Is It, Why Do We Do It?

On November 6, 2022, at 2:00 a.m., most of the U.S., Canada, and Europe will take part in a decades-old ritual of turning back the clocks one hour. This autumnal “falling back” as it’s called, marks the end of Daylight Saving Time (DST), which begins each year in March with a collective “springing” ahead of the clocks. For some, this seasonal custom is celebrated as a chance to reclaim the precious sleep lost when Spring sped into Summer; others lament the smothering darkness that prematurely cloaks our afternoons in evening shade. But I simply want to know, what’s the point? 

First, some background. As Shakespeare so eloquently once said, “What’s in a name?” A lot, I discovered upon Googling. Even my computer attempted to autocorrect “Daylight Savings Time.” It turns out this is both a common mispronunciation and a grammatical error; the word “saving” in DST is used as a participle rather than a possessive, as in the act of “saving time.” 

Standing corrected, I went on to learn the origin of this time saving concept, debunking a few myths along the way. While Ben Franklin has been credited for the idea – in 1784 he suggested Parisians wake up earlier to save money on lamp oil and candles — the agricultural industry has also been blamed or praised, depending upon your point of view. Not true. In fact, our nation’s farmers are not fans of the idea. On the contrary, they see Daylight Saving as disruptive to farm work citing dairy cows as a prime example. These gentle creatures with their own built-in timeclocks have little regard for the dictates of DST. Rather, they call the shots by demanding to be milked at the same hour each day. 

Ultimately, history tells us that Daylight Saving Time was first enacted in Europe during WWI when Germany and Austria advanced their clocks one hour to conserve fuel — think of Franklin’s theory, “early to bed and early to rise,” to lessen energy consumption — and the U.S. soon followed suit. Then, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act to establish uniform dates for a nationwide observation of Daylight Saving Time. Today, the only exceptions to that rule are Hawaii and Arizona (excluding the Navajo Nation), along with the U.S. overseas territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.

But why do these changes always occur at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday? For that, we must go back to WWI and 1918 when the U.S. first introduced DST, and when the national railroad system was the backbone of transportation in our country. Understanding the critical need to avoid disrupting to the railways, the powers that be did their homework, discovering that no trains ever left the major hub station of New York City at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday. So, Daylight Saving Time was set at 2:00 a.m., on Sunday, to minimize its impact on the limited train travel that was operating nationally at that time. 

Conserving energy during wartime makes sense, but does Daylight Saving still serve us today? The question has launched a long-running debate that continues even now. When DST was introduced more than a century ago, the extended day meant less use of artificial light, equaling a savings of energy. But today’s households and businesses, filled with computers, televisions, and air conditioning systems, are sucking up energy day and night. Even science isn’t sure of the pros and cons. Studies on the impacts of DST on human health are mixed. American and Swedish researchers found that the risk of heart attacks increased nearly 25% on the Monday after we spring forward. The same researchers though, also found that the risk dropped by 21% when the clocks fall back. And proponents of DST argue there are more upsides to the sun setting an hour later as well. With longer days, people are less sedentary, more motivated to be active, get off the couch and get healthy. The extended day also means more time to travel, run errands, or socialize during daylight hours when the road ahead is easier to see, and the number of traffic injuries are reduced.  

So, there you have it, the story of Daylight Saving Time. Are you for it or against it? Personally, I don’t enjoy losing an hour when we spring ahead, but I do love the long, lazy days of summer. I don’t like it when darkness falls at 4 p.m., but I do love getting an extra hour of sleep when the clocks are turned back. It’s a conundrum, for sure, unless you heed the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s advice to use the start of Daylight Saving Time as a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.  Maybe that’s the point. What do you think?

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