(This ran in the Monitor on Thursday. Also on Thursday, Buzzfeed News ran a piece (here) saying the Senate vote was sort of a mistake, snuck through under an obscure thing called unanimous consent. So dropping Daylight Saving Time may not be as near as we thought.)
The surprise decision by the U.S. Senate to put the nation on year-round Daylight Saving Time, the latest salvo in a century-long debate over how to align our clocks with the sun, may bring an end to one of the quirkier legislative efforts in recent times: The push to sync New England with Nova Scotia rather than with New York.
Three times in recent years, New Hampshire state lawmakers have put forward bills that would end the twice-yearly shifting of clocks by ending the practice and moving us into the Atlantic Time Zone, one step closer to Europe, rather than the Eastern Time Zone where we’ve been since time zones were adopted by Congress in 1918.
If the U.S. adopts permanent Daylight Saving Time – a move that still requires consent from the House of Representatives and President Biden – that would accomplish the same thing, rending the effort moot.
The New Hampshire time bills have all fizzled out, but even if passed, they wouldn’t have done anything because they came with a proviso: We won’t change unless Massachusetts does it first. And although the Bay State has gone further down this road than the Granite State, going so far as to establish legislative committees to study the option, nothing has ever come of it, largely due to the hassle of having different times in Boston and New York.
The impetus for the bills in New Hampshire has partly been dislike of the disruption of spring-forward-fall-back but also a debate over whether in wintertime it’s better – or, rather, less bad – to have darkness in the morning or in the afternoon.
Indeed, the whole idea of Daylight Saving was created with that question in mind. The system was created in Germany during World War I to put daylight more in synchrony with factories’ working hours, saving fuel for power plants because less electric lighting would be needed. Most of the wartime world followed suit to save fuel and has kept some version of the switch ever since.
In the United States, the change was opposed by farmers who start their labors earlier than city folk and objected to spending more hours working in the dark. Since then, any debate has largely broken along rural vs. urban lines although there is a smaller contingent of opponents who object to government intervention in what they see as natural time.
The debate has gotten more prominent with the decline of standard 9-to-5 working hours, which has undermined the argument for financial benefits of changing clocks as the amount of daylight shrinks. Several studies have found relatively small energy savings, if any at all, from the change. Other studies have raised concern about the health effects of shifting our daily pattern, adding stress or even making us more liable to get into car accidents.
There is also a geographic element to the debate. Places that are closer to the edge of time zones are most likely to have big discrepancies between clock time and solar time: that is, between what your watch says and what the sun shows.
The Eastern Time Zone is centered around New York City so eastern New England has always had a moderate discrepancy – although much less than in other parts of the world. In early November in Eastport, Maine, for example, the sun is overhead at 11:11 a.m., meaning that clocks differ from the sun by almost an hour. That’s part of the reason Maine has long been the region’s biggest advocate of switching time zones.
In Concord, clock time and solar time are never more than half an hour out of whack.
The discrepancy is much bigger out west – parts of Alaska are almost two hours out of sync from the sun – and other countries. The biggest problem is in China. That country is as large as the Lower 48 states but only has one time zone, centered on Beijing. At times of the year in China’s western reaches, “high noon” for the sun happens shortly after 9 a.m.