Numberscruncher: The Costs of Daylight Savings Time

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

Sick of springing forward and falling back? Ann Logue breaks down the numbers and says Daylight Savings Time is worse than just an inconvenience.

Does anyone like Daylight Savings Time? Seriously?

Twice a year, we go through this hassle of changing the clocks. In the winter, we’re all led to believe that it’s so that the farm children don’t have to wait for the bus in the dark.  Never mind that there are no farm children anymore because the plowing is done by satellite-controlled machines owned by Archer Daniels Midland. (There’s a reason hardly anyone in Chicago has been south of 87th Street, okay? There’s nothing to see in the rest of Illinois but acres of corn and soybeans.)

And then, in the summer, we change the time again so that, um, the farm children can all wait for the bus in the dark? No, it’s so that we can save energy because we’ll use less of it in the evening! Because, after all, no one in American turns on lights or the television or the toaster oven until it’s sunny outside.

So what we have is a system that pretty much everyone hates, or at least tolerates. In Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University, students rioted after the bars closed early for the time change in 1997. What other response is there to a lost hour of bar revenues? The resulting student unrest immortalized in the Guided by Voices song “Shrine To The Dynamic Years (Athens Time Change Riots).” It’s not quite as searing as CSNY’s “Ohio,” but then, Kent State and Ohio University are very different places.

The surprise is that people accept the time change so readily, even though no one likes it, and even though the costs of updating software and managing scheduling across time zones are huge. Daylight Savings Time has been standard in the United States since 1966, although not consistently. Arizona, for example, does not change its time, and that caused me to miss a conference call in the fall when the times changed. That’s a minor annoyance for me, but multiply all those annoyances across a global economy, and the numbers add up.

But it saves energy! That’s the myth. To hear people talk, Daylight Savings Time does more to cut off Alaska’s oil revenues than would a nation of folks driving Chevy Volts. Indiana, which had long eschewed Daylight Savings Time except in those counties close to Chicago, decided to get with the rest of the country in 2006. This created a perfect opportunity to test the hypothesis. Economists Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Daylight Savings Time actually increased energy consumption in Indiana because people needed to heat their houses more in the fall. The extra hour of darkness in October meant that houses were especially cold when people woke up, so they ran their furnaces more. This counteracted a very small savings from reduced lighting demand in the evening in the earlier months of the time change. The increased energy consumption cost Indiana households $9 million per year, along with externalities from pollution emissions estimated at $1.7 million to $5.5 million.

So if Daylight Savings Time doesn’t save energy, what does it do? Well, it leads to increased workplace injuries on the Monday after the change, with no offsetting benefit when the clocks change back in the fall. Christopher Barnes and David Wagner of Michigan State University found that when the time changes in the spring, workers showed up on the job with 40 minutes less sleep than normal. This lead to 5.7 percent more workplace injuries and 67.6 percent more lost work days due to injury than on a regular work day.

Want some more bad news? Springing ahead is followed by increased heart attack risk, possibly due to the sleep deprivation  . For an extra dose of daylight lethality, a group of Australian researchers found that daylight savings time leads to increased suicide.

Let’s just pick a time and stick with it, okay? We could call the moment when the sun is more or less at its peak “noon” and then go from there. If we abolished the annoyance of Daylight Savings Time, we’d be happier, live longer, and save energy. What is not to like?