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The tumultuous history of daylight time and the debate over its necessity

It was in 1784 that Benjamin Franklin first suggested the concept of time change

For many Canadians, March 10 signifies the day when they reluctantly set their clocks forward and bid farewell to a precious hour of sleep.

This practice, officially known as daylight time (DT), although widely known as daylight saving time, occurs twice a year, with clocks springing forward one hour in March and falling back one hour in November, eight months later.

Despite its enduring practice, there is a mounting debate over its relevance and necessity, with many calling for its abolition.

Author David Prerau, also known as the world’s leading expert on DT, said that this long-standing tradition traced its roots back to the late 18th century.

The evolution of daylight time

In 1784, while serving as the U.S. ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin was the first one to come up with the idea of time change.

One early morning, the diplomat observed sunlight streaming through his window, leading him to realize that if people woke up earlier, they could benefit from extra natural light in the evening and reduce the need for costly candles, Prerau explained.

However, due to the lack of a suitable system to put his idea into action, the founding father’s proposal never gained traction.

Over a century later, in the early 1900s, a British builder named William Willet resurrected Franklin’s idea and devised the first robust DT system, Prerau said.

Though Willet did not live long enough to see his creation applied, the German government, seeking ways to conserve scarce resources like fuel, implemented his system in 1915 amid the First World War.

By setting the clock forward an hour in spring, citizens were believed to use less energy to light their homes, thus conserving vital supplies for the war effort.

Shortly after, North America and most of Europe followed suit for the same reason. Canada officially adopted DT in 1918.

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Currently, DT is observed in more than 70 countries and more than a billion people worldwide. Despite its widespread adoption, critics have emerged over the years pushing for its abolition.

In 2019, the B.C.’s Horgan government pledged to eliminate this time change following a survey that revealed 93 per cent of respondents opposed it.

Despite successfully passing legislation for year-round DT, the province will only implement this change once the Pacific states like Washington, Oregon, and California enact similar laws to ensure alignment with its southern neighbours.

As it stands today, this century-old tradition is not set to fade away, as the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a motion to make daylight time permanent in 2023.

Cons

Detractors of DT may argue that the time change could have an adverse impact on people’s health, potentially disrupting sleep patterns and leading to increased levels of stress.

A study by the American Psychology Association revealed that on average, more injuries occurred on Mondays following the time change resulting in a loss of 2,649 days of work.

Additional research found that following the transition from summer time to standard time in the fall was associated with an increase in depression cases of 11 per cent in hospital contacts. However, the same paper found that these seasonal symptoms would disappear over the following months.

Moreover, though data is not conclusive across the board, a 2016 ICBC study found a “10 per cent increase in car crashes in the Lower Mainland in the two weeks following the DT, during the afternoon commute.”

As a consequence of this dwindling productivity in workers, as well as increased rates of injuries, episodic seasonal depressions, and deaths, some argue that DT has adverse impacts on the economy.

According to the Lost-Hour Economic Index, the time change resulted in nearly USD$440 million in financial losses in the U.S.

Pros

Despite these arguments against DT, Prerau remains a proponent of this system.

Offering a nuanced perspective, the author claimed that the time change essentially involves sacrificing an hour in spring to gain eight months of extended sunlight.

“During the mid-summer in (southern) B.C., the sun would (rise) at around 4:30 a.m. (if permanent standard time would be adopted),” said Prerau. “But if you move the sunrise back an hour, nobody even notice it and you’re getting an extra hour of daylight in the evening.”

In turn, this extra hour of sunlight in the evening, Prerau argued, promotes a healthy lifestyle, allowing people to be outdoors for longer, practising various activities.

Conversely, Prerau stated that a similar concept would apply if one were to adopt permanent daylight time when winter comes. The farther a region from the equator, the more it’s affected by the shifting seasons that the time change mitigates.

“The problem in the winter is that you start with very late sunrises because you’re not only pushing the sunset back, but you’re pushing the sunrise back,” said Prerau. “Most of southern B.C. would have a midwinter sunrise after 9 a.m.

“Everybody would be getting up and going to work in the dark… it would also be colder before the sun rises.”

The author argued that this system change would turn out to make things more dangerous and cause more accidents in the winter because of the lack of light during the morning commute.

To mitigate the physiological effects of this biannual time shift, Prerau recommended that individuals susceptible to its impact adjust their schedules accordingly. This involves going to bed an hour earlier in the week leading up to the time change and adopting habits similar to those used when travelling to a different time zone.

Historically, countries like the U.K. and the U.S. have gotten rid of DT but reinstated it a few years later because of public opposition.

Prerau also emphasized that abolishing DT would create numerous challenges, potentially disrupting communication channels such as live broadcasts of sporting events, award ceremonies, newscasts, and political speeches. This could be worsened if other provinces and states do not follow suit.

Transportation, flights, and deliveries of all kinds, among other things, would most likely be affected too.

On top of that, evidence showed that DT might have a positive impact on public safety.

A research revealed that the increased amount of ambient light lowered robbery rates by seven per cent, auto theft by 10 per cent, and domestic violence arrests by nine per cent.

In the past, critics of the time change also pointed out that springing the clock forward increased heart-related diseases.

However, a recent Mayo Clinic study that included more than 36 million participants, suggested that “DT transitions are unlikely to be associated with a marked increase in adverse cardiovascular events.”

In the end, while the future of daylight time remains uncertain, one thing is clear: only time will tell whether it’s here to stay.

RELATED: In 2019, B.C. moved to make Daylight Saving Time permanent. Since then, time has stood still

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Olivier Laurin

About the Author: Olivier Laurin

I’m a bilingual multimedia journalist from Montréal who began my journalistic journey on Vancouver Island with The Comox Valley Record in 2023.
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