William Marvel: Sleepless from Maine to Seattle

  • Published in Columns

The onset of daylight-saving time gave me a little break from creeping sleep-deprivation, but in a few weeks it will resume, and worsen gradually until the summer solstice. People who consider me cantankerous now should just wait a couple of months. The only thing that makes me testier than fatigue is missing a meal, but I can keep granola bars handy: I can’t unilaterally counteract the folly of trying to “save” daylight by fiddling with the clocks.

In 1914, Englishman William Willett lobbied members of Parliament with his pamphlet “A Waste of Daylight.” In it, he calculated that 154 hours of daylight are “lost” every year because people slept an hour after sunrise each morning between April and September. Better, he thought, to shift the time to move that hour to the end of the day, so people could enjoy more evening leisure. It made no impression on the MPs that Mother Nature promptly struck Willett dead right after he asked them to pass a law to that effect. Like most politicians, they dared not refuse legislative tribute to the recently deceased, so his silly idea became mandatory. Today, they might have called it “Willie’s Law.”

By then the Brits didn’t covet evening leisure so much as more time for war production. It was no coincidence that the United States also codified daylight-saving time right after entering the same war, and abolished it as soon as the war ended. In World War II, the U.S. adopted daylight-saving time year-round for the duration. Some states and smaller localities continued to run on daylight time thereafter — sometimes all year, and sometimes during only half the year. Some reverted permanently to standard time, so confusion prevailed. In 1966 Congress set standard dates in April and October for beginning and ending daylight-saving, but — perhaps because Congress had not yet decided that states had no rights of their own — it was not made compulsory.

Alleged energy efficiency became a big excuse for expanding daylight-saving time, but of course it really exists only to allow more golfing by the professional and politician classes. The oil embargo of 1973 moved Congress to start daylight saving right after New Year’s Day, but in 1976 it returned to late April. Ten years later, those golf-hungry politicians changed that to early April. In 2005, enjoying the effects of global warming, they snuck it back to mid-March and extended it into November — again under the guise of energy efficiency.

My wife usually teaches well into the evening. Most workdays she isn’t home before 8 p.m., and often not until 9:30 or 10 p.m. If we are to share any semblance of a meal or spend any time together, it’s usually impossible to be in bed before 11 p.m. Except when completely worn out, both of us usually wake up with the dawn, if not at first light. With actual sunrise just after 6 a.m. in early March, that gave us barely six hours and a half to sleep, but daylight-saving time dropped that to five and a half hours for the night of the switch. After the clocks changed we had seven and a half hours of “sleepable” darkness, but that will gradually shrink back to well under six hours by June.

June is therefore utterly exhausting, and more than a little dangerous. In fact, the daylight-saving lunacy wreaks documented havoc on our overall health. Research at both Johns Hopkins and Stanford University has found a noticeable increase in fatal traffic accidents following the clock change that so conspicuously disrupts everyone’s sleep each spring. Finnish researchers have also detected an 8 percent increase in strokes right after the spring change. In 2012, the University of Alabama recorded a 10 percent increase in heart attacks on the first weekdays after the clocks were turned forward, and the next year the American Journal of Cardiology also reported a spike in heart attacks at that time.

Duke Energy, an electric utility, alleges that all this mayhem and disruption is warranted by a reduction in energy usage of one-half of 1 percent. A growing number of researchers doubt that claim, given all the additional driving to the golf course and the demand for air-conditioning in homes still baking under full sunlight. When Indiana finally passed statewide observation of daylight-saving time, it saw a 1 percent increase — not decrease — in energy consumption.

The golfers in Congress won’t act, but local resistance can render the practice cumbersome enough to end it without congressional repeal. Hawaii and Arizona have abolished daylight-saving time, and other states have considered it. Town, city, or county ordinances can also contribute. A minority of oppositional communities, scattered broadly nationwide, could render the artificial time change too confusing to survive. Kill it or make it permanent, but stop messing with us.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.