Why are we still changing our clocks back?

On the centenary of the introduction of Daylight Saving, is it time for a review?

Hungarian watchmaker Istvan Hanga adjusts the hands of a clock, operated by Kecskemet Cathedral’s original mechanism, in the Bozso House Watch Collection in Hungary. Photograph: Sandor Ujvari/EPA

Hungarian watchmaker Istvan Hanga adjusts the hands of a clock, operated by Kecskemet Cathedral’s original mechanism, in the Bozso House Watch Collection in Hungary. Photograph: Sandor Ujvari/EPA

 

Today at 2am, the clocks went back by one hour.

Some will welcome the precious extra hour of sleep. The rest of us will brace ourselves for five months of long, dark evenings until the process is reversed again on March 26th.

Inevitably, a few people will forget about the change and miss their planes, trains and appointments (although the spread of self-adjusting smartphones has reduced the potential for confusion).

This year marks the centenary of an energy-saving ritual introduced in 1916 in the midst of the first World War but does it really have to be this way?

Over the years, there have been many attempts to replace or do away with the twice-a-year switch.

None has succeeded, but they do reflect a widespread feeling that all this switching around is not ideal.

It is worth remembering that what happens tonight is just a reversion to the “norm” of Greenwich Mean Time established in the Victorian era.

Daylight Saving Time (DST) is the aberration, even if it’s confusingly called Irish Standard Time here.

Do it yourself

Most attempts at reform have proposed the extension of Daylight Saving Time (or “summer time”, as it’s often called) across the entire year, doing away with any need for the change we’ll all be making tonight.

In 2013, a Private Members Bill proposing exactly this was rejected by then minister for justice Alan Shatter.

“If the aim is to have an extra hour of daylight in the evening, rather than the mornings, this could be achieved without legislation by getting up, going to work and finishing work an hour earlier – which I understand is common practice in Norway and Sweden,” he told the Dáil, while pointing out the impracticality of changing our arrangements from those in the UK and Northern Ireland.

The idea of seasonally changing the time was first mooted in the 18th century by Benjamin Franklin and implemented in Germany and Austria-Hungary on April 30th, 1916, when clocks were turned ahead one hour to reduce the use of artificial lighting in the evenings.

The idea was rapidly taken up by other countries, including the UK, much to the dismay of The Irish Times, which thundered that “the crude and never-ending daylight would banish from the world half the beauty and all the romance of summer”.

Beauty and romance proved more durable than was feared, but from the start there was evidence of a rural-urban divide.

People living in cities appreciated the extra hour of evening daylight, while farmers objected to having to work through hours of darkness every morning.

These days, seasonal time-shifting occurs in over 70 countries worldwide, affecting over a billion people every year.

The start and finish dates vary from one country to another – the US and Canada switch next weekend and revert to summer time earlier than we do next year.

Since 1996, an EU-wide schedule has been in place, running from the last Sunday in October to the last Sunday in March.

Healthier

Proposals, such as the one rejected in 2013, invariably call for the extension of Daylight Saving across the winter.

Proponents argue that maximising evening daylight throughout the year will benefit both the environment and our health by saving energy, encouraging outdoor activities and reducing accidents.

They say we would be better off adjusting working hours and school opening times over the course of the year to cope with dark mornings, instead of tinkering with our clocks.

There is also evidence that changing the time twice a year has adverse health effects, including increased risk of coronary problems.

But there’s an inevitable and powerful inertia in a system which has been agreed by so many national governments.

Change would be disruptive and potentially controversial, as Shatter pointed out.

But there is a more modest reform which would greatly improve the lives of most people in this part of the world.

We wait a lot longer than the Americans and Canadians to officially announce the end of winter time, with our current schedule disproportionately weighted towards the latter end of the season.

In fact, if we switched our clocks forward at the point in the cycle equivalent to when we make the switch in October, we’d be doing it on Sunday, February 27th, and we’d all be enjoying daylight until after 7pm.

Just think how much more agreeable that would make the early Irish spring.

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