Twice a year, most Americans, along with millions of people across the globe, are forced to abruptly adjust to a one-hour change in the imaginary numbers we apply to the movement of the Earth around the sun. We did that Sunday, and there are probably more than a few people reading this who are as sleepy, and as late for work, as I am.
It's a painful shift, disruptive to our circadian clock and, at least in late winter when we leap forward, makes for a week of national morning grogginess.
But we tell ourselves all this scheduling trauma is a noble tradeoff for some vague notions about saving energy and kids not having to walk to or from school in the dark, even though, come to think of it, who lets their kids walk to school anymore?
Anyway, the story we collectively tell ourselves about daylight saving time, or DST, is one of thrift and consideration. But that story might be more of a tall tale these days. There's growing evidence that DST doesn't do much for us anymore, that we cling to it out of habit more than actual need.
For example, when the California Energy Commission set out more than a decade ago to see how much electricity is saved with DST, they came up with this answer: not much.
Then, after the Energy Policy Act of 2005 extended DST by several weeks -- shifting it three weeks earlier, from April to March, and one week later, from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November -- the California Energy Commission looked at how that change was affecting electrical usage in the Golden State. The answer was, again, a negligible amount.
More telling was a study by two UC Santa Barbara researchers, Matthew J. Kotchen and Laura E. Grant, who looked at Indiana's energy usage before and after the state adopted DST in 2006. In a New York Times op-ed in 2009, they wrote that the state actually used about 1 percent more energy a year after the shift to DST, probably due to people having the air conditioning on longer in the summer months, costing Indianans more money in bills and pollution.
That's not a huge surprise to me. AC is a much larger draw on the grid than our mandatory CFL light bulbs. Besides, the old ideas about energy usage don't apply to our modern-day world where "9 to 5" is an old movie, not a work philosophy. Flexible jobs with flexible hours and flexible workplaces mean that the office is never closed for business. And with our always-on electronics -- the DVR recording "Dumb & Dumber" at 2 a.m., the ice-maker keeping the ice bin full 24/7, our iPhones charging while we sleep -- lights-out time means almost nothing.
If that's not enough for us to start rethinking this odd tradition, DST could be deadly. A study in the American Journal of Cardiology a few years ago found that in the day after the DST shift, there is an uptick in heart attacks.
This kind of biannual disruption of sleep schedules is stressful, and stress kills. Stress might also explain why the New York Daily News reported that in the days following the March DST shift, there's an increase in traffic accidents.
DST came into our lives last century as part of the war effort, along with rationing and victory gardens, and then was adopted permanently in 1966. Energy policy crafted nearly 50 years ago, however, can't have possibly imagined the technological advances of the early 21st century. Maybe it's time we left daylight saving time back in the 20th century where it belongs.