Opinion: What does daylight saving time really save?

On Nov. 6, two days after our clocks “fall back” an hour to standard time, Californians will vote on whether to start a process to abandon standard time completely.  Advocates of Proposition 7 argue this would reduce energy use and avoid the semi-annual clock adjustments that disrupt our sleep and schedules.

These proposals always trigger the retelling of the probably-not-apocryphal story of the gardener who remarked that daylight saving time is wonderful because the extra sunlight makes tomatoes grow faster. Let us now pause to chuckle smugly, because we all know that DST does not change the amount of light any location receives over a 24-hour period.

Some people, however, seem to think that the timing of human behavior is as immutable as the rotation of the earth.  Op-eds, discussions and even news reports on the subject are filled with assertions that changing how we designate time necessarily gives us more or less opportunity for outdoor leisure.  But that’s only true if people would not adapt at all to changes in what is a completely arbitrary numbering system for the hours of the day.

Benjamin Franklin argued that DST would save energy, and many policymakers today make that argument, but numerous careful studies have failed to find evidence of savings. There are many reasons why not, among them that humans can adjust their schedules to a renaming of the hours.

But wait, you say, I can’t simply adjust my schedule because it depends on the schedules of dozens or hundreds of other people — my family, my coworkers, the operator of my neighborhood coffee shop, whoever controls the start time at my kids’ schools — and we would all have to coordinate on the readjustment.

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