Opinion: Free markets for time: Let the states decide whether to adopt daylight-saving time

Americans are tired of losing sleep.

On the second Sunday in March, Americans push their clocks forward, and the disruption to sleep patterns creates fatigue and a lot of irritable personalities.

Church attendance is unusually sparse. Some folks miss the exercise altogether or show up late, just in time for the coffee. Disliking sermons—other than those proffered in my columns—I like the caffeine solution best.

A 2020 study of traffic incidents showed a 6% spike in fatal car crashes the first week of daylight-saving time. And these days DST doesn’t save much energy.

Changing the clocks

As a nation of workaholics, we aren’t bothered as much by getting an extra hour of sleep in November. However, polls show about two-thirds of Americans would like the biannual tinkering to stop and most of those prefer year-round DST.

Folks like the evening light for household chores and kids’ sports and for those that still shop at bricks-and-mortar stores, it gives a boost to retailing. Golfers can squeeze in nine or even 18 holes in the warmer latitudes.

Through mid-19th century, Americans set their watches against local sundials. New York was minutes ahead of Washington but the advent of railroads made that unworkable.

At first, railroads published timetables calibrated to noon at their company’s headquarters and left it to communities along their lines to transpose into local time. Eventually, they adopted a more-or-less unified system of time zones of peculiar formation—the western border of the Eastern Time Zone ran through the major stations in Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Charleston and Atlanta.

Communities across the nation followed on an ad hoc basis until the federal 1918 Standard Time Act, which established time zones as we know them. DST was implemented as a temporary wartime measure.

Subsequently, New York City and many other metro areas continued seasonal DST. It was national policy again for World War II, continued by many states afterward, and became national policy yet again in 1966 with the Uniform Time Act.

Impact on bodies and minds

The impacts on our bodies have been endlessly studied by psychologists and physicians, and cursed the morning after DST commences by a sleep deprived public who generally want it made permanent.

Sleep scientists say year-round DST would be unhealthy and if we are to have just one clock, it should be year-round standard time.

DST creates a misalignment between circadian rhythms and the clock.

Simply, our biological functions are attuned to movements of the sun. Morning light triggers alertness, modulates our stress responses and regulates our emotions. Evening darkness releases melatonin that helps us sleep.

Year-round DST could exacerbate emotional disorders, obesity, heart attacks, diabetes and other ailments. Problems would be especially acute in northern states where the amount of daylight varies more with the seasons and on the western edges of time zones where sunrises are later.

A recently passed Senate bill would implement year-round DST but addresses the above-mentioned issues by permitting states to opt-out—to go on standard time year round. Time zones borders already split states and all that is missing is to let states redraw those borders in adopting standard or daylight-saving time.

New York stretches from Staten Island to Plattsburgh and could split off the Adirondacks for standard time. States like Tennessee, already divided between Central and Eastern Time, could move their time zone border eastward.

Sleep issues

Puberty causes melatonin to release later in the evening, causing more sleep issues and sleep deficits in adolescents. However, educators, who should know better, have been more guilty than time zone tinkerers—giving priority to after-school activities like football practice and part-time jobs over academic purposes.

For about 25 years, when my wife taught in Fairfax County, her first classes began at 7:20 am The kids with long bus rides were up too early, no matter the clock.

And this may go a long way toward explaining why colleges find so many high-school graduates ill prepared—something that was not much of a problem when I was a freshman in 1966.

In the 1950s and ’60s, schools generally ran from 9 am to 3 or 3:30. Our sports teams simply didn’t look so professional.

When I started work in Manhattan in 1970, the office opened at 9 am—though I was always early, just as I routinely woke up my large family long before sunrise even as an adolescent.

That’s the point—not everyone is the same and adults can make their own choices

Work-at-home enables nocturnal personalities to thrive. This column is routinely written between 2 am and 6 am—my mind is undistracted and emotions unrattled by markets and politicians.

Let states and communities decide on DST and create a free market in time.

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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