Monday, February 12, 2007

Let the Sunshine In


EVERY spring when daylight-saving time rolled around, my grandmother would draw a distinction between "God's time and Mr. Roosevelt's time."

Not that she minded the extra sunshine.

It's just that grandmother was a Southern-born, rock-ribbed Republican, and the words "Mr. Roosevelt" would roll off her tongue with the same disagreeing tone usually reserved for "Yankees" or "canker sores."

I mention this because, love it or loathe it, daylight-saving time is just around the corner. In case you didn't notice, under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. will begin observing daylight-saving time from the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November beginning this year.

Most of Canada will also observe the new period to avoid possible economic losses from confusion with the United States. Which gives the Canadians another reason to dislike us.

And if you don't like it, it will give you another reason to dislike President Bush. It happened on his watch.

Whether this remains permanent depends on studies conducted by some faceless government bureaucracy that will undoubtedly consider the effects of extra daylight while meeting in some windowless room.

In the meantime, come March 11, we can all spring forward.

Not that there is anything new under the sun.
Benjamin Franklin, living in Paris, first conceived the notion of daylight-saving time, according to David Prerau, who wrote "Seize the Daylight: A Brief History of Daylight Saving Time."

He wrote that he was awakened early and was surprised that the sun was up, well before his usual noon rising. He humorously described how he checked the next two days and found that, yes, it actually did rise so early every day. Imagine, he said, how many candles could be saved if people awakened earlier, and he suggested firing cannons in each square at dawn "to wake the sluggards and open their eyes to their true interest."

Franklin, as usual, was ahead of his time, even if he was engaging in a bit of whimsy. Some historians even attribute Franklin's dictum "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" to his experience.

Next on stage was British builder William Willett who was known to lament that few people enjoyed the "best part of a summer day," and he came up with the idea of moving the clocks forward in summer to take advantage of the bright beautiful mornings and to give more light in the evening.

What was unsaid is that he wanted his workers to arrive at construction sites earlier and to labor longer. He died never seeing his idea adopted.

It took World War I to get the concept off the ground. The Germans adopted it, followed closely by the British. The U.S. followed, but the law proved unpopular because it obliged people to rise and go to bed earlier than had become customary since the advent of electricity. It was repealed in 1919, when Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto of the repeal. After fits and starts, it was revived during World War II and continues to this day.

Whether daylight-saving time works as an energy saver is open to some debate. The U.S. Department of Transportation insists that daylight-saving time trims the entire country's electricity usage by a small but significant amount, about 1 percent each day, because less electricity is used for lighting and appliances.

However, there are complaints about the inconvenience of changing many clocks and adjusting to a new sleep schedule. Some argue that the supposed energy savings is offset by by those living in warm climates to cool their homes during summer afternoons and evenings. Others contend that more evening hours of light encourage people to run errands and visit friends, thus consuming more gasoline.

The bottom line, however, is that the majority of people like daylight-saving time.

What is clear is that it leads to some unusual occurrences.

Example: To keep to published timetables, trains cannot leave a station before the scheduled time. So when the clocks fall back one hour in the autumn, all Amtrak trains in the United States that are running on time stop at 2 a.m. and wait one hour before resuming. Overnight passengers are often surprised to find their train at a dead stop and their travel time an hour longer than expected. At the spring DST change, trains instantaneously become an hour behind schedule at 2a.m., but they just keep going and do their best to make up the time.

Another example: In September 1999, the West Bank was on daylight-saving time while Israel had just switched back to standard time. West Bank terrorists prepared time bombs and smuggled them to their Israeli counterparts, who misunderstood the time on the bombs. As the bombs were being planted, they exploded one hour too early, killing three terrorists instead of the intended victims, two busloads of people.

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