Year-round daylight saving time (DST), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in January 1974, sought to maximize evening sunlight and, in doing so, help mitigate an ongoing national gas crisis. But while the experiment initially proved popular, with 79 percent of Americans expressing support for the change in December 1973, approval quickly plummeted, dropping to 42 percent by February 1974, reported the New York Times’ Anthony Ripley in October of that year.
The main drawback to pushing the clock forward permanently was the prolonged early-morning darkness in the winter, which left children heading to school when it was “jet black” outside, as a parent told the Washington Post’s Barbara Bright-Sagnier at the time. Writing for Washingtonian, Andrew Beaujon notes that eight students in Florida died in traffic accidents in the weeks following the change; in the nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs, similar incidents led some schools to delay classes until the sun came up.
In October 1974, President Gerald Ford signed legislation reversing permanent daylight saving time. Though approval of the initiative had increased during the long summer days, the prospect of another long, dark—and potentially deadly—winter led lawmakers to end the planned two-year experiment early. As a Senate committee report stated, the “majority of the public” had expressed “distaste” for DST in the wintertime. Compounding the seeming failure of the experiment was the fact that the change, according to the Department of Transportation, saved little energy and may have actually caused an uptick in gasoline consumption.
Almost 50 years later, daylight saving time is making headlines once again. Yesterday, the Senate unanimously passed legislation calling for DST, which began on Sunday, March 13, to continue indefinitely, ending the practice of “falling back,” or turning the clocks back one hour to standard time in the fall. Officially titled the Sunshine Protection Act, the bill is now headed to the House of Representatives, where its chances of passing remain unclear. If approved by the House and signed into law by President Joe Biden, the change would take effect in November 2023, report Luke Broadwater and Amelia Nierenberg for the New York Times.
“This past weekend, Americans from Washington State to Florida had to lose an hour of sleep for absolutely no reason,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington tells the Times. “This is a burden and a headache we don’t need. Any parent who has worked so hard to get a newborn or a toddler on a regular sleeping schedule understands the absolute chaos changing our clocks creates.”
Murray’s words echo sentiments shared by a broad swath of Americans. A 2019 poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70 percent of people surveyed wanted to end the practice of changing the clocks. Approximately 40 percent advocated for staying on standard time year-round, while 30 percent preferred sticking to daylight saving time. Beth Ann Malow, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, outlines the case for standard time in the Conversation, writing that it more “closely approximates natural light, with the sun directly overhead at or near noon. In contrast, during [DST] from March until November, the natural light is shifted unnaturally by one hour later.”
Supporters of adopting a fixed, year-round schedule point to the well-documented health and safety risks associated with changing the clocks. As the American Academy of Sleep Medicine noted in a 2020 statement, the spring shift to DST incurs “increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events, mood disorders and motor vehicle crashes.” On the Monday after the shift, reported Hilary Brueck for Insider last March, hospitals see a 24 percent jump in patients experiencing heart attacks. The Monday after the clock turns back in the fall, meanwhile, hospital heart attack visits drop 21 percent.
“That’s how fragile and susceptible your body is to even just one hour of lost sleep,” sleep expert Matthew Walker told Insider.
Jokingly suggested by Benjamin Franklin in a 1784 letter, daylight saving time was more seriously proposed by New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson in 1895. In the words of National Geographic’s Erin Blakemore, he advocated for “a two-hour time shift so he’d have more after-work hours of sunshine to go bug hunting in the summer.” British builder William Willett later championed the change as a way of encouraging Brits to wake up earlier and enjoy the sun during the summer.
The idea of changing the clocks gained traction during World War I, when Germany, England and other countries involved in the conflict sought ways to conserve energy. With more daylight hours, people would spend more time outside and less inside, using up energy in their homes—or so supporters theorized. (The actual energy-saving benefits of DST continue to be debated today.)
“[The Germans] remembered Willett’s idea of moving the clock forward and thus having more daylight during working hours,” David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, told National Geographic in 2019. “While the British were talking about it year after year, the Germans decided to do it more or less by fiat.”
In February 1918, the United States followed suit, temporarily implementing daylight saving, then known as “war time.” (The legislation also established time zones across the country.) The move proved popular with the Chamber of Commerce, which realized that “if you give workers daylight, when they leave their jobs, they are much more apt to stop and shop on their way home,” said Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, in a 2015 video.
Contrary to popular belief, wrote Downing in a 2005 editorial for the New York Times, the “trick of shifting unused morning light to evening” wasn’t implemented to help farmers maximize daylight. In actuality, farmers relied on morning light to guide their way while bringing their crops and dairy to market, and they actively rallied against the change. As a result, daylight saving was repealed after the war and only reintroduced in February 1942, in the midst of World War II.
The U.S.’ second round of “war time” ended much like the first, with year-round DST repealed in September 1945. A brief period of chaos ensued, with states allowed to set their clocks to whatever “standard” they chose. In 1965, according to Downing, 71 of the U.S.’ largest cities practiced DST, while 59 did not—a trend that led the United States Naval Observatory to call America “the world’s worst timekeeper.”
Nationwide standardization only arrived in 1966, when Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, splitting the year into six months of standard time and six months of daylight saving. The next major development in the U.S.’ timekeeping came in the mid-1970s, with Nixon’s failed experiment. Though the Department of Transportation concluded that the ten-month policy had little impact on fuel saving, the government agency did speculate that DST could one day conserve as many as 100,000 barrels of oil per day—a prediction that inspired Congress to extend daylight saving by a month in both 1986 and 2007.
Writing for the Times, Downing said that extended DST had failed to reduce oil consumption or crime (a 2015 study suggested otherwise), instead putting more cars on the road during the day; placing the U.S. “out of sync with Europe,” with major implications for air travel; and making it harder for religious groups to conduct rituals (like Jewish sunrise prayers) at home.
“[A]fter nearly 100 years,” Downing argued, “daylight saving has yet to save us anything.”
Editor's Note, March 18, 2022: This article previously stated that Gerald Ford signed legislation reversing permanent daylight saving time in October 1975. In fact, he signed the legislation in October 1974.