Daylight Savings Time – A Tale of Unintended Consequences

Michael Smolinski

Yes, you do get an extra hour of sleep on that one morning in November, but does that really make up for the dreaded morning in March when you lose an hour? Or the biannual ritual of having to adjust every clock in your house? Daylight savings time is simply an inconvenient policy, so we all assume that it must, in some way, be benefitting our society. But have you ever really asked yourself how?

Daylight saving time (DST) was first implemented during WWI as a strategy to conserve fuel. By advancing the clocks by one hour during the summer months, it was thought that people would take advantage of the natural sunlight and delay turning on their lights for an additional hour at night. It did not gain widespread attention until the 1970s when it was adopted across North America and Europe in response to the energy crisis. For the most part, energy conservation remains the primary justification for its continued observance today.

Yet, the evidence that DST contributes to energy conservation appears tenuous at best. A 2011 review of the effects of DST on energy consumption finds that DST may, in fact, have the unintended effect of encouraging energy consumption. As people wake up to darker, cooler conditions following the switch to DST in the spring, they may be more inclined to turn on their heating in the morning. Similarly, during the peak of summer they may run their air conditioning systems for an hour longer than they would have without the time change. Researchers at Yale and UC Santa Barbara found results consistent with this trade-off and estimated the costs of DST to Indiana households exceeded $9 million annually.

The irony that DST exacerbates the problem it was designed to address is concerning enough. However, there is also mounting evidence that it has numerous other deleterious effects on our health and productivity. For example, a pair of researchers at Michigan State University studying the mining industry found that the transition to DST in the spring was associated with a 6% increase in the number of workplace injuries, caused by workers’ fatigue following the time change. Other studies have even implicated DST time changes with increases in car accidents and heart attacks. The negative effects don’t stop at health, though, as researchers have also found that the DST transition may negatively impact our work performance: judges have been found to hand down harsher sentences and office workers to spend more time browsing the Internet.

Concerns about the efficacy and potentially harmful effects of this policy have resulted in growing support to either eliminate DST altogether, or to observe it year-round. Attempts to do so, however, have proven challenging in many jurisdictions. In Canada, where the decision to observe DST is under provincial jurisdiction, Alberta recently failed to pass legislation that would have eliminated the biannual time change altogether. Apparently, the provincial legislature’s Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future found that there was the potential for significant and negative unintended economic consequences and advised against passing the bill.

According to the Committee, by eliminating the biannual time changes, Alberta risked being misaligned with its neighbouring jurisdictions in ways that would complicate business, trade and tourism in the province. It’s simply much more convenient for businesses and tourists in B.C., for example, to know that Alberta is always one hour ahead. Had the legislation been passed, Alberta would have been two hours ahead of B.C. from November through March, and one hour ahead from April through October.

In particular, WestJet and Alberta’s two NHL franchises objected to the legislation. The airline’s representatives warned that Calgary’s status as a hub for flight connections would be endangered, as passengers leaving B.C. would be required to leave an hour earlier in the winter to catch their morning connections in Calgary. The ownership of the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames also expressed concerns that, under year-round DST, their teams would be forced to play a number of games starting at 9:30 PM local time during the winter. This may be unacceptable to fans and cause viewership and home-game attendance to drop.  Legislators ultimately followed the Committee’s advice and voted overwhelming to defeat the bill.

This story is certainly disheartening for anyone wishing to put an end to our time-changing traditions. So how can policy-makers in Alberta and other jurisdictions move forward? The solution appears to be by engaging with other regions to implement a more coordinated end to time changes. This was the motivation for a 2013 bill in Missouri which would have left the state permanently in DST, but only if at least 19 other states agreed to do the same. It was also the ultimate advice of Alberta’s legislative committee, which advised that the government of Alberta “engage other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States to develop a coordinated approach to eliminating the practice of observing daylight savings time.”

The law of unintended consequences states that any deliberate intervention in a complex system is likely to lead to unintended and often undesirable results. While this principle may already be familiar to most policy-makers, its implications in the case of DST are particularly striking. Unintended consequences have left this well-intentioned policy ineffective and potentially harmful. Now, amid increasing criticism of DST, they’re making it impossible to get rid of.