The clocks are changing again - but is change afoot for this century-old ritual?

Daylight saving has had its supporters and detractors since its inception. Now a prospective change in the law on the continent may force the UK to take a hard look at its pros and cons.

By Dominic Bliss
Published 20 Oct 2020, 13:26 BST, Updated 23 Mar 2021, 11:25 GMT
The Autumn clock change in the UK isn't welcomed by many - but it has benefits ...

The Autumn clock change in the UK isn't welcomed by many - but it has benefits for some. Either way, its time may be limited if a new European law is adopted.

Photograph by Kenny Williamson, Alamy

“Spring forward. Fall back.” Most of us require this handy aide-memoire twice a year. In March it stops us stumbling bleary-eyed into work an hour late. And in October it gives us a precious hour’s lie-in.

Very soon, though, the phrase may become redundant. In 2019 the European Parliament voted to discontinue spring and autumn clock changes across the European Union. Member nations have yet to ratify the change but, if they do, a permanent time zone could be incorporated as early as 2022.

What does this mean for the UK? If we don't follow suit, we could end up in the confusing situation of being out of sync with Europe for one half of the year, and in sync with them for the other half. This would be especially tricky in Northern Ireland which would be operating under a different time zone to either the Irish Republic or the rest of the UK, depending on which region it follows.

British politicians are aware of the potential disruption to areas such as trade, energy, aviation and road safety. In February this year the House of Lords published a report (called Clock changes: is it time for change?) which insisted that the abolition of clock changes “would have significant consequences for a number of industries, as well as the daily lives of citizens”.

Labour peer Baroness Donaghy is chair of the committee that authored the report. “So far the Government has stuck its head in the sand on the EU Commission’s proposal, hoping that it goes away,” she said. “However, if it doesn’t, we could be caught unaware and unprepared to make a decision, leaving the island of Ireland with two time zones at different times of the year and causing difficulties for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”

60 minutes of change 

Over 40 per cent of the world’s nations, including much of North America and Europe, currently practise daylight saving time – the rationale being that citizens benefit from the extra daylight on summer evenings and winter mornings.

It was the Canadians who first adopted the practice, albeit informally. On July 1st, 1908, the residents of Port Arthur, in Ontario (now Thunder Bay) moved their clocks forward by one hour. Over the next few years several other Canadian cities followed suit. But it wasn’t until April 1916 that an entire nation adopted the practice when, during the First World War, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires realised it allowed them to conserve fuel for the war effort by cutting back on artificial lighting. Britain, France and their allies spotted the energy benefits and quickly followed suit.

That was a century ago, however, when everyone was burning coal. Nowadays the energy conserved through clock changes is negligible. A 2016 study from the Charles University in Prague, for example, concluded that just 0.34 per cent of total energy is saved. And in the US state of Indiana, where daylight saving time wasn’t adopted state-wide until 2006, seasonal time changes have actually increased energy usage.

So why do we still spring forwards and fall back every year? It’s citizens in more northerly regions (where the Earth’s axial tilt stretches daylight in summer and shrinks it in winter) who are most wedded to the idea of daylight saving time. Countries nearer the equator don't even bother changing the clocks since day and night are around the same length all year round.

A winter sunset over London's Houses of Parliament. Policymakers have long faced challenges to adopt year-round daylight saving measures. Now that the UK has left the European Union, the actions of those in the Palace of Westminster face the added complication of either falling in line with the rest of the member states, or falling awkwardly out of step. 

Photograph by Carolyn Jenkins, Alamy

There are distinct benefits and disadvantages. In spring we give ourselves an extra hour of daylight in the evening, time for outdoor leisure and sport. The Sports Council for England is one of many organisations pointing out the health benefits of getting outdoors after the working day has ended. A 2012 report from the Institute for the Study of Labour, in Bonn, concluded that, when the clocks go forward, outdoor activity increases and TV-watching decreases, resulting in “an approximate 10 per cent increase in burnt calories”.

Changing clocks certainly disrupts our circadian rhythms. For most of us it results in just a touch of jet lag twice a year. As a European Parliament report states: “The combined effect of disrupted body rhythm and sleep deprivation has a short-term impact on concentration and cognition and may lead to fatigue, dizziness and lack of attention, and increase the risk of accidents.”

But for a certain portion of the population, the health detriments are serious. In the days following clock changes there is a spike in depression (according to a Danish hospital study), male suicide rates (as claimed by the Japanese Society of Sleep Research) and ischemic strokes (says a Finnish medical study).

A cyclist rides through a winter morning in Essex. Road safety on dark mornings has long been considered a persuasive argument for keeping daylight saving in the UK. 

Photograph by Avpics, Alamy

Measuring the impact

Road safety is a key issue. Interestingly, between October 1968 and October 1971, Britain’s Labour government experimented with what they called British Standard Time, with the clocks remaining unchanged for three years. It was designed to allow people to benefit from more daylight in the hours after work. A government report concluded that, during the first two winters of the experiment, road traffic casualties increased in the mornings but decreased by a greater degree in the evenings, resulting in around 2,500 fewer deaths. (Although this period coincided with the introduction of drink-driving legislation which inevitably skews the figures somewhat.)

The road safety argument is still strong today. Joshua Harris is director of campaigns at road safety charity Brake. He told National Geographic that synchronising our clocks with any European Union change “offers a simple and effective way to reduce deaths and injuries on the roads and so must be seriously considered”.

“There has been a consistent trend, over many years, of increases in pedestrian deaths the month after the clocks go back. Year-round lighter evenings would also allow many road users, especially cyclists and pedestrians, to take advantage of the benefits of natural light to remain safe and be seen during evening rush hours.”

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents agrees. Their research concludes that a switch to European Union time would reduce traffic accidents, saving 80 lives and over 200 serious accidents every year.

“A survey showed that Scotland heavily favours the status quo, since switching to daylight saving time all year round would mean that, in the far north, the sun wouldn't rise before 10am.”

There are even studies suggesting that crime rates would drop if we stopped changing the clocks. Two American academics (from the University of Virginia and Cornell University) concluded that street robberies, which typically take place in the hours after work, drop by seven per cent when the clocks spring forward.

Although we lose an hour of daylight on winter evenings, we do of course gain an hour on winter mornings. For early risers, such as farmers or children with a long walk to school, this is good news; for the Scottish, even more so. Indeed, a YouGov survey showed that Scotland heavily favours the status quo, since switching to daylight saving time all year round would mean that, in the far north, the sun wouldn't rise before 10am.

Bob Carruth is communications director at the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland. He says the union welcomes further research on how clock changes might affect rural communities north of the border.

“The modern farm is well lit and increasingly mechanised, so the dangers posed by carrying out field operations or handling livestock on darker winter mornings are not as great as they once were,” he told National Geographic. “Carrying out such farm work during hours of darkness, though, remains inherently more dangerous than doing it during daylight.”

A farm on the Shetland Isles. Early risers in the northern edge of Britain would feel any seasonal changes more acutely; in some areas at the more extreme latitudes, scrapping daylight saving would mean darkness late into mornings in winter. 

Photograph by Realimage, Alam

He points out how the effects of clock changes would not be uniform throughout the length of the UK. “So we need to analyse the particular Scottish issues around such a change. Although more than 450 miles apart, the views of a dairy farmer in Stranraer are as valid as those of a crofter in Shetland and any future debate would need to ensure all parts of the nation had the opportunity to contribute.”

Right now it’s up to the 27 member states of the European Union whether they choose to ratify the vote to end seasonal time change. Johan Danielsson is a Swedish MEP and the European Parliament’s main negotiator on the issue. He says that, until member states finalise their position, it’s difficult to predict when the permanent time zone might start. 

“As the main negotiator from the [European] Parliament, I am still pushing to continue the work on this proposal and for the Council to reach an agreement,” he told National Geographic. “The issue of seasonal time change is a big topic in Germany, and they [took] over the presidency in the Council from July 1st, so I hope that they will continue the work on this proposal.”

Daylight saving time: why do we do it?
About 70 countries around the world practice Daylight Saving Time. Find out who came up with the concept of Daylight Saving Time, where the time change was first enacted nationwide, and why some countries are attempting to eliminate it.

Even then, it could be a couple of years before the change kicks in. “Even if the Parliament has a position to stop the seasonal time change by autumn 2021, we need to have a final decision at least 18 months before the time change stops, in order to avoid unnecessary chaos and interruptions on the internal market.” A unified approach is also needed to avoid so-called 'time islands.' 

Meanwhile, back at the House of Lords, Baroness Donaghy wants the UK government to become more proactive. She says: “The Government must fully examine the implications of aligning or non-aligning with the EU, look at and, where necessary, commission relevant research and give the public and other stakeholders an opportunity to have their say.”

Perhaps you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, we’re only talking about an hour in spring and an hour in autumn. At least we don't have it as complicated as some parts of the world. In Australia and Canada, for example, some regions spring forwards and fall back, while others don’t.

Perhaps the most complicated timekeeping of all is left to the people of Arizona. This sun-baked US state feels the heat so much that they choose to ignore the rest of the country, eschewing daylight saving time altogether, and preferring the coolness of an extra evening hour in the dark instead. Well, most of Arizona does. The Navajo Nation, in the northeastern part of the state, differs in that it does observe daylight saving time. Meanwhile, the Hopi Reservation, which is entirely surrounded by Navajo Nation territory, does not.

All of which means you could go for a drive across Arizona and have to change your watch three times during a single road trip.


Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter


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