Pop quiz time! True or false?
1. Daylight Saving Time helps us conserve energy.
2. Daylight Saving Time was developed to help farmers.
3. Daylight Saving Time unequivocally reduces traffic deaths.
The answer to all of these? False.
Although most Americans will routinely turn their clocks ahead an hour at 2 a.m. on March 10, 2013, polls show that the majority don't fully understand why they're even doing it. "Daylight Saving Time is so confusing that everything we know about it is wrong," explains Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with the original concept that came to be known as Daylight Saving Time, when we "spring ahead," or turn the clocks ahead an hour around springtime. It was initially intended for people to get the most out of the natural daylight so they could burn fewer candles and later, use less electricity.
Through its implementation during World War I and II, during the 1970s oil embargo crisis, and even today, it's been touted as an energy-saving tool, which is why the practice was extended most recently through the 2005 Energy Act. The problem is the early studies suggesting Daylight Saving Time could save energy only looked at home electricity use. More recent reports also factor in gasoline energy use, since people drive more when natural light remains later in the day. "When you give Americans more daylight at the end of the day, they get into their cars," Downing says. That's why the petroleum industry has been a longtime supporter of the time change, he adds, noting the extended after-work sunlight hasn't definitively been proven to reduce traffic accidents, either, as sometimes claimed.
Beyond that, a 2008 University of California–Santa Barbara study looking at Indiana—a state the resisted Daylight Saving Time until 2006—found that Daylight Saving Time actually increased residential energy use to the tune of $8.6 million, with the biggest increase in household energy occurring during the autumn months. (This study didn't even factor in gasoline use.)
OK, so the time change is a flop in terms of saving energy. At least it helps the farmers, right? Not so much. "Farmers were vociferously opposed to Daylight Saving Time. They hated it from the start," explains Downing. "Farmers really used morning sunlight. Turning the clocks ahead had the effect of giving them one less hour of daylight."
Even today, many farmers lament this time of year because it disrupts their schedules and connection to the natural world. "That dramatic change from having the daylight in the morning to suddenly going back to darkness, it's kind of jolting," says sustainable farmer Zach Lester, cofounder of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, VA. His customers are affected by the change, too. When Lester goes to market the Sunday morning following the time change, shoppers generally start rolling in about an hour later.
So what is the point of Daylight Saving Time?
Money, money, money, money!
The Chamber of Commerce was an early supporter of extending post-workday natural light because it knew factory workers were more likely to go shopping following shift work if the sun was still shining. Later on, people were more likely to fill up the tank and head to sporting events or the mall, which to this day greatly benefits the oil industry.